“It appears to me that commercial interests of San Francisco are more dear to the inhabitants than the preservation of human life. No sentiment has been expressed against a possible danger arising to the people, to their wives and children. These people seem perfectly indifferent whether or not bubonic plague exists in San Francisco, so long as they can sell their products and make large percentages on their investments.” – Joseph Kinyoun
Reporting live from COVID-19 Hell, Here Lies a Story wants you to know that this isn’t the first time we’ve blamed a whole ass Asian country and anyone who looks vaguely Chinese for a pandemic! Wayyyyy back in the early days of San Francisco, this town was hit by an epidemic of BUBONIC PLAGUE. For real! That disease didn’t just wreak havoc in medieval times. It showed up here, on our shores, in 1900. Plague traveled here from Asia along shipping lines (sound familiar?). The government tried to deny it was a problem (sound familiar?) and the press tried to cover it up (sound familiar?) which allowed it to spread out of control (sound familiar?). When it became impossible to ignore, they blamed Chinese immigrants! SOUND FAMILIAR?!
None of this COVID fuckery is new. We have better science, but then and now, uncertainty means people will deny, scapegoat, and fall for quack remedies. Fear of losing business and revenue stalls efforts to address the outbreak. When plague hit the city in 1900, it took us a long time to get our act together and fight it head on. It took eight years to eradicate the plague, through a program of cleaning up the rats, treating the patients, and surveilling the population for disease.
Join us on a journey through the plague outbreak of 1900-1908. The map above shows the important sites from the plague outbreak and reveals the stories of the people affected – the heroes who helped, the scoundrels who made it worse. Along the way, you’ll learn some history and some science, hear political screeds BUT ALSO jokes, and enjoy a guided tour of this incredible city from the comfort of your own quarantine.
You can visit @here_lies_a_story on Instagram to see more photos!
Part 1: Angel Island
There were three major pandemics of the bubonic plague: The Plague of Justinian (541-542 AD), the Black Death (1347-1351), and the Third (Asian) Pandemic (1855-1927). During the Third Pandemic, the Plague decimated large areas of China and India, killing 12M people before moving westward along nautical shipping lines. In 1899 it arrived in Honolulu, HI aboard the ship Nippon Maru, and plague broke out on the island. Overzealous, xenophobic health authorities burned Chinatown down. Word traveled fast, and in San Francisco, quarantine officials called for all ships traveling from the known infected zones of Hong Kong, Honolulu, Sydney, and Kobe to fly the yellow warning flag, the sign of a ship that has come from a plague port.
Angel Island: Quarantine Station, 1902
Ships arriving with the yellow flag were required to dock at Angel Island for inspection and a quarantine hold. Quarantine is one of the oldest known disease control measures. It was named by the Venetians, who held ships that might be carrying the pestilence of the Black Death on outer islands to see if they showed signs of disease. The Venetian waiting period was 40 days – quaranta. At Angel Island, commercial pressure forced officials to make inspection and release the ships with as short a wait as possible.
The Australia, sailing from plague-infected Honolulu, arrived in San Francisco and was quarantined at Angel Island. It passed inspection and went on to dock in the San Francisco Bay. From there, infected rats carrying plague infected fleas jumped ship and made their way into the city. Australia arrived on New Year’s Day, 1900, and the first plague death was recorded on March 6, 1900.
Part 2: The Globe HotelSan Francisco’s first recorded plague death occurred on March 6, 1900. A Chinese laborer named Wong Chut King became gravely ill with classic signs of the plague. Mr. King lived at the Globe Hotel, which was once located here at 1000 Dupont (now Grant) Street. The Globe Hotel started as a fashionable destination, but fell into disrepair and in 1900 it was a crowded tenement housing Chinese immigrants. Conditions there, like most of Chinatown, weren’t great. Fellow tenants brought King’s comatose body to a nearby coffin shop; they knew he was going to die. His body was confiscated by city officials, autopsied, and tested positive for the plague bacteria. There were two main outbreaks of plague in San Francisco. The first one, from 1900-1905, centered around Chinatown, but spread to other parts of the city, especially the North Beach and SOMA. The second outbreak, from 1906-1908, was all over the city. The plague broke out in Chinatown for several reasons. First, this area was near the wharf where the ships docked and the rats escaped. Portsmouth Square, the eastern entrance to Chinatown, named for a ship, was close to the water. Clay, Washington, Jackson, and Pacific streets all had wharves that ran straight to Chinatown. Second, living conditions were bad. Chinatown was an urban ghetto where Chinese immigrants were confined by law. Racially restrictive laws prevented them from living anywhere else, and corrupt and racist city practices meant that this area had fewer municipal services and almost no city funded social services – including garbage pickup. Immigrants living in Chinatown were squeezed into crowded tenement buildings that were haphazardly expanded. Garbage, rotting wood, and crowded conditions were an excellent breeding ground for rats and fleas, which is how the bubonic plague is transmitted.
