The White Plague: Denver, 1916

Let’s start with some Jewish cowboys. Why not?





Jewish Hungarian immigrants Adolph and Sam Frankel, c. 1920, in Cushing Oklahoma. Photo from Allen and Cynthia Salzman Mondell’s documentary film “West of Hester Street.”

We know how the West was won — by immigrants. Between 1880 and 1925, some 2.8 million Jews, the vast majority from Eastern Europe, fled poverty and persecution for the U.S., with many joining the settlers’ trek west.

But painful struggles lay ahead, as we learn from a fascinating 100-year-old report found in the archives of the New York Bureau of Municipal Research. The 412-page study, “Report on the Problem of Combined Poverty and Tuberculosis Among Jews in Denver, Colorado,” highlights the extraordinarily eclectic and esoteric commissions of the BMR — and why our collection, now being digitized, is such a treasure for scholars.

This year 2016 alone marks the centenary of no fewer than 53 BMR reports, examining, among other subjects, New York City’s Department of Water Supply, Gas and Electricity; New York State park expenditures; prisons in Columbus, Ohio;  Detroit’s Departments of Public Works and Building; the government of San Francisco; the schools of Mobile, Alabama; North Carolina’s Department of Agriculture; and the street-cleaning vacuum machines of St Louis — covered in an earlier blogpost: https://blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/ipaprocessing/2015/12/dirty-story/

Dirty Story

But back to the Jewish settlers.

Denver report

For one particularly beleaguered minority-within-a-minority, the allure was more than freedom and wealth — it was health. A  fearsome lung contagion known as consumption, tuberculosis and the white plague (from the wasting effects of the disease) had become the world’s leading killer, taking a special toll among the poor and congested, including recent immigrants to America. Fresh mountain air was prescribed as a cure. For these unfortunate “lungers” (terrible word!), a refuge beckoned in the Western Rockies — Denver, the largest city in the West after San Francisco, with a population, according to the 1910 census, of 213,381.

The scourge, of course, was hardly confined to Jews (see: John Keats, Voltaire, Vivian Leigh, Chopin, La Bohème, etc.). But Jews had special reasons for concern. Anti-immigrant Nativists denounced the impoverished newcomers as germ-carriers, with pervasive anti-Semitism saddling Jews with a greater libel: tuberculosis was branded “the Jewish Disease.” And so many flocked to Denver in search of a cure.

By 1899, amid qualms over becoming a destination for the sick, a decade of fund-raising in the Denver Jewish community culminated in the opening of the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives. Within a few years, it was joined by a second charity, the Jewish Consumptives Relief Society. But the two groups and Jewish community soon fell to feuding over whether to attract outsiders and raise money around the country. “The poor that properly belong to Denver should be taken care of by our own community, and are now being properly cared for, and will be properly cared for in the future, and we would feel deeply humiliated  if outside communities assume obligations that are rightfully ours,” wrote a committee of philanthropists.


The hospital was wary of encouraging consumptive Jews to migrate to Denver. The Consumptives Relief Society welcomed all sufferers. While the two institutions avoided hostilities, they failed to join forces. The rivalry festered for more than a decade until a consortium of Jewish charities in 1916 engaged the Bureau of Municipal Research to conduct a comprehensive study of the problem. Which it proceeded to do, with typical thoroughness, analyzing the “migratory consumptives”, including the neediest cases: “the tuberculosis tramps” — transients “tramping from town to town, eking out an existence as best they can…”

Applying some questionable stereotypes, the BMR declared that “migration among Jewish consumptives is disproportionately heavy.” This was so because “the Jews are a race of wanderers.” (That Judaism is a religion, not a race, seems to have gone unnoticed.) Jews also took care of their own — “the well-known trait of family solicitude…characteristic of the race.” Finally, the BMR cited “the deep interest in his health that characterizes the Hebrew,” stating flatly, “A Jew thinks more about his health than does the non-Jew.” The basis of this sweeping assertion was not given.

The BMR was on firmer ground (though sometimes not much), when it came to facts and figures.

Nationally, it found, American Jews were contributing about $750,000 (worth $16.5 million today) to care for Jews with tuberculosis, but there was no distribution plan. The BMR called it “the Anarchy of Modern Anti-Tuberculosis Work” and urged a new Jewish bureau to coordinate funding nationwide.

“If any one definite thought emerges from a thorough-going consideration of the problem of combined poverty and tuberculosis among Jews in the west,” the report said, “it is that the problem is a national problem and must be administered by an organization nationally constituted.”

Denver was particularly hard hit. To come up with the Jewish population of the city, the BMR considered various sampling techniques, including “the Cohen method” — extrapolating from the number of people named “Cohen.” This proving unsatisfactory, the BMR fell back on a rough estimate of 4 to 5 percent, or 8,000 to 12,000 people.

It estimated the number of Jewish consumptives in Denver at 1,200 men, women, and children, not counting the up to 275 patients in the two sanatoria. Jews around America had raised $186,000 ($4 million in today’s dollars) to run the sanatoria. But for the care of the many other sick and impoverished souls at home, they raised only $20,000 (worth $439,000 today), less than that raised for the Jewish needy in Kansas City, Louisville and New Orleans which did not have Denver’s tuberculosis problem, and a third less than in New York.

Despite the insistence of Denver’s Jewish leaders that they could take care of their own, resources were “meager and inadequate,” the BMR found. Yes the climate was benign and the vistas spectacular. But the streets were mired in mud and the back yards littered with junk, garbage, ashes and dead chickens, “with a cow or two wallowing in their own dung” — one-cow dairies being commonplace and breeders of disease. Smallpox, typhoid fever, syphilis, gonorrhea and neonatal eye infections causing blindness were rampant and the vaccination ordinance was widely ignored.

Of 15 cities looked at, Denver had the highest infant mortality rate, 111.2 per thousand, well above New York’s 101.9.

The report’s case studies of “42 Denver Consumptives” make for harrowing reading. (The names were supposed to have been redacted but by mistake were included in the text.) Abraham Deitsch, 38, a butcher with consumption, came to Denver with his wife and three of their children, leaving four others with grandparents in Newark, N.J. Later the Jewish community paid for the four children to join the family in Denver. The father, peddling, unable to provide for the family; wife helped “until forced to stop by recurring hemorrhages. No charitable assistance.”

Wolf Cohen, 47, a peddler with pulmonary tuberculosis and cancer of the lip (recently operated), wife and ten children. Came from New York. Landlords unwilling to rent to such a large family. Living under cramped and unhygienic conditions.

Joseph Berman, 37, arrived with wife and three children from Tampa with advanced pulmonary and laryngeal tuberculosis; prognosis: “bad, could not be worse.” Died few months later. Daughter 8 1/2 with tuberculosis. Boy 12 1/2 sells newspapers. Widow peddles and works part time “in dangerous occupation of mending dust-laden second-hands sacks. Case receiving no charitable assistance or supervision.”

Could Denver care for its own poor? Yes, indeed, the BMR found. But there were the poor of Denver and the poor in Denver, the latter many times more numerous, thanks to waves of in-migration. That was a national problem.

Did the BMR report make an impact?

A century later, we would say yes.