San Francisco's 1904 Black Plague Scare (And How It Was Covered Up)

By | May 12, 2020

test article image
South tower of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. (Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia Commons)

The bubonic plague is one of the most catastrophic diseases to ever befall mankind, claiming hundreds of millions of lives throughout the centuries. During the mid-1300s, the bacterium known formally as yersinia pestis was responsible for wiping out over half of Europe's population, an episode commonly referred to as the Black Death. It's an ugly and painful way to go. Soon after infection comes wild fevers, nausea, and "buboes," or massively swollen and extremely tender lymph nodes that reside in the armpits, neck, and groin. After that, the body begins to rapidly rot, and the skin and nails turn black, all while the person is still alive, though not for long. The mortality rate of the bubonic plague during the Black Death ranged anywhere from 60–100%, depending on where the infection took hold.

test article image
Acral gangrene caused by the bubonic plague. (Getty Images)

Over the centuries, the bacterial beast has reared its ugly head again and again, but thanks to the Venetian invention of the quarantine, it was relatively well-contained following that Black Death business. At least, it was until 1900, when the Plague finally made its way to America's teeming shores by way of the S.S. Australia steamship from Hawaii (which was not yet a state) to San Francisco. Hawaii had suffered a grotesque outbreak only a few years before and China a few years before that, so it's likely that San Francisco's misfortunes stemmed from the great 1855 Third Plague Pandemic originating in Hong Kong.

The medical community of San Francisco were no slouches, however. After learning of Hawaii's outbreak, they began prepping for the likely spread to the port city by quarantining incoming ships and implementing a mass sanitation program to regularly clear out trash in the city and remove the rodent population. Unfortunately, we know today that it's really the fleas that carry the disease and not the rats themselves, so the Plague sneaked into the city despite their best efforts, hooking its merciless claws into Chinatown. The Board of Health reacted immediately by instituting a police-enforced quarantine of the area, but this action was unpopular with both the citizens of Chinatown and the local government, who were concerned that news of the outbreak would hurt tourism and shutting down businesses would deal massive damage to the economy. As Mark Twain (probably never) said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes."