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The City's Secret Scourge

Cover-ups were no cure for the deadly contagion that struck San Francisco in 1900.

Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

HEARTBREAK HOTEL: The first plague victim, Wong Chut King, lived in the Globe, at Dupont and Jackson in Chinatown.

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By Marilyn Chase

As health officials brace for outbreaks of a mysterious new disease, severe acute respiratory syndrome, Marilyn Chase, ’71, recounts a mostly forgotten pestilence that gripped San Francisco 100 years ago: bubonic plague. Without antibiotics or an understanding of how the bacteria spread from rats to humans via fleas, victims suffered a hideous end. Violent chills, fever, excruciating headache and crippling body pain progressed to the eruption of large red swellings of the lymph glands, black bruises from hemorrhaging, and agitated delirium relieved only by coma, then death. In this excerpt from The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco (Random House, 2003), federal quarantine officer Joseph Kinyoun struggles to impress San Franciscans with the threat posed by the infection that has invaded Chinatown. But public health interventions—quarantine and fumigation—have so terrified the Chinese that some conceal their sick and dead. Most city newspapers respond with ridicule or a conspiracy of silence, as the corpses mount.

Over Chinatown, columns of smoke rose from the bonfires of refuse that burned on Pacific Street. Plumbing was flushed with chemicals, masking the scent of cookery and crowded humanity with stinging clouds of disinfectant vapors. Mounds of white lime powder were stored in chalky drifts against the balconied apartments, storefronts and courtyards, so that the district looked like a Sierra village after a snowstorm. An oppressive stench hung over the district.

Downtown, the board of health met with the Chinese consul and the Chinese Six Companies, wrangling over details of the Chinatown cleanup of plague. All they could agree on was the need to clear out basements and dispose of garbage. On that, no one could disagree. The consul issued a statement urging people to clean up their homes and businesses. But autopsies and diagnoses were different.

City and federal doctors ordered that any Chinese person who died unattended by a physician, or whose medical history was unknown, be autopsied in order to ascertain the cause of death. But autopsies outraged the sensibilities of grieving families and friends. To placate authorities, [consul] Ho Yow advised his constituents that, when sick, they should send for a “white physician.” If they were too poor to pay, a doctor would be furnished free from the new Oriental Dispensary.

Without an autopsy, cases of plague might be mistaken for something else. Plague in the lungs might be misdiagnosed as common pneumonia, fretted city physician A.P. O’Brien. The victim suffocates so quickly that the telltale buboes don’t have time to erupt, he said. So the city board of health passed a motion ordering that any Chinese dying of apparent pneumonia, swollen glands, fever, or other symptoms of possible plague be subject to autopsy—“the same as whites.”

Days after the order was issued, monthly death reports in Chinatown began to subside. The mortality rate was half of normal.

Cases of sickness were being concealed, and deaths as well, the health board concluded. One patient who lived across from the Chinese consulate vanished before inspectors arrived. In another case, a man said to have died the day before was as ripe as a week-old corpse. Whether the corpse was in a state of rapid decomposition due to plague or had simply been abandoned for several days was hard to know. The elderly doctor in charge, who worked behind a pharmacy on Kearny Street, denied concealing plague deaths but admitted he was under pressure to dissemble.

Dr. Edward Seltzer recounted to the health board his hellish house call. He found the patient “unable to lie down, and unable to sit up, and was doubled over suffering terribly, spitting blood and suffocating. . . . Nothing I could do was of more than at most transient effect, and the man died in my presence. . . . I was a little undecided as to the cause of death, but gave it as lobar pneumonia because the Chinese have a horror of dissection and begged me to give as the cause of death something which could call for no dissection.”

Bodies were whisked room to room, stashed in out-of-the-way cubbyholes, or carried over the rooftops—in a shell game to keep the sick and dying from the inspectors. In other cases, San Francisco Bay became a river Styx, with bodies stowed aboard tiny fishing boats, slipped across the water, and interred in an unknown spot. Hiding the dead was Chinatown’s defense against the intrusion of white doctors. How many bodies disappeared, no one knew.

Some hid in plain sight. One ingenious ruse involved a game of dominoes. During an inspection on Waverly Place in Chinatown, one doctor found five men seated around a game table. The players froze as police officers stormed the apartment, upending the place but finding nothing. Two hours later, one of the players was found to be dead. During the inspection, his companions had propped him up at the game table, with his hand poised upon a domino in such a natural position that he escaped notice.

“Their tricks are manifold,” said the duped doctor, W.G. Hay of the University of California, in a speech to the California Academy of Medicine. Just how to outsmart the inspectors, he fumed, “[t]he wily heathen seemed to know by instinct.”

