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Petaluma’s Past: The Black Plague in 1907

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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.

Interestingly, both heroin and morphine were available over the counter then, and a lot of folks were getting stoned as an escape from the times.

Meanwhile in Sonoma County, prostitution was another hot subject.

In Santa Rosa, a community of 8,700 then, recovering from the ’06 quake that had demolished that city and killed 100, the City Council was wrestling with an ordinance to define boundaries for its busy Red Light District — and to require licensing for it as well.

In our hamlet of Petaluma, the well-known Madame Fanny Brown was in a sham trial for “keeping a house of ill fame” at 1st and C Streets (now the future home of Adobe Creek Winery). The cops, who had reluctantly brought her in, were non-committal because, as they said, “she did have a registered liquor license.”

The case was quietly dismissed.

By then, Petaluma was better known as “The City of a Million Hens” and had turned out 120 million dozen eggs that year, as 90% of all Petalumans were involved in the poultry business. The price of eggs, was 14 cents a dozen, but perhaps Fanny and her “girls” got their eggs as tips?

The giant Transatlantic ships Lusitania and Mauritania both made their maiden voyages in 1907. The Oklahoma Territory became a State, Teddy Roosevelt was our president, immigration was booming on N.Y.’s Ellis Island, just 8% of homes in America had telephones, and 95% of births still occurred at home. Furthermore, only 6% of Americans were high school grads and the average wage was just 22 cents an hour.

New Sonoma County wineries were popping up all over the place that year, and the Hotel La Rose was built in Santa Rosa. Novelist Jack London and his wife Charmian set sail on their ketch “The Snark” for an around-the-world cruise.

They cut it short, though. Small boat, big ocean.

Our Petaluma Woman’s Club incorporated, and druggist Harry Herold opened his drug store at the corner of Kentucky and Washington, soon acquiring Petaluma’s first telephone. The second phone in town went to, wait for it, Fanny Brown‘s “House.”

The fire station got the third one.

Henry Ford sold 10,000 autos in 1907, something called paper towels were invented, the first New Year’s Eve ball was dropped on Times Square and the hit song was, “All She Got From The Iceman Was Ice.” Names in the news included: Virginia Woolf, Scott Joplin, Gustav Klimpt, Geo. M. Cohan, Pablo Picasso, Mark Twain and a very active Irish cook dubbed “Typhoid Mary,” whom, it was said, had spread yet another fatal disease all over New York State.

Simultaneously, the “Hour Glass Figure” was becoming wildly popular in 1907, even while it was widely believed those very tight corsets exacerbated all those diseases and bad health.

Lessons hard learned, I guess.

(Skip Sommer is an honorary lifetime member of the Petaluma History Museum and Heritage Homes. You can reach him at skipsommer@hotmail.com)

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