Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan (2005)

Chapter 16. PLAGUE IN AMERICA

FEAR, WHICH THE RAT, more than most creatures, so impressively inspires, is a wild thing, and it can turn a man into an animal, direct him toward his basest impulses, his lowest nature. I mention this because as New York was considering its situation—repairing itself, rebuilding, reorganizing some of its civic functions and rehabilitating itself on the whole—I was still thinking about rats and plague. Plague came to America at a time when it could have been prevented from spreading but wasn't, because of fear. The very first plague case in the continental United States appeared on March 6, 1900, in San Francisco's Chinatown—by the Chinese calendar, 1900 was the year of the rat—and it was the same plague that had killed senators in ancient Rome, that had killed kings in medieval Europe. This time, though, scientists not only understood that it was transmitted via rats but had even discovered methods to combat the spread of the disease. Fear kept them from utilizing that knowledge—fear on the part of the city's business interests, fear that in turn inspired fear in the poorest parts of the city, which were most susceptible to disease and its ramifications.

The plague that arrived in San Francisco was part of the third plague pandemic that had broken out in China in 1850. Alexandre Yersin, a French microbiologist, identified the plague bacillus that was eventually named for him, Yersinia pestis, in 1894. Yersin worked with Louis Pasteur at Pasteur's institute in Paris. Yersin had met Pasteur after Yersin had cut his finger while operating on a man who had been bitten by a wild dog; his finger still bleeding, Yersin ran immediately to Pasteur's laboratory, where he was vaccinated with Pasteur's new rabies vaccine. When a plague epidemic erupted in Hong Kong, Pasteur sent Yersin to investigate. Yersin wanted to draw fluid from the enlarged nodes of the plague victims, but he was not allowed access to the morgue. On the advice of an English priest, Yersin bribed two English sailors working at the morgue for access. He drew fluid, looked at the microbes under a microscope, and in his journal wrote of the discovery that had eluded scientists for centuries: "This is without question the microbe of the plague."

After Yersin discovered the plague germ, he looked at the world in a whole other way; suddenly, he noticed the dead rats—all around the hospital and Hong Kong. He discovered that these rats were infected with the plague. Investigating further, he discovered that the people in China's mountain villages had long known that the plague outbreaks were preceded by rats dying. At this point, Yersin still did not suspect that fleas transmitted the plague from rats to humans. That link was made by Paul-Louis Simond, another scientist from the Pasteur Institute, who went to Vietnam to treat people with an antiplague serum during an outbreak there. He saw further evidence of rats' connection to the disease when he learned that workers at a wool factory had come down with the plague after being forced to clean up dead rats. "We have to assume," Simond wrote, "that there must be an intermediary between a dead rat and a human." At another plague outbreak, Simond began experimenting with rats in cages in his tent. In ajar, covered with a fine, flea-proof mesh, he hung a healthy rat in small cage just over a rat dying of plague. When the plague rat died, the fleas jumped to the healthy rat, which died a few days later. As a control, Simond placed a flea-free rat dying of plague in ajar with a healthy rat. The healthy rat stayed healthy.

When Chick Gin was found dead in the basement of a San Francisco flophouse, on that Monday morning in March 1900, an assistant city physician noticed swollen lymph nodes in the decomposed body. Lymph was extracted and taken to a federal quarantine station on Angel Island in San Francisco Harbor, where it was inspected the next morning by Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun. Kinyoun had come to San Francisco after setting up the first infectious-disease laboratory in America, on Staten Island in New York City. He was a physician with the Marine Hospital Service, a predecessor to the U.S. Public Health Service. He was a young hotshot, maybe a little full of himself, though he had some reason to be: he was one of the few men in America to have been to Paris, Berlin, and Vienna to study infectious diseases. He had worked with Pasteur and with Kitasato, a Japanese microbiologist who had simultaneously discovered the plague bacillus independent of Yersin. Kinyoun was the right person in the right place at the right time, though he considered it a demotion to be moved to San Francisco, where he lived with his family on Angel Island, which was to him a bay-locked rock.

