Petaluma’s Past: The Black Plague in 1907
The Bubonic (or “Black”) Plague had first hit San Francisco in 1899 (especially hard in Chinatown), and was finally thought to be under control by 1904.
But then, the Great Earthquake of 1906 devastated the city and by the following year, with San Francisco in ruins and people necessarily huddled together, infected rats were multiplying by the millions.
The Plague became rampant once again.
In times such as ours now amid the COVID-19 pandemic, that disease-ridden year of 1907 is suddenly relevant history.
The date was May 27, 1907, when a sailor on San Francisco Bay was the first to be diagnosed with Bubonic Plague. Within just one month, the disease had spread so rapidly it looked as if the city “were to be as decimated, as was Medieval Europe,” according to newspaper reports of the time.
The Bubonic Plague, you see, had been around this world at least since the 6th century, killing in that first pandemic an estimated 5,000 people a day in Constantinople!
It hit again in the 14th century in China, and spread throughout Europe. That second pandemic, called “The Black Death,” killed an estimated one third of the entire European and Asian population.
The San Francisco breakout in 1907 was part of the third plague pandemic.
Chinese immigrants were the first to be blamed for the San Francisco plague. It was another cog in California’s discrimination against them, which had been happening since 1849. Our Petaluma Courier even dubbed it “The Yellow Plague,” but the illness was not discriminatory and over 190 people of all stripes, died in San Francisco just that summer.
And they had been very painful deaths.
Scientists eventually determined that the disease was spread by rodents’ fleas. Flea bites, and just inhaling the air around those fleas, would infect human lymph nodes, cause them to painfully swell, turn black and result in patient death. But it took two years for that theory to become accepted, and the third pandemic wasn’t deemed fully over here until 1910.
Interestingly, only 10% of US “doctors” had attended a medical school then, and some were even treating those enlarged nodes as blisters, lancing them, and thus causing even wider spread of the disease.
The resulting extermination of rats in San Francisco became an all-out war, with over 2,000,000 rats killed. The cost of that “Rat War” had been $50,000 per month and the Federal Government had kicked-in to help. Petaluma did its share of local disease prevention by stopping all incoming river craft from San Francisco at our D Street Bridge, and thoroughly searching them for rats. US life expectancy in ’07 was just 45.6 years for males and 50 for females. Meanwhile, the entire world was in turmoil. In China, a terrible drought and famine had also killed another 24 million souls.
Nationally, the financial “Panic of 1907” had hit as well.
The stock market plunged 50%, runs on banks started and tens of thousands of Americans went broke. Does this all sound too familiar?
Billionaire J.P. Morgan (i.e. U.S. Steel), pledged huge sums of his own money to shore up those banks, and that helped. The panic also led to the creation of the US Federal Reserve System, a safety net still in effect today. To add to the disastrous year, over 1,000 polio cases also occurred in the United States.