How the Bubonic Plague Almost Came to America
A Pompous Doctor, a Racist Bureaucracy, and More!
The ship appeared out of the fog at dawn, like a ghost made real.
As it neared Angel Island, sailors hoisted a yellow flag, an international symbol that the ship carried diseased passengers on board. Only when it came closer could Marine Hospital Service personnel make out its name: the Nippon Maru. The ship, which originated in Hong Kong, was already notorious on both sides of the Pacific. It had languished in quarantine at both Yokohama and Honolulu after several of its passengers died of suspected plague on the open seas, but was ultimately cleared to sail on toward the United States. Now weeks behind schedule, it dropped anchor off the main cove of the island, once again tainted by an unexplained death on board.
A doctor from the Marine Hospital Service met the ship and learned that a Japanese woman had died, apparently of plague, two days before the steamer reached San Francisco and had been buried at sea. He then examined the lifeless body of another passenger, a Chinese man who had died the previous day from what appeared to be the same illness. He took tissue samples from the corpse and ordered it cremated, while the remaining 55 passengers were placed under quarantine on Angel Island. A team of Marine Hospital Service men boarded the ship and began washing down its surfaces with boiling hot water, intent on killing any traces of the unidentified disease, while another removed all the luggage and cargo and fumigated it with a mixture of steam and carbolic acid, destroying all clothing in the process.
Kinyoun, who had been the first American to study the newly discovered plague bacillus two years before, raced the tissue samples taken from the dead man to his laboratory, thrilled to once again put his research skills to work after weeks of self-doubt. There, he examined the cells under his microscope and began the slow work of growing them in a culture. Only then would he be able to determine how great a risk the men and women now in quarantine posed to the city. If plague had been on board and was spreading, then any one of the 55 passengers now in his custody would be capable of sparking an epidemic that could kill millions.
The following morning, an Italian crab fisherman by the name of Joseph Casarino discovered the bodies of two men floating face down in the water about an eighth of a mile east of Fort Point, a Civil War-era fortification at the mouth of the bay which in time would fall under the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. Casarino threw a rope over the bodies and towed them toward a small beach behind the nearby Fulton Iron Works. As he neared land, he noticed that the dead men wore uninflated life preservers bearing the name Nippon Maru, which by then was well-known throughout the city as a suspected plague ship. Fearing for his life, he left the bodies floating just offshore and alerted the city coroner, who paid him 20 dollars for his service.
At the city morgue, the coroner on duty began the grim work of inspecting the bloated corpses to determine the cause of death. Both men were wearing only their underwear when their bodies were found, with the shorter of the pair having apparently tied a bundle of his clothing around his neck, strongly suggesting they had intentionally jumped into the cold, shark-infested waters of the bay and were attempting to swim to shore when they died. An autopsy revealed that their lungs and stomachs were full of saltwater, indicating that the immediate cause of death was drowning. Yet the coroner suspected more. “In my mind there is no doubt that the men were infected with the plague,” he told one of the city’s papers. “I would not be surprised to learn that the men were driven from the steamer by some of their fellow passengers in steerage who were afraid of being tied up at the quarantine station.” Dr. William Barbat, a member of the San Francisco Board of Health, took a sample of tissue from each of the bodies and without first conferring with Kinyoun announced the next day that after studying the specimens in his laboratory he was sure of the presence of bubonic plague, which had never before appeared in the United States.
Kinyoun objected, and loudly. Given the Marine Hospital Service’s role in regulating all incoming sea and land traffic that originated outside of California, he alone had the authority to determine the risk that the passengers now sleeping on iron cots in the quarantine ward posed to the city. But more than that, he considered Barbat a scientist of far lower rank and skill whose opinion he was free to ignore. Not only had no definitive laboratory diagnosis of plague ever been made in such a short period of time, but the bodies of the drowned men were in such a deteriorated state after bobbing in the bay for at least 12 hours that all surviving tissue was unusable. Kinyoun’s own tests conducted on tissue samples taken from the undisturbed body of the Chinese man who died aboard the Nippon Maru soon came back negative for the disease, leaving him to wonder how two diseased patients would have the strength to try to swim for freedom while a passenger free of plague had resigned to stay and die aboard the ship.
In his first important decision in San Francisco, Kinyoun fell back on his worst instincts. Unmoved by the opinions of local doctors that clashed with his own research, he announced that the detained passengers would be allowed to enter San Francisco once the 15-day quarantine period was over as long as they showed no symptoms of disease. When the Board of Health publicly questioned his findings, he was quick to resort to sarcasm, unconcerned that there might come a day when he may need its help. “I think there must be two kinds of bubonic plague, the real thing and the state quarantine plague,” he quipped to a newspaper reporter. After Barbat took a ferry to Angel Island to complain in person, Kinyoun mocked his technical abilities and threatened to throw him into quarantine for handling specimens that he was unqualified to touch.Yet once again, he had put being right above anything else, destroying the possibility of making new allies only three weeks after he had arrived in a city he did not understand.