In San Francisco, on the day after Chick Gin's body was discovered, Kinyoun examined the bacillus and injected it into three animals: a guinea pig, a monkey, and a rat. The microbe looked like plague. Kinyoun reported his concerns to San Francisco's board of health. At first the board cooperated, enacting Kinyoun's call for a quarantine of Chinatown. Kinyoun's success in winning a quarantine did not inspire the Chinese residents of Chinatown, who referred to him as "the wolf doctor." Chinese residents feared for their lives and property. Police were sent in to keep the quarantine. When plague had arrived in Honolulu a few months before, the officials there were so intent on saving the city that they considered burning it down and ended up burning much of Chinatown. (The outbreak of plague in Hawaii is sometimes called the second-worst disaster in the history of the state, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.) Non-Chinese residents of San Francisco were already calling for the destruction of Chinatown, an idea that racist politicians were happy to support; they used fear as an accelerator for their cause, which was hate. The Call said, "Clear the foul spot from San Francisco and give the debris to the flames."

The business community was terrified that plague would translate into a boycott of San Francisco goods, that tourists would stay away from San Francisco, that railroad business would suffer. The next day, under pressure from business leaders, the newspapers called the plague discovery a scare. They wrote that it was a plan executed by a corrupt board of health to make money, PLAGUE FAKE IS PART OF PLOT TO PLUNDER, said the San Francisco Call The papers accused the board of health of seeking payoffs in order to, as the Call said, "get snout and forelegs in the public trough." Similar stories were published in the Chronicle and the Bulletin. The only daily paper that acknowledged the real possibility of plague in the city was the Examiner. The Examiner was owned by William Randolph Hearst, and Hearst decided there were more newspapers to be sold by playing up a plague scare than playing it down. A building trades journal called Organized Labor also spoke up for an investigation of plague, but it was merely using plague as an excuse to vent more anti-Chinese hostility. "Brothers, wake up!" Organized Labor said. "This is a matter of vital importance and should receive thorough consideration in your meetings. The almond-eyed Mongolian is watching for his opportunity, waiting to assassinate you." Many reports tried to make plague sound like an innocuous disease, like mumps. A poem in the Bulletin ended like this:

And the advertised, boasted bacillus

Is a gentle domestic concern,

And the doctors who fill us and pill us

Have libeled it sadly, we learn

Eventually, under pressure from businesses, the government lifted the quarantine.

Then, the guinea pig, the monkey, and the rat died.

ONE OF THE THINGS THAT the rats that were spreading plague did to San Francisco—aside from bringing the plague to America—was to cause one population of the city to see the way another population in the same city was living. Shortly after the guinea pig, monkey, and rat died, Mayor James Phelan reluctantly organized one hundred volunteer physicians to search for plague victims in Chinatown, a twelve-block area where twenty-five thousand Chinese people lived. When the physicians went in, they were explorers in another land. The doctors were shocked at the conditions they discovered. There were mazes of holes and secret tunnels connecting homes. In the underground rooms, holes were cut in sewer pipes in lieu of bathrooms; when the sewer pipes filled up, sewage backed up in the underground rooms, under row after row of bunk beds. And there were rats. The inspectors themselves complained of odors that made them nauseous as they did their work. They could not find any plague victims, however. Chinese residents, concerned that their homes would be burned down, hid their sick relatives and then shuttled them out of the city in small boats at night. Sometimes, when an inspector arrived before a body could be removed, a dead man would be propped up next to a table in an underground room, his hands arranged carefully over dominoes.

The newspapers continued to deny the presence of plague; they emphasized disputes over Kinyoun's diagnoses. People did not want to believe Kinyoun, on the one hand, and on the other, the bacteriological approach to medicine was still new. Kinyoun had worked with the latest in scientific equipment at the Pasteur Institute, but in San Francisco doctors considered swollen lymph nodes to be a sign of venereal disease and did not necessarily use microscopes. In fact, most physicians in San Francisco still saw human infection as a result of the inhalation of bad airs—a belief left over from the Middle Ages. The U.S. assistant secretary of agriculture at the time reported that Asians were particularly susceptible to plague because they ate rice and were deficient in animal proteins.

The Examiner, meanwhile, was practically exuberant about the plague, the journalistic equivalent of someone yelling fire in a movie theater. The Examiner published panic letters, and an editorial described the "invasion." In New York, the journal, also owned by Hearst, published a special edition titled "Plague Edition," which was delivered to cities throughout the country. The headline was BLACK PLAGUE CREEPS INTO AMERICA. The accompanying, commissioned painting depicted men collecting bodies in the street and people dying from fright. The journal predicted "plague-stricken men and women, out of their minds with pain, rushing naked about the streets." Because they did not have details from the plague epidemic yet to be officially declared in San Francisco, the journal writers cribbed from Daniel Defoe's journal of the Plague Year.