Rants against the “heathen” Chinese made Consul Ho Yow heartsick. His ailing constituents were forced to flee for fear of the rough interventions of the white doctors, he said, but he denied that his people were actually hiding the dead.

An exodus of Chinese began, driven by fears of quarantine, chemical bombardment, and needles [for vaccinations]. Some scattered to the gardens and factories of their friends in the suburbs. Others were quartered as cooks in private homes within the city. At the old Globe Hotel, the usual three hundred tenants had dwindled to a dozen, who stood with their bags packed, ready to leave if the cordons went up or the torch was threatened again.

On the waterfront, Dr. Kinyoun tried to assert his authority as quarantine officer. But his bluster failed to hold back a rising tide of derision. When a steamer called the Gaelic arrived from Asia with a sick Chinese man aboard, Kinyoun quarantined the vessel. Somehow, despite Kinyoun’s ban on reporters in quarantine, one from the Examiner managed to sneak aboard or to smuggle out stories of Kinyoun in action. The paper published an account of Kinyoun charging about the deck, barking orders, behaving as a bully, acting overbearing to the poor and obsequious to the rich.

The city board of health, meanwhile, had no cash to pay for the cleanup. The health board begged the board of supervisors for $7,500 to pay men to fork garbage onto the incinerator, to sprinkle formaldehyde and shovel lime about Chinatown. The bid for funds inflamed suspicions that the plague was merely a pretext for padding the budget.

News of San Francisco’s misfortune became impossible to contain, and dispatches reached other states and countries both north and south of the border. Westbound trains traveled empty, abandoned by those afraid of contracting the deadly bacteria. Vacationers favored safer destinations where the greatest concern was sunburn or overeating.

Trading partners began to balk at receiving the city’s infected goods. The Canadian government ordered all steamers from San Francisco quarantined until further notice. And the outbound steamer Curaçao was quarantined in Mazatlán by the government of Mexico. San Francisco businessmen remembered how quarantine had paralyzed Hawaiian sugar shipments after Honolulu’s plague struck. A sickening vision of California’s wheat stranded on the docks, and its fruit rotting, rose before their eyes.

Editorial pages of the city’s major dailies called it an outrage that the city was being branded a pestilential plague spot rather than the golden vision of health and pleasure they wanted to promote.

Down at the intersection of Market and Kearny—the Times Square of the West—publishers displayed their edifice complex. The de Young family erected the West’s first steel-frame skyscraper for the Chronicle’s headquarters, rising a majestic 10 stories. Then William Randolph Hearst hired the same architects to develop a loftier tower for the Examiner just across the street. He was topped by Claus Spreckels, the sugar king, who built his newspaper, the Call, a 19-story monument.

Although rivals in every other respect, de Young’s Chronicle and Spreckels’s Call found themselves on the same side of an issue. Both papers relentlessly ridiculed the plague campaign of Kinyoun as a fraud. Ironically, the only newspaper of the big three dailies to engage in serious coverage of the outbreak was that font of yellow journalism, Hearst’s Examiner. To be sure, the so-called saffron sheet pursued the plague story less for its public health import than for its sensational ingredients of death and intrigue. But in the city, its coverage stood alone. Now, however, other city papers charged the Examiner with journalistic treason against San Francisco. Henrot’s New York Journal spread news of the city’s shame, declaring: BLACK PLAGUE CREEPS INTO AMERICA.

In a stunning [statement] on March 25, the Call’s editors admitted that they and the Chronicle’s editors had made a mutual pact of silence on the plague. They blasted the Examiner for its heresy. “It will be remembered that the Call and the Chronicle agreed to omit publication of the sensational doings of the Board of Health and the Chief of Police . . . but the Examiner not only refused to join this proper policy, but wired the lying report to the New York Journal and thence spread it broadcast.”

As the rhetoric mounted, furious merchants converged on City Hall. They vowed the yellow flag of plague would never fly over San Francisco and demanded that the mayor repair the damage to the city’s image.

Mayor [James] Phelan had no choice. He dispatched telegrams to 40 American cities, insisting—falsely—that there had been just one isolated case, adding that Chinatown was purged and purified. “There is no future danger,” he promised.

Over the page-one story, the Call unfurled a banner headline: CITY PLAGUE SCARE A CONFESSED SHAM.

As City Hall capitulated to the merchants and newspapers, Kinyoun confirmed three new plague deaths. Word by word, the public health service expanded its codebook. In it, San Francisco’s beleaguered health board acquired a code name that captured the style of the whole town—“Burlesque.”

Excerpted from The Barbary Plague by Marilyn Chase. © 2003 by Marilyn Chase. Published by arrangement with The Random House Ballantine Publishing Group, an imprint of Random House.


Marilyn Chase, ’71, of San Francisco, writes about medical science and health care for the Wall Street Journal.

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