Quarantine in the 19th Century: Some Vignettes

Quarantine, or the practice of enforcing isolation upon people to prevent the spread of disease, goes back to at least the seventh century BC. The word quarantine comes from 14th-century Venice, where ships were required to lay at anchor for 40 (quaranta) days before landing, in an attempt to curb the outbreak of bubonic plague known as the Black Death.

quarantine 19th century

During Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, bubonic plague spread among French soldiers and the local population when the French captured Jaffa in March 1799. Upon Napoleon’s return to France, he should have observed a quarantine of at least a month, which was mandated for all people arriving from the Middle East. However, Napoleon was so popular that when his ship anchored at Fréjus in October, the quarantine requirement was set aside. According to Napoleon’s secretary Bourrienne, citizens were eager to meet the arriving general.

In an instant the sea was covered with boats. In vain we begged them to keep at a distance: we were carried ashore, and when we told the crowd both of men and women who were pressing about us the risk they ran, they all exclaimed, ‘We prefer the plague to the Austrians!’ (1)

Quarantine was the main method of combatting the spread of transmissible disease in the 19th century, when there was no effective medical response. Here are some accounts of what quarantine was like in practice.

Quarantine in Odessa, 1824

John Moore, a British traveller who visited the Russian port of Odessa in 1824, described the local quarantine facilities. Most ships were obliged to pass through a two-week quarantine, whether there was illness on board or not.

I visited the quarantine establishment a few days ago. There is a long mole, or pier, to which the masters of vessels come, in their boats, to confer with their consignees. I accompanied my hospitable friend Mr.****, and thus had an opportunity of witnessing some of the formalities of the place. Two or three commanders of merchantmen that were consigned to his house were waiting for him: — a wooden paling separated us from the quay, and my friend had enough to do to answer the captains, who occasionally spoke all at the same moment, and on different matters of business; he contrived at length to satisfy all parties, and they shoved off.

In another part are the parloirs, where the persons who are performing quarantine speak to their friends through a grating. Adjoining this place is a long jetty, whereon they can take exercise, and their lodgings are at a short distance.

There were several melancholy groups — amongst them a few Turks — they all seemed ready to ejaculate, like Sterne’s starling, ‘I can’t get out — I can’t get out.’

’Tis annoying enough to be kept fifteen days, at least, cooped up in a cage; but the evil is a necessary one, and the best remedy is that of the philosophical Spaniards — paciencia. What strange beings we are! and how easily (and oftentimes ridiculously) we suffer ourselves to be affected by localities! Now, when you look at people through bars, and know that they are confined to a limited spot within those bars, and that you are free, a feeling of pity for them (mingled with one of self-complacency) takes possession of the mind; and although you are aware that the détenus are the most respectable individuals in the world, their long faces, and anxious glances, together with the guards and turnkey-looking attendants, almost make you regard your worthy friends as culprits: this is really very wrong; for, we ourselves may be in limbo tomorrow or next day, and we should feel extremely indignant if our acquaintance should look down upon us. It is not pleasant to feel that one is a suspected article, if only with reference to the plague. (2)

Quarantine in Upper Canada, 1832

Kingston from Fort Henry

Kingston from Fort Henry, by James Gray, 1828

In 1830, a cholera pandemic that began in India spread to Europe. In 1831, it reached Great Britain. In 1832, it crossed the Atlantic to North America. Irish surgeon Walter Henry was stationed with Britain’s 66th Foot Regiment in Kingston, Upper Canada (now Ontario), when the pandemic arrived.

On the 8th of June, the pestilence made its first appearance in Quebec, having been apparently imported with a ship full of emigrants from Ireland. It proceeded up the river to Montreal, where it burst like a volcano on the 11th. Its course was capricious and uncertain; some intermediate villages being ravaged, and others passed over altogether. At Prescott, two deaths occurred on the 15th, and on the 17th it reached Kingston. …

As soon as it was known that malignant cholera had really appeared in Quebec, it was plain enough that it would find its way to the shores of Lake Ontario. … We first had the barracks and hospitals most carefully cleaned and whitewashed; the duties and fatigues of the soldiers were lightened as much as possible, and they were daily inspected with great care by their medical officers. The canteen was placed under vigilant supervision, and preparations were made to isolate the barracks, and to remove the married soldiers resident in the town, with their families, to a camp on the other side of the bay.

On the morning of the 17th of June, a fatal case of undoubted cholera having occurred in the town, these precautions were carried into effect. A camp was formed on the hill near Fort Henry, and the barrack gates were shut.

