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Did AIDS Come to Bushwick in the 1950s?

Bogart Street (Photo by Katarina Hybenova for Bushwick Daily)

Moore Street, just three-fifths of a mile long, extends from one Bushwick extreme to the other: it starts at the Lindsay Park Mitchell-Lama co-ops and ends at Roberta’s. Half a century ago, this palimpsestic street, which now boasts live poultry shops and blackened cinderblock walls obscuring whatever happens behind them, had no subsidized housing and no overpriced pizza—but it was the home of perhaps one of the earliest AIDS victims in the world: Ardouin Antonio, who died in Kings County Hospital, a few blocks from Prospect Park in East Flatbush, on June 28, 1959—a decade before the first confirmed case in the US, and twenty years before the HIV-AIDS epidemic would overtake New York City and the rest of the world. “Asked whether he believed, in retrospect, that [Antonio] might have had AIDS,” the Chicago Tribune reported in 1987, “the pathologist who performed the man’s autopsy replied, ‘You bet.’

“‘It was so unusual at the time,’ [he] said. ‘Lord knows how many cases of AIDS have been autopsied that we didn’t even know had AIDS.’”

No one knows how long HIV-AIDS has existed, but the most up-to-date theories say that the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus morphed into the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and then jumped from primates to people in Africa around 1908, or perhaps in the 1930s, probably through contact with bushmeat: chimpanzee blood infecting a human open wound, maybe on the hand. The disease began to spread a bit later, driven by a combination of factors affecting Africa throughout the 20th century: urbanization, increased mobility, changing sexual mores and reused needles (from vaccinations). Documented cases appeared in Kinshasa, in what was then Zaire, in 1959 and 1960, and seemingly isolated cases began to appear around the world thereafter.

In 1966 the virus spread to Haiti, and from there into the United States; the first confirmed case of AIDS in this country was Robert Rayford, a St. Louis teenager described by People magazine in 1987 as “mildly retarded,” who may have worked as a gay prostitute, though he refused doctors’ attempts to examine his rectum during the many months they treated him. He started showing symptoms of the disease in 1966, he said; he died three years later. By 1981, this country was in the midst of an epidemic. More than 100,000 New Yorkers have since died, as well as 600,000 Americans and 1.7 million people worldwide, according to the NYC AIDS Memorial.

One of the earliest known victims was believed to be David Carr, not the Times media columnist but a Mancunian who died in 1959 at the age of 25 from a rare form of pneumonia when his immune system apparently shut down. “Mr. Carr's mysterious symptoms… were so extraordinary that his doctors wrote up his case in 1960 in an international medical journal, The Lancet, and saved many samples from his organs,” the New York Times reported in 1995. Researchers tested these samples in 1990 and announced that Carr had had AIDS, but subsequent testing cast these results in doubt.

WHO WAS ARDOUIN ANTONIO?

Months before Carr died, Ardouin Antonio got sick. Antonio was born in Jamaica in 1910, moved to Haiti when he was seven, and then to the United States a decade later. He petitioned for naturalization on March 16, 1943, according to a scan of a signed card on Ancestry.com, when he was 33 years old; he listed his address as 245 Moore Street, a building that no longer exists. (The 1940 census supplies the same address, and also identifies the family as white. This is the only publicly available address for Antonio, at least until the 1950 Census data is made publicly available in April 2022.) In 1910, the Brooklyn Eagle described 245 Moore as a double tenement, at least six stories tall, when 13-year-old Isador Goldstein fell off the fire escape while doing acrobatic stunts with his brother. By 1967, its Certificate of Occupancy described it as a five story, 50-foot building with 17 apartments: three per floor, plus two in the basement. Demolition paperwork was filed in 1978. A 1980s tax photo shows a vacant lot surrounded by a cheap chain-link fence.

By the 1940s, Antonio had already been long-married to a fellow Haitian immigrant, Adele, who was three years his senior. “Ardouin was an attractive man, with slicked-back hair, a thin mustache, and sharp dress sense—and he apparently had several girlfriends on the side,” Edward Hooper reported in his book The River. (Hooper has courted controversy for his discredited theory that AIDS was spread by corrupted polio vaccinations.) “He also had several jobs, but after the Second World War began working as a shipping clerk for a dress manufacturer on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan—a post he was to keep for the rest of his life.” In 1940, Antonio and Adele were raising three children: Horwood, Nola and August.

Twenty years later, in March 1959, Antonio developed a severe cough. He lost weight. Hooper writes:

"By June, his chest pains and wheezing had gotten so serious that he was admitted to hospital, where he was quickly placed on a respirator and treated with steroids. His doctors asked many questions and wanted to know whether he had ever been to Nevada, which suggests they thought he might have been present at an atom bomb test; he had not. They also tested his blood, bone marrow, and urine (including a check for beryllium content, since he had apparently broken a fluorescent lamp some while earlier), but found nothing untoward. Ardouin, meanwhile, became weaker, and told his family that he wanted to be buried in his blue suit. His prognosis was correct, for on June 28 he had to have a hole cut in his windpipe to assist his breathing, and he died later the same day.

His widow was terrified, fearing that voodoo was involved—while the pathologist, Gordon Hennigar, was mystified as to why he could find no underlying disease that might explain why the Pneumocystis infection had taken hold and proved so remorseless. The case was sufficiently unusual to be written up in two medical journals, and although one of the papers pointed out that the white blood cell count had sometimes been high (which might suggest a leukemoid reaction), its conclusion was that Ardouin represented "the first reported instance of unassociated [Pneumocystis carinii] disease in an adult."

Pneumocystis pneumonia, caused by a fungus, only affects people with compromised immune systems; it was once associated with premature or malnourished children. But beginning in the late 20th century, it became associated with AIDS; the rise in cases of PCP in the early 80s suggested to researchers “Evidence of a New Acquired Cellular Immunodeficiency” spreading among homosexual populations, according to a 1981 headline in the New England Journal of Medicine.

HIV-AIDS IN BROOKLYN TODAY

Ardouin’s fate, like David Carr’s, could have just been a freak occurrence that in hindsight looks stranger and more sinister. But just the fact that Bushwick might have been the site of the country’s earliest case of HIV-AIDS feels sadly apt, as it and other central Brooklyn neighborhoods have since been disproportionately affected by the disease. In 2013, Brooklyn had the most new AIDS diagnoses and deaths, and was essentially tied with Manhattan for the most new HIV diagnoses. “Brooklyn consistently has the largest number of individuals who when diagnosed with HIV are also diagnosed with AIDS, meaning that they are not benefitting from the access to care and treatment which could extend their lives,” according to SUNY Downstate Medical Center’s website.

“New infections… disproportionately affect black and Hispanic communities, which accounted for nearly 80 percent of the newly diagnosed cases,” Medical Daily reports. “The majority live in central Brooklyn neighborhoods—Bedford–Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Williamsburg, Bushwick and East Flatbush—areas that are already home to the city's largest group of those living with the disease.” The rate of HIV diagnosis in East New York is 30 percent higher than the rest of the city; more HIV+ people live in that neighborhood than do in 18 states, according to a fact sheet from the African American Planning Commission. Ardouin Antonio might have been the first victim in Central Brooklyn—but sadly he was far from the last.

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