The Examiner only stopped when the other newspapers began attacking it. The Bulletin called for the inoculation of the Examiner with plague bacilli. "It should be removed," the Bulletin wrote, "this city would be healthier, corporeally, morally and politically." Daniel Meyer, a well-known financier, attacked Hearst directly. "It is the nature of the man to tear down," he said in the Bulletin. The Bulletin reported that thirty thousand tourists had been driven away from San Francisco by the plague stories. There were reports of cargoes being sent to other ports. Now, Mayor Phelan worked to deny the existence of the plague; he sent out letters to cities around the country asserting that everything was fine in San Francisco. Newspaper publishers met and agreed not to mention a quarantine on Chinatown. On April 1, the Examiner stopped publishing plague news. Meanwhile, more people in Chinatown continued to die from plague.

Fearing a Black Death-like health crisis, Kinyoun wired Washington, D.C., to say that the city was facing an epidemic. General Walter Wyman, the surgeon general, ordered more health service officers to San Francisco. The surgeon general convinced President William McKinley to apply a quarantine on all people of Asian ancestry leaving the state of California, such that they could not leave without certification from Dr. Kinyoun's Marine Hospital officers. The navy patrolled the harbor in armed boats. The Chinese Six Companies, a group representing Chinese business interests in San Francisco, sued in federal court and had the quarantine lifted, arguing that as designed it applied only to interstate traffic and not to travel within California and that it denied equal legal protection to the Chinese community.

Frustrated, Kinyoun asked the Chinese to submit to inoculation with an experimental preventive drug. The Chinese Six Companies agreed. But then non-Chinese doctors in Chinatown began spreading rumors that the drug had killed people. A crowd gathered before the offices of the Chinese Six Companies, people crying out for the company's officers to be inoculated before anyone else was; the crowd wanted the business leaders to be their lab rats. The business leaders refused. The crowds were on the verge of a riot. People decided to resist the injection. When a team of Kinyoun's physicians went through town to inoculate, all the businesses and residences were closed.

IT WAS A STANDOFF OF paranoias, a fear face-off The board of health debated moving all Chinese residents to a detention camp on Mission Rock, a small island in San Francisco's harbor. Word went out in Chinatown that anyone seen going to such a camp would be killed: checking into a plague detention camp would be tantamount to admitting the existence of the plague, which many Chinese residents wanted to deny. Meanwhile, doctors were being offered large sums of money by business interests to show that plague did not exist in Chinatown. The Bulletin ran a picture of the members of the board of health and suggested they be exterminated; a large headline read: THESE MEN ARE MARKED. Health officials fighting the plague were referred to as "the perpetrators of the greatest crime that has ever been committed against the city." California's governor, Henry Gage, worked hard to deny the plague. He assailed "plague fakers." He proposed life imprisonment for anyone claiming there was plague in San Francisco. He suggested that Joseph Kinyoun had planted plague bacilli on the Chinese man who died. Soon, all sides could agree on one thing: Dr. Kinyoun was a problem.

The attacks against Kinyoun were notably malicious and slanderous even in a town with a long history of yellow journalism. Kinyoun held fast; his arrogance made him immune to some extent. He turned down bribes. He went on trial in the city for contempt and was eventually found innocent. He was constantly being lampooned in cartoons such as the one that showed him being injected in the head with plague serum. His work was described by the press as "stupid and malignant." Meanwhile, he lived on the desolate island in the bay, with his wife, who was also unhappy there, and their children. He came down with an ulcer.

"Kinyoun is to go," the Chronicle editorialized.

In February 1901, after a new team of scientists arrived from Washington, D.C., and confirmed six more plague cases, Governor Gage met secretly in Sacramento with the heads of the railroads. They agreed that no newspaper would ever mention that the plague had ever existed, and they orchestrated an Associated Press dispatch announcing: "[T]here was not now nor has there ever been cases of bubonic plague in California." They also sent a group of newspaper publishers to Washington, D.C., where the publishers met with the president and California's senators. They all agreed to clandestine plague eradication measures and arranged to have Kinyoun fired. At the end of March, Kinyoun, America's preeminent infectious disease expert, was reassigned to Detroit, Michigan.

That spring, after the governor of Texas sent a telegram to the surgeon general threatening a quarantine of California if the plague was not contained, Chinatown was quietly fumigated with sulfur. (The health inspectors boasted that they had used a minimum amount of sulfur to do the job.) The Chinese Six, though they had previously admitted plague in Chinatown, now said that no cases had ever existed. Again, inspectors could find no bodies. After sixty days of inspections by state health officials, the governor shut down antiplague operations. The U.S. Surgeon General closed its federal plague eradication office. For eradicating the talk of the epidemic, Governor Gage was lauded as "the people's friend."