Although the cholera raged in the town for the next fortnight, we had no case in the regiment till the 4th July, when two grenadiers were attacked with frightful spasms. I was sent for on the instant – bled them both largely, and they recovered. Ten other men of the regiment were taken ill, and treated in the same way; the agonizing cramps yielded to the early and copious bleeding, as to a charm, and they also all recovered.

Encouraged by the result of these, and several similar instances amongst the poor people of the town, I began vainly to imagine that this plan of treatment would be generally successful…but I was soon to be undeceived. Three men and a woman, of the 66th, were attacked the same night. I saw them immediately; and the symptoms being the same to all appearance, they were bled like the others, and all died within twelve hours of the first attack. The spot which their barrack at Point Frederick occupied, was a promontory near the dock-yard, the air of which was vitiated by the neighbourhood of the rotting ships. The company quartered there was removed to camp on the hill the next morning, and had no more cholera. …

We all heard wonderful accounts of the effects of transfusion of saline fluid into the veins, and Dr. Sampson, the principal practitioner in Kingston, and a man of talent, was determined, as well as myself, to give it a fair trial.

We used it in twenty bad cases, but unsuccessfully in all — though the first effect in every instance, was the apparent restoration of the powers of life; and in one remarkable case of a poor emigrant from Yorkshire, life was protracted seven days by constant pumping. Here the man almost instantaneously recovered voice, strength, colour, and appetite; and Sampson and myself, seeing this miraculous change, almost believed we had discovered the new elixir of life in the humble shape of salt and water.

The appearance of Kingston during the epidemic was most melancholy —

‘While the long funerals blacken all the way.’

Nothing was seen in the streets but these melancholy processions. No business was done, for the country people kept aloof from the infected town. The yellow flag was hoisted near the market place on the beach, and intercourse with the steamboats put under Quarantine regulations. The conduct of the inhabitants was admirable, and reflected great credit on this good little town. The Medical men and the Clergy of all persuasions vied with each other in the fearless discharge of their respective dangerous duties; and the exertions of all classes were judicious, manly and energetic: for the genuine English spirit shewed itself, as usual, undaunted in the midst of peril, and rising above it.

We had thirty-six cases of bad cholera — besides a host of choleroid complaints, in the regiment. Of these we lost five men and two women. No child suffered.

During the prevalence of the disease it seemed to me that a number of errors in diet were generally entertained and acted on in our little community. Because unripe fruit, or excess in its use does mischief, all fruit was now proscribed by common opinion; and vegetables of every description were placed under the same ban, so that the gardeners saw their finest productions rotting unsaleable. This was folly; for the stomach was more likely to suffer than to benefit from the want of its accustomed pabulum of mixed animal and vegetable substances. It was proper to live temperately — to avoid supper eating, or eating late in the day — as eight-tenths of the attacks came on in the night — to eschew excesses of all kinds — but, above all to be fearless and place confidence in Providence.

If, amidst so much distress, ludicrous ideas could be entertained, there was enough to excite them on this subject of abstinence from vegetables. Huge Irishmen who had sucked in the national root with their mother’s milk, and lived on it all their lives, now shrank from a potato as poison. I heard a respectable and intelligent gentleman confess that he was tempted by the attractive appearance of a dish of green peas, and ate one pea, but he felt uncomfortable afterwards, and was sure it had disagreed with him.

The disease ceased entirely, and the usual intercourse was restored between the Garrison and the Town in the middle of October. (3)

Dr. Henry, who served with the 66th Foot during the Peninsular War, had a direct connection to Napoleon. In 1817, his battalion was posted to the South Atlantic island of St. Helena, where Napoleon was imprisoned. It was Henry who kept the official notes made during Napoleon’s autopsy in 1821.

Quarantine in Italy, 1836

George Ticknor, a Boston-born professor of French and Spanish languages and literature, was on his way to Rome in 1836 when he had to undergo a mandatory quarantine for all travellers.