Angel Island: Quarantine Station, 1902
Part 3: Portsmouth Square
Portsmouth Square is an iconic park that marks the entrance to Chinatown from the Financial District. In 1900, it was a scene of pure chaos. After the first plague death in San Francisco, public health authorities panicked and ordered an immediate quarantine of Chinatown. Under cover of darkness, police spread out around Chinatown’s borders and strung rope barriers and blocked intersections with wagons. They guarded the blockade with billy clubs and guns – no one was allowed in or out. Of course, the definition of Chinatown borders depended heavily on the race of the building’s owners. The Cameron House/ Presbyterian Mission House, was placed OUTSIDE the blockade, because it was run by white women.
Quarantine can be a rational response to contagion, but this not this one. Little was known about the transmission of plague – but both Western and Asian countries knew that rats were involved, and they correctly associated vermin with unsanitary and crowded conditions. At this time, Chinatown definitely fell into that category. However, white officials also subscribed to racist theories about the contagion. They blamed racial inferiority, diet, and culture for plague, and made policy based on the irrational belief that Chinese immigrants were most likely to get the disease. This is now called medical scapegoating.
This quarantine, and the one the followed, happened during a time of general resentment and scapegoating of Chinese immigrants, who comprised the largest working class in the city. The Working Man’s Party of San Francisco, and the mayor himself, James Phelan, fought hard for the Chinese Exclusion Act, and ran on the platform “Keep California White.”
White San Franciscans, including newspapers and public officials, advocated for the outright destruction of Chinatown. The Secretary of the California State Board of Health called for Chinatown to be burned down, and all Chinese moved to Angel Island and quarantined there.
The quarantines were enjoined by courts, but not before Chinese immigrants were left suffering, hungry, and frightened by these draconian measures.
Part 4: Tung Wah Dispensary
Officials in Chinatown didn’t take the racist plague abatement policies lying down, however. On this site, what was once 828 Sacramento Street, residents started The Tung Wah Dispensary. The Dispensary was an emergency hospital funded by the Chinese consul and Six Companies, and staffed with Western physicians and traditional Chinese herbalists. At the time of the plague outbreak, most hospitals in San Francisco wouldn’t take Chinese patients, and when they did, they treated them with scorn and derision. For Chinese immigrants, the choices were dying in a local coffin shop or a Western “Death House,” or hospital. Tung Wah gave the people of Chinatown care and relief in a comfortable environment. Fun fact – the Dispensary continues to operate today! It’s called the Chinese Hospital and it’s located at 835 Jackson Street.
Chinatown also organized behind the Chinese consul, Ho Yow, and representatives of the benevolent organizations, the Six Companies. These advocates intervened personally with local and federal officials.
Tung Wah Dispensary, ca. 1900
Part 5: Cameron House
Part 6: Merchant St Lab
The federal government sent several doctors to help San Francisco curtail the plague outbreak. The first, Joseph Kinyoun, served at the Angel Island Quarantine Station. He sounded the alarm on the bubonic plague, and identified the bacteria present in Wong Chut King. San Francisco was not ready for that diagnosis, however, and corrupt local officials and business leaders ran Kinyoun out of town before he could make much of a dent in the spread of the disease. His successor, Rupert Blue, was able to get more done.
Blue set up a laboratory on Merchant Street, the alley that connects Chinatown to the Financial District. From there, Blue devised and implemented a successful clean up and rat eradication plan. While city and federal officials were calling for mass vaccination with the shady Haffkine’s vaccine and eradication of Chinatown, Blue used diplomacy and science to mount an effective defense. This plan included eradication and cleanup, treatment of the infected, and surveillance of the disease.
He started a rat catching program to round up and kill rodents, and a construction project that targeted rat environs. In Chinatown, that was poorly constructed housing additions and areas full of rotted wood.
Part 7: Yoshiwara House
Of course, Victorian era San Franciscans talked out of both sides of their mouths: condemning prostitution on the one and participating in it with the other. Sexually transmitted diseases were a huge problem, and one that Chinese and other immigrants were blamed for.
All this leads to another interesting scapegoat in the San Francisco plague saga – those looking to deny that plague was here blamed STI’s for the deaths. Since buboes often form on the inner thighs, doctors and officials who didn’t want to see plague diagnosed syphilis or other deadly infections transmitted sexually.
