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.