Cholera: NYC’s 19th Century COVID-19

Cholera: NYC’s 19th Century COVID-19

As the United States struggles to deal with COVID-19, it may be useful to remember that pandemics are nothing new, nor is the way local governments deal with them. In 1866, while Lavinia Goodell was living in Brooklyn, teaching at a wealthy merchant’s home – (Learn more about her teaching experiences here and here) – cholera claimed the lives of 1137 people in New York City.

Cholera is caused by bacteria that produces severe diarrhea which can lead to dehydration.  As New York’s population grew, sites around the city were littered with cesspools, rotting food and dead carcasses from butcheries. The Board of Health issued orders to clean up sites and urged citizens to engage in better sanitary practices.

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Posted by admin in Teaching years, Young Adulthood: 1860-1871, 2 comments

“Do not be surprised if you are sued for defamation.”

— William Goodell, September 28, 1867

By all accounts, Lavinia Goodell had planned to continue teaching indefinitely at the Brooklyn home of Mr. Lynn, a wealthy merchant, but at the end of the school year in 1867 a bitter dispute arose between her and Lynn over her promised wages. As Lavinia tells it:

I did not ask him for anything for the time that I did not teach…. All I asked was that he should pay me what he agreed to for the time I did teach. He promised – and I had his written word for it – to pay me $300 a year, if we had 12 scholars, promising verbally that if we had over 12 I should have all the extra money, over and above what came in for 12.

We had 12 all the time, and much of the time 15. We had no settlement till I came to leave. Then I brought in my bill for $224 for 3/4 of a year; and $46 for the extra scholars; whereupon he positively refused to pay me excepting at the rate of $200 a year, or $150 for 3/4 of a year, saying that was all he promised. I showed him the letter in which he promised $300, and he was the angriest man you ever saw. He was rude, and insulting, and he said he should pay me no more than he pleased, and that I could prove nothing against him as the bargain was not a legal document with a seal. I never was as surprised in my life. At the final settlement, this fall – by holding out about it, and making him think I might do something – I brought him to a compromise, and he paid me at the rate of $275 a year, no allowance for extra scholars. A lawyer, who appears to be well posted, and is secretary to the mayor said I could have received the whole by going to law; and that I was foolish not to do it. Mary Booth thought it was outrageous, and it was with her advice that I wrote him that letter. I am not sorry I did it. I think such villainy ought to be exposed for the protection of innocent and unsuspecting people – not, of course, from motives of revenge. Everybody who knows it is even more indignant than I have been over it.

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“I find I am getting quite a reputation as a good teacher.”

“I find I am getting quite a reputation as a good teacher.”

Lavinia Goodell, October 14, 1866

When the anti-slavery newspaper, The Principia, ceased publication after the end of the Civil War, Lavinia Goodell was out of a job. In September 1865 she began a new career as a teacher in a home located at 26 South 10th Street, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.  Lavinia’s new employer was a wealthy merchant. Lavinia described her new position to her sister:

I have just formed an engagement to teach in a family… at a salary of $300 including boards & washing…. I answered an advertisement, and the advertiser turned out … to be an old acquaintance…. Mr. Lynn…. There are two little girls, 10 and 10, and a boy 8. The plan is to have a small house school having nine children outside of the family, making the whole number twelve. This I think I shall like. Mr. and Mrs. Lynn seem like very pleasant people and I think I shall enjoy living there. They tell me I shall be just like one of the family,… Mr. L. … received 150 answers to his advertisement, but gave me the preference.

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