Dr. Blue, upon investigating the infection of these three women, confirmed it to be plague. Using contact tracing, he found their recent customers (50 men) and was shocked when none of them acquired plague. This, of course, was because it was transmitted by flea bite, not sexual contact.
Part 8: SOMAPlague was initially confined to Chinatown, but quickly spread out across the city. Neighborhood clean up efforts were so successful that the rats left to find new areas to live, bringing their infected fleas with them. Cases popped up in what is now the South of Market Area and North Beach (then called the Latin Quarter). Both were close to wharves and to Chinatown, and both were populated mostly by poor immigrants. It’s no surprise that the rats chased out of Chinatown went to these neighboring areas. SOMA is one of the oldest parts of the city. At the turn of the city, it was a waterfront area full of dock workers and sailors. It also housed immigrants and laborers. In 1901, a sailor staying at the France House (149 Third Street), contracted and survived Bubonic plague. A garment salesman on Third Street contracted the disease and died shortly after him. In 1904, a seamstress living on Natoma Street was infected and sent to the County Isolation Hospital. She survived.
Part 9: North Beach
Part 10: Lobos SquareIn 1906, San Francisco was devastated by a massive earthquake and fire. 3,000 people died. The city was destroyed, and thousands were left homeless and living in shanties, tent cities, and refugee camps. The conditions caused by this displacement – poor sanitation, garbage everywhere, lack of hygiene – caused a resurgence of rats and fleas, which brought the bubonic plague roaring back. This spot, now called Moscone Playground, housed a large refugee camp called Lobos Square. 750 wooden earthquake shakes and 2,000 people were crammed into this area. The conditions at the camp attracted rats, which brought fleas, which led to an outbreak of bubonic plague. Federal and city authorities battling the plague had to fight for attention and resources, because the entire city was suffering and trying to rebuild. By 1907, 136 people caught the plague and 73 of them died. 18 of these were in Lobos Square. In 1908, Lobos Square was raised up on stilts, which kept the rats out of the shacks. This stopped the outbreak in the camp.
Part 11: Butchertown and Front St
At the time of the plague outbreak in San Francisco, the area that is now Bayview was called Butchertown. Zoning laws forced all slaughterhouses, cattle yards, and hog pens to the outskirts of the city, and Butchertown was full of thriving industry, but it was also dirty and disgusting and RAT CENTRAL. The buildings built over the marsh and on the infill were made of old wood, perfect for hiding rats. The factories used the Islais Creek, which flowed out to the Bay, to dispose of offal, animal parts, and all manner of waste. A doctor who visited the area spoke of watching “millions” of big fat rats come out to dine at low tide, when the carcasses and garbage were tossed. At a time when rats were carrying a contagious and deadly disease, this was a location that desperately needed to be cleaned up.
Of course, the butchers weren’t interested in spending money or changing their business practices (you guys have read The Jungle, right?).
Part 12: The PressBubonic Plague was bad for business, and no one wanted San Francisco to fly the yellow flag of pestilence. Government, newspapers, and industry worked to deny that plague was real, to cover up the deaths, and to mock those working to stop it. City and State governments did NOT want to hear from the feds about bubonic plague. Politicians in SF were corrupt and racist. They didn’t want to lose money if word of plague got out. City and state officials denied the outbreak and suppressed the story. When they could deny it no longer, they blamed race, poverty, and ethnicity for transmission. The newspapers weren’t any better. The major publishers admitted to conspiring to keep the news of plague out of the press to prevent harm to business interests. The Chronicle and The Call ridiculed stories of the plague, and accused federal officials of pushing an economic agenda. Once bodies started piling up, they blamed Chinese immigrants and echoed govt insistence that only Asian immigrants were susceptible to the disease. The only papers that reported the real story were the Chinese newspaper, Chung Sai Yat Po, and The Examiner, which had a reputation of being a tabloid. Eventually the story leaked out and was broken by the Sac Bee, and went on to be covered by the national press. At the beginning of this series I mentioned that the more things change, the more they stay the same. There will always be people who want to put their heads in the sand, people who would rather save dollars than lives, people who mock public health officials for recommending common sense approaches to reduce contagion. The folks who are currently throwing mask fits are the same who said spitting in the street was their constitutional right in 1905. The turn of the century in CA was a wild time; the country was coming out of an economic depression, waves of immigration from Asia were changing the ethnic makeup of places like Sacramento, labor groups blamed immigrants for losing jobs and low wages. “Keep CA White” was the slogan of the Workingman’s Party here. Same sh*t, different day, fam. That’s why we care about our history!
Want to learn more? Check out the sources!