Science  /  Book Excerpt

How the Bubonic Plague Almost Came to America

A Pompous Doctor, a Racist Bureaucracy, and More. From the book "Black Death at the Golden Gate". 6th Grade Social Studies

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.