How the Federal Government Saved New Orleans from Disaster a Century Ago

Examining rats for bubonic plague in New OrleansExamining rats for bubonic plague in New Orleans. (Photo: US National Library of Medicine)

Charles Lundene, a Swedish sailor, arrived in New Orleans from who knows where around the beginning of May 1914. By late June, he was living at a homeless shelter, where he developed a severe fever. Four days later, Lundene was transferred to Charity Hospital, but they could do nothing for him. Chills came, and on June 27 his temperature hit 105 degrees. The lymph glands in his groin were swollen. The next day, Lundene died in a strange city far from home, age forty-nine. Laboratory tests confirmed everyone’s fears: Lundene was the first person on the eastern side of the United States to catch bubonic plague.

The timing could hardly have been worse. Bubonic plague had emerged from China’s Yunnan Province in the 1850s. It reached Hong Kong in 1894 and spread rapidly via steamships, arriving in Hawaii in 1899 and San Francisco in 1900. In those places, local politicians resisted admitting that their ports were infected with plague since other ports would refuse to trade with them for fear of infection. No, they said, it was just the Chinese immigrants in those cities who were to blame for disease, and the response was to quarantine Chinatown or, in the case of Honolulu, to “accidentally” burn it down. They could get away with these excuses because people believed that bubonic plague came from miasmas or garbage. In 1900, scientists had only just discovered that bubonic plague is caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria carried by a flea that lives on rats.

In New Orleans in 1914, people understood that the plague was flea-borne, and the economic stakes were higher than in the past. The Panama Canal linking the Atlantic and the Pacific was opening in a couple months, and New Orleans was waiting for trans-Pacific shipping and money to start rolling in and revive the sluggish economy. A plague outbreak was the last thing city leaders needed.

Rather than fight against the truth by ignoring the outbreak, the mayor, Martin Behrman, acknowledged the presence of the plague but assured the world there was nothing to worry about. The federal Public Health Service was on the job, he explained, and the city of New Orleans would cooperate fully with the federal government on this important public health campaign. The Surgeon General was Rupert Blue, the PHS doctor who had stopped the last yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans in 1905, so he had earned the trust of the people. And Behrman was the leader of the powerful Democratic political machine known as the Choctaw Club. With a network of ward leaders, precinct captains, and block captains, the Choctaw Club could keep up with what was going on across the city and also give orders to get things done.

As the weeks went by and more people fell ill – a total of thirty would contract bubonic plague, and ten would die before the outbreak ended in late September 1914 – there was an urgent need to find and kill all the rats carrying the disease. The federal government poured money into the city to hire squads of rat-catchers. They caught hundreds of rats each day and tagged them each with the location and date. At a laboratory set up next to City Hall, scientists dipped each dead rat in kerosene to kill the fleas, then painstakingly combed all the fleas out of the rat’s fur. They dissected each rat, looking for tell-tale lesions that indicated the likely presence of plague. If they found something suspicious, they examined the stomach contents of that rat’s fleas under the microscope to find the Yersinia pestis bacteria. In the eighteen months that the PHS worked in New Orleans, they carried out this process on around 375,000 rats, one for almost every man, woman, and child in the city.

The really hard work, though, was not killing rats but depriving them of food and shelter. The previously lackadaisical methods of disposing of the city’s garbage gave way to metal garbage cans with lids, picked up and disposed of regularly. An even more momentous change was in building construction. A new ordinance required all New Orleans structures to be rat-proofed. Wooden-floored houses had to be raised up off the ground and the space underneath kept clear, or else they had to have wire mesh and concrete over the entire floor and extending two feet up the side so that rats could not gnaw their way in. The rule applied not just to new construction but to all existing structures. In a year and a half, 75,000 buildings in New Orleans were rat-proofed and around 7000 structures were knocked down, including the historic St. Louis Hotel on Canal Street.

