Wong Chut King lived in squalid conditions in the cellar of San Francisco’s Globe Hotel. It was a rat-infested space in the city’s Chinatown that he shared with as many as three roommates all taking turns sleeping on the same bed. When a painful lump appeared on Wong’s groin, the 41-year-old laborer, fearing he’d contracted a venereal disease, consulted a local Chinese doctor. The doctor prescribed an herbal remedy, yet Wong’s temperature continued to soar. He also became nauseous, diarrheic and delusional. Before Wong could be overtaken by the disease, the men sharing his cramped living quarters carried him to a nearby coffin shop. There he died, on the afternoon of March 6, 1900, as the city’s first known victim of the bubonic plague.
In “Black Death at the Golden Gate,” David K. Randall gives a vivid, fast-paced and at times revolting history of the plague in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. The author describes in chilling detail how the disease can overwhelm the human body. He is also unsparing in describing the unsanitary conditions in the city’s Chinatown, where large colonies of flea-laden rats scavenged for food.
Subtitled “The Race to Save America From the Bubonic Plague,” the book unfolds like a medical thriller. It starts in Honolulu, where, months before Wong’s demise, officials there, in a disastrous effort to contain their own outbreak, resort to setting fire to the city’s Chinese quarter. The author then takes us to San Francisco and the discovery by local crab fisherman of two bodies floating face-down in the bay. The bodies are found wearing uninflated life-preservers from the Nippon Maru, a ship suspected of carrying passengers from Asia infected with the plague. City health officials soon confirm that the corpses are plague-ridden.
BLACK DEATH AT THE GOLDEN GATE
By David K. Randall
Norton, 273 pages, $26.95
In San Francisco, we meet the brilliant but socially inept scientist Joseph Kinyoun, a member of the Marine Hospital Service (a precursor to the modern U.S. Health Service). Exiled by his boss from Washington, D.C., to a windy medical station on an island in San Francisco Bay, Kinyoun oversees “the most extensive quarantine station in the country.” He grapples at first with the mounting number of deaths in Chinatown from a mysterious cause, and then, after the cause is identified, the poorly understood spread of the disease. He repeatedly clashes with local officials, who are reluctant to admit that the plague has arrived in their midst and eager to lift a temporary quarantine imposed after Wong’s death—even at the risk of more deaths. “The infection of innocent persons, in my mind,” he wrote, “is nothing more or less than deliberate or premeditated manslaughter.” By early 1901 the plague claims 26 victims in 10 months, almost all of them in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Not until halfway through the book does Rupert Blue, Kinyoun’s successor and the book’s true protagonist, make his appearance. In the late spring of 1901, little more than a year after Wong Chut King’s death, the 32-year-old Marine Hospital Service physician—a tactful, amiable, paripatetic Southerner—arrives in San Francisco. He sets up a laboratory in Chinatown and hires a Chinese translator and aide named Wong Chung. At a time when the Chinese are widely discriminated against, Blue treats Wong as a full member of his staff and proves effective at working with both the Chinese community and local health authorities in ways that Kinyoun had not.
Blue quickly sees that the plague is still in Chinatown. His efforts to exterminate the rats and improve the area’s sanitation conditions help reduce the number of plague deaths. But another flare-up erupts after the 1906 earthquake and fires. Blue re-establishes what comes to be known as the Rattery and redoubles his efforts. “Rats found alive were tossed into boiling water, a tactic meant to quickly kill fleas clinging to their bodies,” Mr. Randall writes. “Each carcass was nailed to a shingle. As the bodies of thousands of rats piled up inside the house, federal doctors wearing rubber gloves stood before long dissection tables and sliced open the chest of each corpse, as if in a ghoulish disassembly line.” Altogether Blue and his team kill more than two million rats, “a number five times the size of the city’s human population.”
Mr. Randall, a senior reporter at Reuters, has built his story on the work of earlier writers, notably Guenter B. Risse, a medical historian at the University of California, San Francisco. Mr. Randall’s work also builds on “The Barbary Plague” (2003) by former Wall Street Journal reporter Marilyn Chase, as well as “Plague and Fire” (2005), James Mohr’s account of the 1900 plague and burning of Honolulu’s Chinatown. Mr. Randall acknowledges these sources and adroitly synthesizes them, along with Blue’s letters and contemporaneous accounts from newspapers. But frustratingly the author eschews detailed endnotes for a lightly sourced list of texts that informed each chapter. It stretches credulity, for instance, that Mr. Randall could know what Wong Chut King might have dreamed in the days before he died. Yet the author asserts that: “Dreams, when they did come, allowed him to gaze upon the face of his wife and family as they praised him for his sacrifices, a thought that broke the misery of his life.”
In the end, the plague would claim at least 75 lives (with probably far more having gone unreported) from several outbreaks before San Francisco declared itself plague-free in 1909. With the latest upsurge in measles cases making the headlines, Mr. Randall’s book is a timely reminder that public health challenges responsible for killing tens of millions of people world-wide are not confined to the past.
Ms. Siler is a former staff writer for the Journal. Her book “The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown” will be published this month.