Mad About Science: Bubonic plague in America

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

It’s easy to look at our cars, homes and electronic devices, and think that we’re so much more advanced as a species than we were a hundred years ago. Taking a brief trip back through time, and we might see that very little has actually changed regarding our behaviors.

The bubonic plague came to North America in 1899, traveling here first from Honolulu, Hawaii. Honolulu was a major trading port between North America and East Asia, and it supported a large Chinese population. This also coincided with the third bubonic pandemic, which had been raging throughout eastern Asia since at least 1880. Much of India and China, which were under British rule at this time, served as the epicenter of the pandemic. British attempts at reining in the disease through force had actually caused more infected people to move elsewhere and broaden the reach of the plague.

Hong Kong became a nexus for the plague, as travelers and refugees brought the disease with them and their cargo through the inadvertent transportation of rats and fleas. Ships bound for Honolulu were prime real estate for the infected rodents. 

Doctors at that time did not have a tremendous amount of knowledge surrounding Germ Theory, or the ability of the Yersinia pestis bacteria to jump between different hosts. Screening at ports was performed exclusively on humans. 

Infected rats traveled to Honolulu first and rapidly reproduced, causing a number of infections in Honolulu’s Chinatown. Officials at the time believed the only method for containing the disease was through quarantine and torching buildings that may have been exposed. Effective fire control wasn’t a strength of communities in the early 1900s, and Chinatown burned, displacing more than 6,000 people in the process and doing nothing to contain the plague.

The plague traveled from Honolulu to San Francisco aboard the steamship the S.S. Australia. The ship arrived in port in January and, by the end of February, the plague claimed its first victim — a Chinese immigrant living in the basement of the Globe Hotel.

In March, the city of San Francisco enacted a quarantine of Chinatown, forbidding anyone from entering or leaving the area, effectively sealing off 35,000 residents from the rest of the city. It’s suspected that much of this quarantine was racially motivated, supported by the harsh way the San Francisco police dealt with the residents of Chinatown just two days later, once the quarantine had been prematurely lifted. 

The Board of Health, in conjunction with the San Francisco police, inspected every building within Chinatown. Often, the police resorted to violence and intimidation, which was not uncommon at the time, but was most certainly the primary factor behind the continued resilience of the plague. 

As Chinese-Americans became fearful of violence and retaliation by the police, they hid family members who were showing signs of any sickness, even if the symptoms didn’t match the plague.

Mere days after this, Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun confirmed suspicions of the bubonic plague when a number of rodents injected with material gathered from the victims grew ill and died.

This is when events started to sound eerily familiar to what we’ve recently experienced.

After confirmation of the plague on U.S. soil, California Gov. Henry Tifft Gage went on the offensive. 

Gage first denied the existence of the plague and launched a campaign to publicly discredit Dr. Kinyoun, while also trying to get him removed from his post at the Marine Hospital Service. The governor feared that news of the plague would cause quarantines, which would slow business. Gage had serious concerns about this, as it was generally accepted that he was effectively a mouthpiece for the Southern Pacific railroad company. This was reflected in a number of the San Francisco papers printed at the time echoing both Gage’s and Southern Pacific’s rhetoric denying the existence of the plague. Paired with general anti-Asian sentiment from white Americans at the time, this turned San Francisco into a powder keg primed to blow.

As all of the efforts of officials were spent on covering up and denying the presence of the disease, it continued to spread unfettered into portions of the city populated primarily by white Americans.

Gage demanded that the federal government intercede, with the intention of having officials oust Dr. Kinyoun. This backfired, and instead a task force of three individuals was formed after the federal government confirmed the severity of the outbreak. Almost immediately, the governor shifted to decrying the federal government for overreaching its authority, all while brokering a clandestine deal with Washington, D.C. behind closed doors. The deal was that the feds would kick Kinyoun out of San Francisco, and Gage would secretly allocate resources and manpower to help stamp out the plague in the city. 

Gage didn’t uphold his end of the bargain; and, in fact, he went on to attempt ramrodding a number of censorship bills to bar the media from talking about the plague at all — a few of them even stuck, hampering the medical community’s ability to deal with the disease.

In the end, Gage’s attempts to protect his allies at Southern Pacific were the very measures that undid his governorship and nearly brought the state to a grinding halt when other states began threatening to block all transit from California. 

Eventually, the plague was brought under control through quarantine, study and a bounty system placed on rats that helped bolster suffering communities financially while culling infection vectors.

Unfortunately for San Francisco, its 20th century nightmare was just beginning, as an earthquake and fire virtually leveled the city in 1906.

Stay curious, 7B.

While we have you ...

... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.

You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.

Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal

You may also like...

Close [x]

Want to support independent local journalism?

The Sandpoint Reader is our town's local, independent weekly newspaper. "Independent" means that the Reader is locally owned, in a partnership between Publisher Ben Olson and Keokee Co. Publishing, the media company owned by Chris Bessler that also publishes Sandpoint Magazine and Sandpoint Online. Sandpoint Reader LLC is a completely independent business unit; no big newspaper group or corporate conglomerate or billionaire owner dictates our editorial policy. And we want the news, opinion and lifestyle stories we report to be freely available to all interested readers - so unlike many other newspapers and media websites, we have NO PAYWALL on our website. The Reader relies wholly on the support of our valued advertisers, as well as readers who voluntarily contribute. Want to ensure that local, independent journalism survives in our town? You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.