Then, on July 5, a Chinese undertaker accidentally brought the body of a plague victim to Dr. Rupert Blue. Blue had been a colleague of Joseph Kinyoun's and he'd replaced Kinyoun at Marine Hospital Service, and if Kinyoun was arrogant and imperious, then Blue was smooth and accommodating, a politician. Blue investigated. He pronounced the case plague. More plague cases were discovered— on July 8, there were four deaths within forty-eight hours, in a single Japanese household. State officials called it sewer gas poisoning, then charged Blue with inoculating the victims with plague. It looked as if Blue might be reassigned to another city as well, but this time the Japanese community, as opposed to the Chinese Six, would not keep the plague secret. There was a new mayor, Eugene Schmitz, the former first violinist of the San Francisco symphony, and initially he was also ready to play along with business interests—he fired health officials who insisted there was plague, and he refused to print plague statistics—but now health departments and governors from two dozen states protested California's handling of the situation. More plague reports made their way East. Health officials from around the country met in Washington and passed a resolution against the "gross neglect" of the California Board of Health and the "obstructive influence" of Governor Gage. The states threatened a national quarantine against California. At last, plague eradication efforts began in earnest. Wooden floors were ripped up to reveal years of broken sewer pipes and cesspools. Rats were trapped all over San Francisco. The last case of plague was identified on February 19, 1904.

In 1906, after the Great San Francisco Earthquake, there was another plague outbreak in San Francisco, but the city had learned its lesson. The federal government immediately set about cleaning up the city and trapping rats. Rupert Blue was put in charge of plague eradication. This time none of the cases were in Chinatown, which may be one explanation for the quicker treatment of the disease. Officials noted that the city seemed to be infested with rats, and since the last outbreak, more and more scientific studies had confirmed the link between human plague cases and rats and rat fleas. Rat catchers used poisoned molasses and bread laced with arsenic to kill rats until two children died after ingesting the bait, at which point rat catchers used traps. To encourage the public to catch rats, a bounty often cents was paid for killed rats, and dead rat receiving stations were set up around the city. People were instructed to use gloves to handle rats and to immediately drop dead rats in kerosene or boiling water to kill the fleas. San Franciscans were good at catching rats, and the bounty for rats was so successful that it had to be cut in half.

All told, the San Francisco plague epidemic of 1906 was a completely different plague epidemic. Rupert Blue was lauded as a modern Pied Piper, and his success eventually led to his appointment as surgeon general (he attempted, unsuccessfully, to design a national health care program). He had his tricks while fighting the plague: to avoid the scrutiny of San Francisco businessmen, he wired Washington in code: to indicate the word plague he used bumpkin; to indicate city board of health he used burlesque. When the plague control campaign was finally over, Blue was honored at a banquet held in the streets. The theme of the banquet was "San Francisco is so clean a meal can be eaten in its streets."

THANKS TO THE PARANOIA OF politicians and businessmen during the first plague epidemic, plague had already spread from San Francisco into the rodents of California and the surrounding states, where plague remains today: there are more rodents currently infected with the plague in North America than there were in Europe at the time of the Black Death, though the modern rodents infected (prairie dogs, for example) tend to live in areas less populated by humans, as opposed to the rodents infected at the time of the Black Death. Kinyoun left the Marine Hospital Service shortly after his humiliation in San Francisco; he subsequently retired and moved to Washington, D.C., where he was working in the city health department when he died on February 14, 1919. Up until he arrived in San Francisco, he had had a brilliant career, and he had even spent time working in New York, where, in 1887, he had set up the Marine Hospital Service's first hygienic laboratory on Staten Island. There, he applied the principles of microbiology to cholera, and as a result, the first use of cholera culture was used to fight the entry of the disease through the port in 1898. Prior to this breakthrough, cholera epidemics had wiped out thousands of New Yorkers throughout the nineteenth century, and before being identified as a disease of poor sanitary conditions, cholera was blamed, first, on Irish immigrants, and then, at the turn of the century, on Jewish immigrants. Ironically, after helping fight this immigrant epidemic, Kinyoun spent the rest of his life complaining bitterly about his experiences in San Francisco—the eminent bacteriologist resorted to anti-Chinese and anti-Semitic slurs.