The Plague Comes to San Francisco

October 27, 2020
"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!


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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