April 18, 1906 American Plague

The disease process unfolded with horrifying rapidity. The Italian writer Boccaccio wrote that plague victims often “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.”

images (49)In the early 1330s, a deadly plague broke out on the steppes of Mongolia. The gram-negative bacterium Yersinia Pestis preyed heavily on rodents, the fleas from which would transmit the disease to people, the infection then rapidly spreading to others.

High fever would precede the appearance of “buboes”, a painful swelling of the lymph glands, especially in the armpit, neck and groin. Spots appeared on the skin turning from red to black, often accompanied by necrosis and gangrene in the nose, lips, fingers and toes.

In some cases, Bubonic plague will progress from the lymphatic system to the lungs, resulting in Pneumonic plague. Y. Pestis can progress to the blood stream as well, a condition known as septicemic plague. In medieval times, septicemic mortality rates ran from 98% to 100%.

medieval-life-the-black-death-bubonic-plague-black-plague-8-728

The disease process unfolded with horrifying rapidity. The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote that plague victims often “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.”

Plague broke out among a besieging force of Mongols on the Black Sea city of Caffa, in 1346. Italian merchants fled with their ships in the Spring of 1347, carrying in their holds an untold number of rats and the fleas that came with them. One-third of the world’s population died in the five-year period which followed, equivalent to over two Billion today.

The Black Death of the 14th century is far and away the most famous, but it’s not the first. The Plague of Justinian, 541-542AD, centered mostly around the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) and Sassanid Empires, the disease resulting in the death of 25 million individuals. Roughly 13% of the world’s population, at that time.

150827150729-plague-explainer-cohen-orig-mg-00001604-full-169The Black death of 1346-’53 was a catastrophe unparalleled in human history, but it was by no means the last such outbreak.  The Third Pandemic began in China in 1855, spreading to Hong Kong and on to British India. In China and India alone the disease killed 12 million people. It then spread to parts of Africa, Europe, Australia, and South America.

In the newly formed Territory of Hawaii, the first signs of the plague began to appear in Honolulu in December, 1899. Not sure how to control the outbreak, city health officials decided to burn infected houses. Changing winds soon fanned the flames out of control. On January 20, 1900, an inferno consumed nearly all of Chinatown, 38 acres, leaving 6,000 homeless.

Honolulu_Chinatown_fire_of_1900
In January 1900, Honolulu’s Chinatown burned down in an effort to control bubonic plague.

In 1900, The ship Australia brought Yersinia Pestis with it from Hong Kong into San Francisco. The ship was immediately quarantined and, despite the escape of two stowaways confirmed to have the bacilli, there was no immediate outbreak. The quarantine seemed to work for a time, but there was no way to contain the rats on board. They are probably the reason that plague spread to the city.

norway_rats_on_ropeThe body of an elderly Chinese man was discovered in a Chinatown basement. An autopsy found the man to have died of plague. There were more than 18,000 Chinese and another 2,000 Japanese living in the 14-block Chinatown section of the city. Many called for a quarantine of Chinatown, but Chinese citizens objected, as did then-Governor Henry Gage, who tried to sweep the whole outbreak under the carpet. Business interests likewise objected to the quarantine. Except for the Hearst Newspapers, not much was heard about it.

100 confirmed cases of plague were discovered by the end of 1902, but Governor Gage was still denying its existence. There were a total of 121 cases with 113 deaths by 1904, but the outbreak seemed to be contained.

yersinia-pestis-plague-bacteria-pasiekaSan Francisco was hit by a massive earthquake on April 18, 1906, followed by a great fire. Thousands of San Franciscans were crowded into refugee camps with an even higher number of rats. For the first time, the disease now jumped the boundaries of Chinatown.

On May 27, 1907, a San Francisco sailor was diagnosed with bubonic plague. The epidemic spread aggressively over that summer, the New York Times reporting in November that “the disease increased with such virulence that it looked for a time as if the city were to be decimated as were medieval Europe”.

The plague popped up one last time, but local, state, and federal health officials combined to all-but eradicate the rat population, and with it the disease. It was all over by 1909.

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Reported cases of human plague in the United States, 1970 – 2012

Or was it. Nothing could stop the fleas from infected rats from transferring to wild rodents, squirrels, and prairie dogs, and permanently establishing plague bacilli in the western United States.

In 2015, the CDC reported 15 cases of Bubonic plague in the United States, as of October.  Four of them were fatal.  The bacterium is treatable with modern antibiotics, but I can’t help thinking about the massive quantity of anti-microbials used in livestock production. Given the apparent increase in multiple-drug resistant “superbugs”, I hope that people far smarter than I am, are thinking about it too.

 

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Author: capecodcurmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. Five years ago, I began writing a daily "Today in History" story, as sort of a self-guided history course.  At some point, I committed to myself to write 365.  The leap year changed that to 366. At this point, I think I’m closer to 500. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong as the next guy. I offer these "Today in History" stories, in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Rick Long

16 thoughts on “April 18, 1906 American Plague”

  1. Wow Scary! I hadn’t realised there were so many outbreaks of the plague, naively I only thought it had occurred in the uk, decimating the population at that time. It’s a really nasty little bug as are these “superbugs”! Perhaps I should just stay indoors!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That was a very interesting read. Thank you for sharing. Your essay touches on a fascinating subject, namely the dislocations in British (and European) society, resulting from the plague. The changes wrought by such a calamity must have been prodigious, effecting the religious, economic and social practices of entire populations. (Or at least, what was left of them). It would be an ambitious subject to take on in a thousand words or fewer. Have you ever attempted to do so?

      Like

    1. My brother is a career Army officer. Very fit, very disciplined, he always took good care of himself. He damn near lost a leg after a bout with one of those antibiotic resistant “superbugs”, and that was from a relatively superficial wound. Those things are no joke.

      Liked by 1 person

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