When you walk around Manhattan at night, it is hard not to notice the low, shadowy figures scuttling greedily around the garbage pails outside of buildings or black trash bags left on the curb near restaurants. You grit your teeth, hope none come near you, and try not to think of the fact that where you have seen one rat, it is likely that there are hundreds nearby. If not thousands.
San Francisco in 1899 was a glittering city on the rise. The railroad connected the West to the East. The port brought in ships from all over the Pacific. The ships brought business. They also brought rats, who brought the fleas that carried the bubonic plague germ.
What? Plague? In the United States, just 100 years ago? Isn’t bubonic plague something from medieval Europe? Doctors with funny masks to keep away the germs, the Decameron’s wealthy storytellers who fled the plague-filled city, bring out your dead and all that? That plague, here?
Yes, it did happen here. In The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco, Marilyn Chase tells the story of the battle against the disease in turn of the century Northern California. The problem this time was not a belief that the disease was caused by witches, an angry god, or any other supernatural force. The enemy, instead, was political cravenness and distrust and fear brought on by racial prejudice.
When Joseph Kinyoun, the public health officer assigned to San Francisco, began to suspect plague, he was greeted with denial. The city politicians and businessmen worried that plague would scare off business and tourism. Meanwhile, the residents of Chinatown, where the first cases were diagnosed, saw this as just another attempt to get rid of them; they’d already been blamed for taking American jobs, immigration laws were getting tougher, and now they were being called plague carriers and told they were going to be quarantined. They had no reason to trust the white doctors who roped off their streets, homes, and businesses, while skirting the white business owners in the area.
Chinese business groups fought against the quarantine. They kept plague deaths secret, sometimes spiriting the bodies out of town or dumping them in the bay. San Francisco politicians complained also, while wealthy people and hotel owners argued against the inconvenient blockade that kept their cooks, waiters, and gardeners from coming to their homes. The whole affair culminated in a number of charges against Kinyoun, including that he had poisoned animals with plague in order to make his case and make him famous; he had spilled plague germs while experimenting and now invented an epidemic in order to avert blame; he shot a man near his lab. All charges were eventually dismissed, but the antipathy towards Kinyoun and his difficulty in getting anywhere were not necessarily undeserved; Kinyoun may have been a brilliant bacteriologist, but he had no feel for how to deal with people.
His replacement, a doctor wielding the name of an ‘80s rock star, Rupert Blue, was quite the opposite. Blue persuaded and explained where Kinyoun bludgeoned. That’s not to say that everything went smoothly once Blue arrived on the scene; it still took a long time to win the Chinese residents’ trust and the city leaders continued to be more interested in a cover up than a solution. But he made some progress.
Blue was transferred out of San Francisco after a while but was brought back after the earthquake. Now you’d think the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires might be a blessing in disguise, one of those moments when nature cleans out a problem. Quite the opposite—when Blue arrived back in San Francisco, he surveyed the refugee camps with thousands of people living in unsanitary conditions, garbage everywhere. He knew it was rat paradise. (Just to scare you, Chase explains how fast a rat population can grow: a female rat can begin to have babies at about four months and usually has 15-16 at a time. Within a year, one rat family can grow to 800 members. Yeah. Don’t think too much about it, trust me.)
Blue went to work by employing rat catchers, tearing down structures that provided homes for rats, autopsying and charting the movements of different types of rats, tracing the roots of every human death (the deaths of both parents and illness of one son in a family were tracked back to the actions of two of the other boys, who found a dead rat ,gave it a funeral, then brought home the lethal fleas who were undoubtedly overjoyed at so easily finding new hosts). It was not work for the squeamish and it took a toll on the scientist who toiled in the makeshift lab run by Blue.
Several things helped out the pied pipers of San Francisco. First off, they happened to be working at a time when scientists were understanding more about how disease in general, and plague in particular, spread. Unlike earlier plague fighters, they understood it was from the fleas that attacked the rats (they didn’t know it at the time, but as Chase explains, the Californians got lucky in that they happened to have an invasion of the type of fleas that produced less plague germs than another more lethal variety. This is probably what kept deaths in San Francisco in the hundreds rather than the thousands).
The reluctant San Francisco leaders finally had to give in and clean up when Roosevelt sent the Pacific Coast fleet to San Francisco. Blue forced home the point that if the fleet arrived and there was a suspicion of plague, they would move on to Seattle, taking all their business with them. That kicked them into action.
Finally, in an era when women were often the leaders of reform, Blue appealed to the mothers, wives, and sisters of San Francisco to take charge of turning San Francisco into a paragon of hygiene. Colby Rucker, one of Blue’s assistants, was a particularly adept public speaker, who inspired women to poison, trap, and starve the rats out, to only shop at stores that were clean, to “think of him when they looked in their garbage pails.” Their efforts, particularly as businesses were forced to clean up for the shoppers of the family, made a difference.
The plague dissipated after 1907, but Blue still found trouble. His fears were realized when they found that the plague fleas were jumping from rats to North American squirrels. The squirrels carried the plague east, past the Sierra Nevadas, and it is still there in the deserts of the southwest, buried in the fur of squirrels, prairie dogs, and opossums. Plague cases still pop up, though they are treatable if understood and caught early.
But I’m doing you a disservice by trying to tell this story when Chase does it so much better. A medical science and health reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Chase writes fluidly and swiftly (this is a short book that reads even quicker than its length, if you know what I mean. I’m sure you do), and easily explains the ins and outs of fleas, rats, and the plague. She describes the conditions and progress of disease in graphic detail; I’ve been sick and reading this book did not make me feel any better. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, that is as much as I’m going to enjoy reading about oozing buboes and ravenous rats. Fits of dizziness aside, I certainly admired this book and do recommend it, not just for its overall readability but because it brings to light an event in this nation’s history that has largely been forgotten and should not.