October 8 — Again I passed the morning in inquiries about the cholera and cordons, with the general conclusion which I came to at Turin, that Castel Franco, between Modena and Bologna, is the best place for us to undergo the quarantine, without which neither Florence nor Rome can be reached. The governor of Lombardy was very civil to me, and showed me all the documents relating to the subject, and from looking them over I have no doubt the cholera has nearly disappeared from every part of Italy. The Roman Consul — a great name for a very small personage — was also very good-natured, and showed me whatever I wanted to see. But neither of them gave me any hope that the cordons will be removed at present, and the governor talked of the Duke of Modena and of the Pope in a way that hardly became either a good neighbor or a good Catholic, and with a freedom which no man in the United States, holding a considerable office, would venture to use. …

October 19 – We have passed through the territories of the Duke of Modena, and are safely shut up for a fortnight’s quarantine in Castel Franco. The whole day’s work has been as ridiculous as anything of the sort, perhaps, can be. In less than an hour after leaving Parma we reached the frontier of Modena, and were stopped by the guard till horses could be sent for; as the Duke allows no foreigner to enter his territories, who does not come prepared to traverse them as fast as post-horses can carry him, and under an escort, to make it sure that no intercourse is held with the inhabitants on the way. The whole goes here, as elsewhere in Italy, on the absurd system that cholera is communicated mainly, and perhaps solely, by contact, like the plague. Our passport, therefore, was taken in a pair of tongs and fumigated; the money to pay for this graceful ceremony was dropped into vinegar, and then the passport was given to two carabineers, who rode in a caleche behind us, to see that we did not get out of the carriage or touch any of the subjects of the most gracious Duke. In this way we were handed on from post to post, changing the carabineers at each station, until about three o’clock, or about six hours after we entered Modena, we crossed its frontiers again and were delivered over to the Pope’s guards, who fumigated our passport anew, — though it had been in the hands of the carabineers the whole time, — and then sent us into our lazaretto, which is neither more nor less than a set of old brick barracks in a ruined fort, erected some time in the seventeenth century, and dismantled by the French. Our rooms are brick on all sides, and cheerless enough; but the food is quite decent.

In these barracks we are locked up and guarded with perhaps twenty or thirty other persons, we are not allowed to touch any person who came in on a different day from ourselves, nor to touch anything they have touched; but we may all walk and converse together in a large, well-sodded esplanade of about ten acres, surrounded completely with the buildings which prevent us from seeing anything of the external world. This is to be our fate for a fortnight; but we have a pleasant party and abundant occupations, and are not altogether sorry for a little real repose, after about five months of very busy travelling

October 30 — We have now gone through nearly the whole of this miserable farce of a quarantine, and next day after to-morrow are to be released, and pronounced free of infection. On the whole, it has not been worse than we anticipated, and we have all been so truly busy that I do not know when the same number of days have passed so quickly. Every morning I have risen at seven, and we have all met for breakfast about nine; after which we have occupied ourselves in reading and writing till twelve, when we have generally walked an hour in the most delightful weather. At five we have met again for dinner, after which we took a dish of tea together and finished the evening with a game of whist. Part of the time there have been fifty persons in the same condition with ourselves, and at this moment there are above twenty Americans here. Most of the parties complain much of the tediousness and vexation of the delay, and we have heartily pitied a poor Russian Countess who has heard here of the illness and death of a child at Florence, hardly twenty hours’ drive from here, which she yet could not be permitted to visit.

November 1 — This morning we were released. The population of the lazaretto has been much increased within the last two days, …. in such numbers that no suitable accommodations can be provided for them. This morning they crowded round the carriage as we entered it, looking like the poor souls in Virgil who are not permitted to pass over the Styx. However, we did not stop to think much of such things, but hastened on to Bologna, where we were glad indeed to find ourselves again amidst the somewhat cheerless comforts of a huge Italian palazzo, turned into an inn. As soon as we were established we went out to see the city, with an appetite for sights somewhat sharpened by an abstinence of a full fortnight. (4)

Quarantine in Greece, 1848

Aegina in 1845

Aegina in 1845, by Carl Rottmann

Ida Pfeiffer was an Austrian explorer, travel writer and ethnographer. On her first trip around the world, she had to undergo a quarantine when arriving in Greece from Turkey in 1848.

I had been told in Constantinople that the quarantine was held in the Piraeus (six English miles from Athens), and lasted only four days, as the state of health in Turkey was perfectly satisfactory. Instead of this, I learned on the steamer that it was held at the island of Aegina (sixteen English miles from the Piraeus), and lasted twelve days, not on account of the plague but of the cholera. For the plague it lasts twenty days. …

It was already night when we arrived; a boat was quickly put out, and we were conveyed to the quay near the quarantine station. Neither the porters nor servants of this establishment were there to help us, and we were obliged to carry our own baggage to the building, where we were shown into empty rooms. We could not even get a light. I had fortunately a wax taper with me, which I cut into several pieces and gave to my fellow-passengers.

