Unfortunately, the coronavirus isn’t as novel as its name implies. Pandemics and plagues run deep in the history of the American West, their implications and consequences recorded in journals, letters, and other artifacts. Documents such as this collage may help us make sense of the COVID-19 crisis. These acute moments—from the late 19th century forward—when infectious diseases arrived, bringing fear and death with them, provide context and understanding to our situation today.
In every case, disease is one thing: what it is, how it is transmitted, how it sickens, and how it kills. The response to disease is another thing, always more complicated. People react in myriad ways. They are afraid, they take precautions, they care for themselves and their loved ones. But sometimes they strike at outsiders, at those they blame for the disease and its spread, mistakenly believing contagion is tied to one’s race or ethnicity. Pandemics show us the best and worst of the human condition.
In the 1880s, California governor George Stoneman insisted that the state prepare for an outbreak. But the legislature balked, failing to appropriate a single dollar in anticipation of trouble. State and local health boards tried to educate citizens.
Pamphlets warned of the disease and encouraged Californians to see themselves as part of a larger effort to curb its spread. Disinfection remedies ranged widely: fire, boiling water, chlorinated lime and chlorinated soda, sulfur, and bichloride of mercury.
Although cholera was explained in a San Francisco booklet as “an organic infecting matter,” a Los Angeles communication made different claims. It told Angelenos that “with the great immigration that is pouring into this country we are liable to have contagious diseases planted in our midst.”
In an era of Chinese exclusion and hostility toward European immigrants, fears that outsiders spread disease emboldened nativist voices in California and beyond.
1900 SAN FRANCISCO PLAGUE
In 1899, bubonic plague sailed east from Hong Kong to California aboard ships. The following year, San Francisco lumberyard owner Wong Chut King died after enduring days of high fever. The news was met with ignorance. Anti-Chinese sentiment soared, and the city’s Chinatown was put on lockdown.
Governor Henry Gage, along with state and local business leaders, worried more about the economic impact of an epidemic than about its human costs, which amounted to over 100 dead. They charged public health experts with being hysterical about a foreign disease. Belief even circulated that Caucasians were immune to the malady.
A second plague outbreak hit San Francisco in 1907. Only this time, the majority of the approximately 78 fatalities were white people. By 1909, the plague was declared eradicated from the city, and the Citizen’s Health Committee concluded that the disease’s harm had less to do with “race or condition” than it did with ”early discovery and prompt treatment.”
The Spanish flu, or H1N1 virus, ranks as one of the deadliest pandemics in world history. Nearly 30 percent of the global population became infected, and more than half a million Americans died. Some of the largest early outbreaks took place in the East, but as one Montana student noted in his diary in October 1918, “They say it is coming west.” A week later, he reported cases among fellow students. A week after that, the flu came for him.
Los Angeles had reported its first cases a month earlier. City officials recommended that people stay home, away from crowds. When recommendations became rules, questions of safety versus freedom became contested. Throughout the fall and the winter, L.A. debated mandatory masks and lockdown orders. The First World War ended in November 1918, but the West’s battle with the deadly flu raged on.
Jennie O’Neal (above left) grew up on a farm outside Brownwood, Texas. In October 1918, she was 14 years old and wanted to be social and have fun. When she proposed going to a dance in town, her mother (above right), who was taking the influenza pandemic seriously, was horrified. Not understanding the severity of the situation, Jennie went anyway. By the end of October, her mother had fallen ill and died. For the remainder of her life, Jennie was burdened with the thought of what might have been had she not gone to the dance that night.
Defiance in the face of pandemic was not limited to the young. An op-ed in the Dallas Morning News argued that “a good many of our modern maladies seem to be the inventions of that pseudo-science which parades in the columns of the popular press.” But there was nothing pseudoscientific about the flu and its deadly effects. Dallas reported multiple cases of H1N1 that fall. Military forts felt the ferocious brunt of the disease, with Houston’s Camp Logan reporting as many as 700 sick soldiers.
While influenza devastated urban neighborhoods, circumstances in isolated areas could be equally dire—particularly for Native Americans living on western reservations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs issued warnings about the Spanish flu, but the disease thrived in the midst of poverty and deprivation. One Reno Indian agent took photographs (left) of what he observed on a Nevada reservation: “In this shack I found four people laying on the dirt floor wrapped in rags apparently all suffering from influenza.”
1924 L.A. PLAGUE
Around Halloween in 1924, people began to fall ill in a poor Los Angeles neighborhood near the Los Angeles River. At first, public health doctors thought that a virulent influenza strain had returned. After all, it had been only five years since the Spanish flu pandemic. But something was different this time. The area was home to a mixed population of working people. The initial cases of sickness, which caused the deaths of most members of one Mexican family living on Clara Street, came with unusual symptoms: people fell ill, turned red, and then, as they worsened, began to turn darker. Other people who had been in contact with the family also died. Within a few weeks, doctors knew they were dealing with plague.
This last major outbreak of plague in the United States, which lasted into early 1925, brought with it acts of humanitarian heroism and their opposite. