The Plague Comes to San Francisco

February 23, 2022
San Francisco Hauntings
"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

An old photo of a passenger ship at dock on Angel Island
Angel Island: Quarantine Station, 1902

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. 

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 Hotel

A photo of the Globe Theater taken from the street showing old telelphone and power lines at the street corner
The Globe Hotel, ca. 1906

San 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.


Part 3: Portsmouth Square

A tourism advertisiment showing two identical photos of Portsmouth Square in a paper frame titled Tabers Pacific Coast Views, Portsmouth Square, San Francisco
Portsmouth Square, ca. late 1800's

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

A photo of an assembled group of Chinese employees and benefactors of the Tung Wah Dispensary arranged on the front steps of the building, circa 1900. There is a small plaque to the right of the doorway labeled Oriental Dispensary
Tung Wah Dispensary, ca. 1900

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. They funded lawsuits that enjoined the forced quarantines, forced vaccination with experimental treatments, and racist travel bans predicated on disease control. 

The Chinese language newspaper, Chung Sai Yat Po, advocated fiercely for equal rights for Chinese immigrants and fair treatment from the city. It also reported factually on the plague outbreak at a time when English language papers were conspiring to cover it up to protect city business interests. 



Part 5: Cameron House

A cable car travels up Sacramento St, with the brick covered Cameron House behind it. The streets look roughly paved in brick and the sidewalks are made of wooden boards.
A cable car travels up Sacramento Street showing Cameron House behind it, 1874

This is the Presbyterian Mission House. It is also called the Cameron House. In 1900, a young Chinese girl fled by jumping out of a second story window to avoid being vaccinated against the plague. Why? 

At the time of the outbreak, there were only two potential treatments for bubonic plague. Antibiotics, which are used to treat bacterial infections now, had not been discovered yet. In 1900, your options were the Yersin’s plague antiserum or Haffkine’s vaccine. Yersin’s was named after the scientist who discovered the plague bacteria. It was made of antibodies grown in horses who had been exposed to the plague. It was effective, but it was very expensive to make and not readily available. 

Haffkine’s vaccine was made of heat-killed plague bacteria, which was much cheaper. However, it was only minimally effective and the side effects were often just as bad as plague symptoms, and it ACTUALLY KILLED SOME PEOPLE. If people were already exposed to plague, the Haffkine vaccination actually sped the growth of the bacteria and killed the patient faster. It was about as effective as injecting bleach and sticking a flashlight up your culo, in case you’re following current events. 

Everyone knew that Haffkines was dangerous quackery, but that didn’t stop the Surgeon General of the United States from prescribing a mass vaccination of Chinatown with this dangerous and shoddy product. I’ll leave you to decide whether he would have promoted this response to the folks in Nob Hill. 

At Cameron House, a Scottish immigrant named Donaldina Cameron housed girls fleeing indentured servitude in Chinatown. At first, she thought the girls’ resistance to the vaccine was superstitious - until this poor girl JUMPED OUT OF WINDOW TO AVOID IT. She broke her ankles but she didn’t die of Haffkine’s, so I guess it was a net positive. 

By the way, I’m completely and totally in favor of vaccination. Haffkine’s was developed before we had a true understanding of how bacteria and viruses work. Vaccines are the number one public health development in the modern world - vaccinate your damn kids. In case you forgot, we’re in the middle of a pandemic.


Part 6: Merchant St Lab

5 men in suite vests and hats all work with rakes in a semi-circle around a pile of burnt wood and paper debris
Clearing rat nests, San Francisco ca. 1907-1908

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. The team tore these structures down, which was better for residents than losing their property altogether. . Workers used carbolic acid, lime, and sulfur pots to smoke out rats and fleas and kill germs. They watched for infections and routed the suffering people to places like the Tung Wah Dispensary for help. 

Blue’s team was successful in part because they worked closely with Chinese American leaders in the neighborhood. They hired a translator named Wong Chung, who also acted as an intermediary with the Six Companies. His assistant, Mark White, made the radical statement that the Chinese immigrants of San Francisco were no different than any other Americans, and that by treating them with respect, public health goals would be easier to obtain. IMAGINE THAT, YOU GUYS! 


Part 7: Yoshiwara House

A Chinese woman stands between two slightly open doors in a stone building. There are 8 pointed stars decorating both doors above metal screened windows.
Chinatown Brothel, San Francisco ca. 1890

In 1901, this site at 845 Washington was a brothel called the Yoshiwara House, owned by Japanese immigrants. The establishment was named after Yoshiwara, the red-light district of Tokyo. It was here that four cases of plague broke out among the women. As you might imagine, this wasn’t a good time to be a sex worker. While there were plenty of brothels in San Francisco, Chinatown housed a disproportionate number of them. There were several reasons why. First, the city allowed and encouraged vice districts like the one in Chinatown to keep what it considered unseemly business out of “respectable” neighborhoods. Second, there was an imbalance between Chinese men and women, fueling demand for sex work. During the initial waves of migration, many men came from China to work, and women stayed behind. When the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, women couldn’t make it to San Francisco even if they wanted to. Anti-miscegenation laws prevented interracial relationships, and a prostitution industry grew up to meet the needs of lonely men with no other prospects. The trade also attracted plenty of white guys looking for a cheap thrill with an exoticized Asian sex worker. 