The amazing thing, really, was that despite some objections (such as a handbill that railed at citizens, “Your property and homes are about to be wrecked! . . . WILL YOU STAND IDLY BY AND PERMIT THIS OUTRAGEOUS AND TYRANNICAL IMPOSITION TO BE OVER YOU?”), the citizens of New Orleans worked together to support this public health initiative. Such cooperation had made sense in 1905 when fighting the mosquitos that had carried yellow fever – mosquitos bit everyone in New Orleans, rich and poor, black and white. But when it came to rats, the rich people in Garden District mansions were unlikely to be in much danger. It was the poor in tenements, those doing hard work in grubby conditions, wrangling horses and so on, who were likely to be bitten by plague-infected fleas. It says something, perhaps, about the nature of civic life and the power of the expanding federal government (and an openly racist one-party political machine) that when a potentially devastating epidemic threatened New Orleans, the federal response was swift and effective, whatever the cost.

About the Author

Bruce E. Baker

Bruce E. Baker is a lecturer in American history at Newcastle University. His forthcoming book, co-authored with Barbara Hahn, is The Cotton Kings: Capitalism and Corruption in Turn-of-the-Century New York and New Orleans (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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  1. Urban rat eradication is always good in and of itself. But in this instance the rat eradication was a great excuse for slum clearance and the “cleansing” of some neighborhoods of the abject poor and the working poor. It would be great to see a map of where these 7000 buildings once stood. It would be even better to see who owned each property prior to the razing of a structure and who owned each one after. Last of all, perhaps some enterprising forensic accountant with a penchant for urban history and turn-of-the-century (20th of course) urban politics can sift through any extant records to see how well this all worked out for Martin Behrman, his major backers and his cronies.

    I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that while getting rid of the rats was an obvious social good, the plague itself probably petered out because it was virtually limited to the most vulnerable (least well, most hungry) whose daily lives were already isolated from much of the city’s population.

    Do you know whether much of this attention to “public health” found its way to actual members of the public themselves? What I mean is, Did public health officers swarm the most vulnerable neighborhoods in search of the sickly and the symptomatic, or did these agents of the state just wait until the ill found their way to the hospital or the morgue?

  2. Thanks for the great comments and questions, Brian. I am hoping to figure out a lot of the answers to those questions as I am researching this further, but I can respond to some of them based on the sources I have seen so far (a lot of New Orleans newspapers and quite a lot of the Public Health Service records, mostly).

    The question of what structures were demolished is easiest. While I have not found really comprehensive lists, my impression is that most of these were outbuildings, such as chicken coops and sheds and so on, that sat behind the main building on a lot in the city. In some cases, especially in the really densely built-up sections such as the French Quarter, there would be a main house and then one or two shacks out behind which were rented out, and I think some of these shacks were demolished. The greater effect on the poor and the slightly less poor was that homeowners had to pay for the rat-proofing of their properties. This did cause some outcry (and at least one suicide!), and, not surprisingly for New Orleans, there seem to be some folks who got away without rat-proofing their houses. I do want to use a lot of mapping to try to figure out what was going on.

    Martin Behrman was a very successful political boss, one of the very few major political bosses of the period who actually held office as mayor and thus was more accountable to voters (white voters, of course, since his political machine was based on black disfranchisement). He (and those who followed him) was very much in favor of stopping the plague to keep business going and keep the support of the business community, but he also needed to do it to keep his voters happy–and alive. The Choctaw Club was, as far as I can see, quite responsive to its white voters. I haven’t figured out yet whether the response was skewed away from African American areas, to the extent there were such in New Orleans at this time, which I don’t think there were. The rat-proofing also became part of the political struggle between Behrman in New Orleans and the state government in Baton Rouge, heavily influenced by John M. Parker, a major figure in the Progressive Party and the biggest foe of Behrman and his urban machine. Parker effectively stopped the state government from funding the rat-proofing, which put the bill on the federal government instead.

    The PHS response was very proactive, building on the experience gained in San Francisco and especially a couple years earlier in Havana and San Juan. As soon as the first plague case came in, the PHS brought men in, set up a headquarters, mapped out a “plague district” (bounded by Louisiana, Claiborne, Canal, and the river), and started sending out squads of trappers. When they found a plague focus (a site where a person or a rat was found to be infected), they marked out an area about four or five blocks around it and then systematically worked their way inward, to kill rats and chase those remaining into the center. As the cases continued, they investigated new areas, but they also worked all over the city, in rich and poor areas. There is a lot of detail on all this in the PHS records, and I will probably try to put together some maps of all this. I think you’re right that it would be really interesting to try to overlay such a map with other information such as wealth, race, etc.

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