After 15 days had passed without any signs of plague, the detained passengers formed lines and were led onto ferries to take them to San Francisco. Kinyoun stood watch on the dock, receiving handshakes and words of thanks from men and women as they passed on toward freedom. The 55 passengers who first walked into quarantine were joined by one addition, an infant named Margaret Francis Hill whose mother went into labor the day after she arrived on Angel Island and gave birth under Kinyoun’s care in a makeshift delivery room. None of the passengers later came down with the disease, proving that Kinyoun’s diagnosis was correct. Yet once again, he had put being right above anything else, destroying the possibility of making new allies only three weeks after he had arrived in a city he did not understand.
Six months later, an urgent bulletin arrived from Hawaii. Marine Hospital Service doctors stationed on the islands were the first to tell the outside world that bubonic plague had emerged and was spreading in Honolulu. Kinyoun knew then that his mission had changed. With San Francisco the most heavily trafficked port on the Pacific Coast and the main link between the United States and Hawaii, it was inevitable that the disease would be lurking in one of the hundreds of ships that were bound this way.
There was no room for error. If he failed to spot a single infected passenger, Kinyoun would hold himself responsible for the spread of death on an unimaginable scale. Not only was the city he glimpsed across the bay in danger, but a person carrying the disease could easily hop on one of the countless trains connecting San Francisco with the rest of a nation stretching across the continent. A train heading east would stop in every major city along its route, making it possible for one infected patient to scatter plague from Salt Lake City to Denver to Chicago and New York within the span of days, a speed never before seen in history and which would overwhelm any attempt at containment.
Yet with this news came the chance to reclaim what Kinyoun saw as his rightful position in Washington. Quickly spotting and preventing the disease from establishing itself in the country would cement in the public’s mind the notion that laboratory science could save lives, accelerating the legitimacy of his profession and increasing his own prestige. A posting that Wyman had intended as punishment had become the primary line of defense against a disease that had never before reached North America. If he succeeded, Kinyoun would finally have redemption.
As the new century began, Kinyoun spent his days staring at the ships coming in through the Golden Gate from his perch on Angel Island, waiting. One of them would eventually bring a patient infected with plague, and he vowed to himself that he would be ready. He pored over every dispatch from Honolulu, where much of its Chinatown remained under quarantine, effectively turning one of its most populated districts into a jail. Kinyoun hoped the flurry of telegrams would offer some clues that would help him protect San Francisco. Instead, it soon became clear that the largest city in Hawaii was falling into chaos.
On January 20, firefighters in Honolulu set a small shack next to Kaumakapili Church ablaze, taking care to position their horse-drawn fire engine between the fire and the mammoth building whose twin Gothic spires towered over the city. An hour later, the winds unexpectedly shifted, sending burning embers flying over the most famous house of worship on the islands. Firemen watched in disbelief as smoke began pouring out of the top of the church, too high for their hoses to reach. Within minutes, the entire building was in flames, and became the center of a firestorm that quickly engulfed the neighborhood. The horses harnessed to the fire engine bolted in fear, leaving firemen with no way to douse the swirling flames.
Men scrambled through the inferno, dodging burning debris as the fire tore through the densely packed neighborhood. Panicked residents began dynamiting buildings over the objections of their owners, desperately hoping to create a firebreak. Amid the chaos, dozens of white Hawaiians rushed to the edge of Chinatown with axes and revolvers in hand, threatening to kill any Asian resident who tried to flee from the burning quarantine zone. Firecrackers exploding in abandoned buildings sparked rumors throughout the district that soldiers were gunning down men and women in their homes. Desperate families were trapped as the flames bore down on them, left with the choice between burning to death or getting shot or bludgeoned by men who feared plague.
Finally, at mid-afternoon, the military relented and allowed residents of Chinatown to escape the firestorm through a single exit. More than a thousand armed white Hawaiians lined King Street to stand guard as shocked refugees made their way downtown to the grounds of Kawaiaha’o Church, the former national church of the Hawaiian kingdom. There, they were issued tents and blankets and waited in silence as their former homes were reduced to ash. Health officials soon moved the residents of Chinatown to a former barrack in the hills far away from the city center. Over the following weeks, refugees from the district were required to take daily showers in front of doctors who were convinced that their filthy bodies would spread plague. The fire continued to burn on in Chinatown for another 17 days before it was fully extinguished, leaving nothing but rubble behind.
In the coming weeks, no new cases of plague were discovered in Honolulu, leaving health officials content that the policy of fire had worked. For Kinyoun, however, his options seemed to narrow: either prevent the disease from establishing itself in San Francisco, or risk burning down the city in order to prevent the disease from infecting the nation.
Reprinted from Black Death at the Golden Gate by David K. Randall. Copyright © 2019 by David K. Randall. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.