The veteran Wall Street Journal science reporter Marilyn Chase's fascinating account of an outbreak of bubonic plague in late Victorian San Francisco is a real-life thriller that resonates in today's headlines. The Barbary Plague transports us to the Gold Rush boomtown in 1900, at the end of the city's Gilded Age. With a deep understanding of the effects on public health of politics, race, and geography, Chase shows how one city triumphed over perhaps the most frightening and deadly of all scourges.
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March 09, 2004
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Excerpt from The Barbary Plague by Marilyn Chase
The Year of the Rat The new year of 1900 ushered in dangerous times. In San Francisco, it was, as always, a holiday with two faces. Downtown, white celebrants raised their usual end-of-year ruckus. In the streets of Chinatown, a shadow fell over the Lunar New Year, in an ominous prologue to the year ahead. Rain spattered the boardwalks on New Year’s Eve. When the skies cleared, the merrymakers came out. A band of maskers gathered on the corner of Market and Kearny streets, just below Union Square and Chinatown. Blowing horns and clanging cowbells, they hurled confetti and thrashed passersby with evergreen boughs left over from Christmas. Then the celebration turned ugly. Charging north up Kearny for five blocks, the carousers reached Chinatown and started grabbing Chinese musical instruments from the shops, banging the gongs, and blasting away on the winds. The din was so loud, it pierced the paneled recesses of the nearby men’s clubs. Bystanders cringed to hear the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” mingling with what sounded like the minor wails of a Chinese funeral band. But funereal sentiments were very much in order in the year 1900. For death was the uninvited guest at this New Year’s feast although, like the maskers, it came in disguise. In Chinatown, the approach of the Chinese New Year—the turning over of the lunar calendar in February—usually was heralded by the hiss and bang of firecrackers, warding off demons and trailing smoke that pricked the nostrils with excitement. Sidewalk stands traditionally sold stacks of juicy sugarcane and mounds of crackling melon seeds. To perfume the spring banquet tables, people would buy pots of narcissus bulbs, crowned with stiff green shoots and buds that burst into white trumpets with a center of gold that symbolized good fortune. People wearing silk tunics in peacock hues would call on family and friends with gifts and cakes. Children in embroidered skullcaps and jeweled headdresses would parade hand in hand. All this would happen in a festive Lunar New Year. But not in this year of 1900. Instead of fireworks, gunfire rang through the streets, and the alleys ran with blood. Gang warfare had struck again. As punishment, the San Francisco Police Department cracked down on the whole district, canceling all holiday celebrations. Sidewalks were barren of flowers, parties were banned, and the streets were still. So the Chinese New Year crept in, as gray and drab as its namesake on the great wheel of the astrological calendar, for 1900 was the Year of the Rat. According to Chinese astrology, people born in the Year of the Rat are clever and resourceful. Family loving to the point of being clannish, rats are also frugal, sharp-witted, and good companions in adversity. This year, however, rats were to become harbingers of evil. Merchants awoke to find grizzled pelts of dead vermin in their alleyways and courtyards. Dull-eyed, stiff, shaggy cadavers sent a shudder through the neighborhood. In the old country, they portended epidemics—in any house where rats had died, human deaths were sure to follow. In 1792, the poet Shih Tao-Nan had written: The coming of the devil of plague Suddenly makes the lamp dim, Then it is blown out, Leaving man, ghost and corpse in the dark room. In the old country, households would flee at the sight of a dead rodent. But here, there was nowhere else to go. Discrimination hindered Chinese from living elsewhere in town. Fearing an avalanche of bad luck in the New Year, they filed complaints with the city. As usual, nothing was done. Many people considered rats as the inevitable companions of human settlements, even as natural garbage collectors performing a salutary service. And this was, after all, Chinatown. March blew in, raw and unsettled. In the late winter mist, a fever stole up from the waterfr