When the Plague hit San Francisco

How Asian immigrants were faced with more than one disease in early 20th century America

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By the dawn of the 20th century, the United States of America was a vibrant nation with a rapidly increasing population. People from all over the world were moving for a new life in the USA, with many from Asia taking up residence in Pacific coast cities such as San Francisco. It was here where, in 1900, a plague pandemic ripped through the local Chinese-American population.

The Bubonic Plague had spread throughout Asia in the mid 1800s and by the end of the century an estimated 15 million people had died. The first cases in America were diagnosed in Honolulu, a city on the then new US territory of Hawaii. In an effort to stop the spread of the disease, health officials burned infected homes to the ground. Changing winds caused the fire to spread out of control, the result being that nearly the whole of Chinatown was destroyed and 6000 people were homeless.

An increased concern that the disease would be brought to California gripped the state health officials. In January 1900 Joseph Kinyoun, the chief quarantine officer for the Marine Hospital Service (MHS) called for all ships from China, Japan, Australia and Hawaii to fly a yellow flag if there was any chance they carried the plague. This prompted a counter response from officials and the press in San Francisco and on February 4, 1900, the Sunday magazine supplement of the San Francisco Examiner carried an article titled “Why San Francisco Is Plague-Proof’.

Some American experts held the mistaken belief that a rice-based diet left Asians with a lower resistance to plague, and that a diet of meat kept Europeans free from this disease. However, there would be more, far sinister accusations towards the Asian population to come.

Although difficult to pinpoint on which exact ship the plague arrived in the city on, its transmission to the Chinatown in San Francisco was most likely from a nearby dock. Rats carrying the disease made their way to Chinatown and when the number of dead rats increased, so did concern from health officials.

A 41 year old Chinese-American man was the first official plague case. He lived in the basement of an old theatre which, by the 1870s, had become squalid housing occupied by Chinese immigrants. A rise in cases prompted calls for Chinatown to be quarantined, which it was on March 7. This prevented between 25,000 and 35,000 people from leaving their homes. Yet the quarantine was in place for less than three days.

When lab tests began to show that the plague was indeed spreading in Chinatown, officials entered the area with a disinfection plan. Homes were searched and police officers were able to use force, leading to anger and distress from the Chinese-American residents.

Kinyoun’s tests had confirmed the existence of plague in San Francisco, but throughout 1900 he was subject to a defamation campaign; which was led by those most likely to suffer financially should word of the disease get out. One of the most prominent plague deniers was California State Senator Henry Gage.

By this point in time, the Federal Government had become involved, with Surgeon General Walter Wyman calling on Kinyoun to bring in another quarantine and a ban on East Asian people from entering the state. Further to this, Kinyoun was instructed to give all Asian residents of Chinatown an experimental vaccine which was known to have severe side effects.

The residents of Chinatown protested against the forced inoculations, feeling that it was blatant discrimination and that they were not being treated like legitimate citizens. The racism towards those of Asian heritage was not uncommon during this period, and the finger was pointed at these people for spreading the disease. Further lockdowns fuelled this ill feeling, especially when white Anglo-Americans could come and go through Chinatown but Chinese-Americans were restricted.

In May 1900, with the help of Chinese Six Companies, residents of the quarantine area to court. They wanted to be given the constitutional right to be able to travel outside of San Francisco. After two months, on July 3, Judge William W. Morrow ruled that the defendants, who included Kinyoun and all the members of the San Francisco Health Board, were violating the plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment. The ruling required that the same restrictions, if any, be applied to everyone no matter their ethnic group. The defendants did not have enough evidence to prove that the Chinese were transmitting the plague. Morrow agreed with the argument that if they were, the city would not have permitted them to roam the streets of San Francisco

It was a victory for the Asian residents which helped them to gain some rights in a city infamous for discrimination, but the plague would continue to come and go for several more years. It was only in 1903, after the work of scientist Rupert Blue when the plague was eventually tackled efficiently.

Blue had his work cut out fighting against disagreements between state and city health officials, but eventually he was able to secure the support of both. Setting up an office and laboratory in Chinatown, he worked with the local population to figure out how the disease was spreading.

He carried out a widespread disinfection of the city, knocking down decrepit buildings and clearing out waste from the streets. When Blue suspected that the disease was being spread by rats, he sent in an army of rat catchers. He then carried out autopsies on hundreds of rats to further his research. To prevent complacency, he threatened a city wide lockdown on the people of San Francisco.

As a result of his efforts, in November 1908, San Francisco was declared plague free. For nearly a decade, on and off, the Bubonic Plague spread throughout the squalid and cramped streets of the city’s Chinatown. The residents of Asian heritage were faced with two diseases; the plague and racial discrimination.

The path to equality was a long and uncertain one for immigrants in the US during this time, but with the added impact of the plague, the Asian residents of San Francisco had a harder struggle than others throughout history.

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