On the following morning I inquired about the regulations of the quarantine — they were very bad and very dear. A small room, quite empty, cost three drachmas (2s. 3d.) a day; board, five drachmas (3s. 9d.); very small separate portions, sixty or seventy leptas (6 d. or 7 d.); the attendance, that is, the superintendence of the guardian, two drachmas a day; the supply of water, fifteen leptas daily; the physician, a drachma; and another drachma on leaving, for which he inspects the whole party, and examines the state of their health. Several other things were to be had at a similar price, and every article of furniture has to be hired.

I cannot understand how it is that the Government pays so little attention to institutions which are established for sanitary purposes, and which the poor cannot avoid. They must suffer more privation here than at home; they cannot have any hot meals, for the landlord, who is not restricted in his prices, charges five or six times the value. Several artisans who had come by the vessel were put into the same room with a servant-girl. These people had no hot food the twelve days; they lived entirely upon bread, cheese, and dried figs. The girl, after a few days, begged me to let her come into my room, as the people had not behaved properly to her. In what a position the poor girl would have been placed if there had not happened to be a woman among the passengers, or if I had refused to receive her!

Are such arrangements worthy of a public institution? Why are there not a few rooms fitted up at the expense of Government for the poor? Why cannot they have a plain hot meal once in the day for a moderate price? The poor surely suffer enough by not being able to earn anything for so long a time, without being deprived of their hard earnings in such a shameful manner!

On the second day the courtyard was opened, and we were permitted to walk about in an enclosed space a hundred and fifty paces wide, on the sea-shore. The view was very beautiful: the whole of the Cyclades lay before us….

On the fourth day our range was extended: we were allowed to walk as far as the hills surrounding the lazaretto, under the care of a guard. …

21st October. This was the day we were set at liberty. We had ordered a small vessel the evening before which was to take us to Athens early in the morning. But my fellow-travellers would insist upon first celebrating their freedom at a tavern, and from this reason it was 11 o’clock before we started. …

Our passage to the Piraeus occupied a long time. There was not a breath of wind, and the sailors were obliged to row; we did not land at our destination until nearly eight in the evening. We were first visited by the health-officer, who read through the certificates which we brought from the quarantine very leisurely. There was unfortunately nobody among us who was inclined to make it more understandable to him by a few drachmas. (5)

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  1. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. I (London, 1836), p. 223.
  2. John Moore, A Journey from London to Odessa (Paris, 1833), pp. 183-185.
  3. Walter Henry, Trifles from My Portfolio, Vol. II (Quebec, 1839), pp. 98-102.
  4. George Ticknor, Life, Letters, and Journals of George Ticknor, Vol. II (London, 1876), pp. 43, 46-47.
  5. Ida Pfeiffer, A Woman’s Journey Round the World, Second Edition (London, 1852), pp. 331-332.

8 commments on “Quarantine in the 19th Century: Some Vignettes”

  • Jim Gallen says:

    Tourists to Charleston, South Carolina have the opportunity to visit several antebellum plantations. While many of them feature ruins of the big house, burned by Union troops during 1865, an exception is Drayton Hall. Dr. John Drayton decorated the front porch with ribbons indicating quarantine because of smallpox within. Although a ruse, it did save the plantation for its owners and tourists of today.

  • Charles D.F. Cohn says:


    Article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal.

    Your post on Facebook was first!

    Let me know if trouble opening this.


  • John F. MacMichael says:

    A very interesting and, sadly, a very timely post.

    Your citation of Ida Pfeiffer caught my eye. I had first encountered her name when reading “Flashman’s Lady” by George MacDonald Fraser. Flashman cites Pfeiffer’s account of her experiences in Madagascar under the bloody reign of Queen Ranavalona to bolster his own story of his bizarre and horrific experiences in that isolated island kingdom.

    I have not yet read any of Ida Pfeiffer’s own books. Looking her up just now i see several of her books are available for free on Kindle. And that a new biography of her was published just last year: “Wanderlust: The Amazing Ida Pfeiffer, the First Female Tourist” by John van Wyhe.

  • bryan says:

    Very intriguing! thank you for your post, Shannon

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Our passport was taken in a pair of tongs and fumigated; the money to pay for this graceful ceremony was dropped into vinegar, and then the passport was given to two carabineers, who rode in a caleche behind us, to see that we did not get out of the carriage or touch any of the subjects of the most gracious Duke.

George Ticknor