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: Soma

An image showing a bustling street scene of Mission and 3rd st, full of horse carriages and blurry people moving around. The Call building looms in the background
Mission and 3rd St, 1905

Plague 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

An aerial view overlooking clustered wooden buildings on Telegraph Hill towards the SF bay and Marin headleands
View From Telegraph Hill, 1900

At the turn of the century, the Latin Quarter (North Beach) was home to immigrants from Portugal, Mexico, Italy, and France. Most were poor laborers. In 1901, a laundress living at the Hotel Europa on Broadway, very close to the Chinatown border, died of the plague. In 1902, an Italian resident picked up flea infested wood left over from the Chinatown cleanup. He took it home to 19 Jasper Street to use as firewood. He and his mother both caught and died from the disease. In 1904, Irene Rossi, an Italian immigrant, contracted plague and died. She lived with her family at 18 (other reports say 6) Varennes Street. Her disease became pneumonic, which spreads through airborne particles. Her parents both died from the disease, and her brother caught but survived it with the help of Yersin’s anti-serum.

Reports of white people dying of the plague - especially two families - alarmed the doctors of San Francisco and lit a fire under their asses. They began to be more candid about the disease in their midst. They formed the Public Health Commission of California, and nominated Dr. Blue as their president. Extending the “clean, treat, and surveil” plan to other parts of the city helped to further contain the plague. 

Just when it was almost eradicated, however, the great earthquake and fire of 1906 caused a massive new outbreak. 


Part 10: Lobos Square

A grass field strewn with makeshift structures, canvas tents, wooden carriages and small cookfires. A few men in dark clothing mill about
Refugee camps in Lobos Square, 1906

In 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. 

Blue and his men redoubled their eradication efforts, paying a bounty on rats and diligently testing every rodent that came through their lab (The Rattery - see my post from April!). In total, they trapped and killed 350,000 rats and tested at least 150,000 of them. They continued to focus on treatment and surveillance, as well. The lessons learned from the first outbreak probably saved a lot of lives after the earthquake. 

By now, of course, there was no denying the plague problem in the city. The disease had spread everywhere, and since it was no longer confined to Chinatown, the city residents could not blame immigrants or look the other way. They would finally take the steps necessary to eradicate the disease in San Francisco. 


Part 11: Butchertown and Front St

An aerial photo of clustered wooden buildings at the edge of the San Francisco bay. The buildings are a little haphazard, and the streets are bare dirt
Butchertown, 1905

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 carcasess 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?). The pork annex, called Hogtown, held a showy eradication stunt in which they chased rats out and poured boiling water on them (can you even imagine), which did kill hundreds of rats, but did nothing to stop more from showing up. 

Around this time, the Citizen’s Health Committee had formed. Now that plague was endemic all over San Francisco, and they could no longer hide it, business interests teamed up with government officials to take steps to eradicate it. Specifically, the federal government threatened to quarantine the whole city if they didn’t get their act together. Quarantine meant loss of revenue, so Levi’s, Wells Fargo, and Southern Pacific finally threw in some money to act. 

These business leaders were able to put enough pressure on Butchertown to make the changes necessary, especially when the Examiner called them out and predicted $20M in lost revenue from a plague quarantine.


Part 12: The Press

The Call building under construction in December of 1896. 6 stories have been built and clad in stone - the remaining upper 7 stories are only skeletal metal framing

Bubonic 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! 


RESOURCES:

Want to learn more? Check out the sources!

Marilyn Chase, The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco

Julia Flynn Siler, The White Devil’s Daughters

James C. Mohr, Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Honolulu’s Chinatown

Richard Hansen and Gladys Hansen, Images of America: 1906 San Francisco Earthquake  

Wikipedia: San Francisco Plague of 1900-1904

Wikipedia: The Third Plague Pandemic

History Channel: The First Time Plague Broke Out in the US, Officials Tried to Deny It

Nature: Plague in San Francisco - Rats, Racism, and Reform

Atlas Obscura: When Chinese Americans Were Blamed for 19th Century Epidemics, They Built Their Own Hospital

Found SF: Maiden Lane and The Potholes of History

Curbed SF: Discover SF Chinatown’s Colorful Alleyways

New Republic: San Francisco Mapped Every Brothel, Opium Den, and Gambling Parlour During a Moral Panic in the 1880’s

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