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Petaluma’s first viral pandemic

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On the evening of March 20, 1900, Ellen Button was on her way to teach at the Chinese Mission School when she spotted one of her students, Wong Qued, emerging from the Mutual Relief Building on the corner of Western Avenue and Kentucky Street. No sooner had Qued stepped onto the sidewalk than two men walked up, grabbed him, and to Button’s horror, threw him into the street.

Qued was not the only student of Button’s attacked. Dong Tong, a strawberry grower, was chased for blocks and then stoned.

The attacks were sparked by news that the federal government had placed San Francisco’s Chinatown under quarantine after a newly arrived pandemic killed a Chinese laborer and infected dozens of others. Joseph Kinyoun, a federal bacteriologist, identified it as the same plague that was isolated in Hong Kong six years earlier. Transmitted by rat fleas, it made its way into San Francisco via a rat-infested ship from Australia.

Fearful that the news would negatively impact California’s economy, California’s governor, Henry Gage, vilified Kinyoun for fabricating the virus. Supportive newspapers and business leaders echoed the governor’s denial, as did state medical officials, many of whom considered bacteriology a lot of mumbo jumbo.

After a federal medical commission confirmed Kinyoun’s findings, Governor Gage, who was in the pocket of the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad, continued to deny the pandemic’s existence, silencing state medical authorities with a gag order, accusing federal authorities of injecting the virus into cadavers, and cynically joining Chinatown residents in suing the federal government to lift the quarantine on the basis of having violated their civil rights — a case they won.

As rumors of the pandemic circulated, fearmongering of the Chinese spread to Petaluma, which had its own Chinatown clustered along Petaluma Boulevard South between C and D streets. The Petaluma Courier sought to reignite racial prejudices by dubbing the virus the “yellow plague.”

On June 18, Ellen Button hosted a 25th anniversary celebration of the Chinese Mission School at the Congregational Church on Fourth and B streets. Two blocks away, a group of drunken men set out to clean up Chinatown, engaging the Chinese there in a “battle royal.” Shortly afterward, the windows of the Chinese laundry on Washington Street were smashed in.

Widespread hostility toward the Chinese had been common in Sonoma County for decades, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted further Chinese immigration. Four years later, dissatisfied that the act was serving as more of a sieve than a barrier, Petalumans formed an Anti-Chinese League, one of many in the county, seeking to drive the Chinese out of town by boycotting their businesses and labor.

The effort intensified after a former Petaluma couple, Captain Jesse Wickersham and his wife Sarah, were found murdered on their ranch outside of Cloverdale, allegedly by their Chinese cook. Stirred up by newspaper editorials depicting the Chinese as being possessed of “pestilential vapors, threatening disease, and death,” 2,000 people rallied in Petaluma for the boycott.

A sudden exodus of Chinese from Sonoma County followed, creating a labor shortage, especially on the farms and vineyards, which whites would not fill. By summer, the boycott had fizzled, and the Chinese began returning to the county in larger numbers than before.

Still, an underlying racist divide remained. The Chinese Mission School, one of 16 in the state co-founded by Petaluma pastor William C. Pond, sat a block away from Chinatown’s joss-house, or Taoist-Buddhist temple. Offering evening instruction in English and Christianity, the school’s primary purpose, as Button made clear, was not to help acclimate the Chinese but rather to send them, as Christian evangelists, back to the “heathens” in their native land.

Due to Governor Gage’s obstruction of federal efforts to mitigate the virus, the pandemic worsened in 1901 and 1902, infecting a growing number of white victims, and leading other states to pass quarantines and economic boycotts of California goods. It was only after the election in 1902 of a new governor — a German-trained physician — that an intensified control program was implemented, bringing the pandemic to an end.

Although the 1900-04 pandemic pales in comparison to the impact of today’s COVID-19 outbreak, the parallels are clear. The global spread of a disease tends to increase prejudice as societies circle their wagons in fear. That’s especially true when leaders conceal or suppress the facts, delay mitigation in order to protect economic interests or assign discriminatory names to the virus for political gain.

The fact is, pandemics don’t discriminate; only scared, ill-informed people do.

(Historian John Sheehy is author of “On a River Winding Home: Stories and Visions of the Petaluma River Watershed.”)

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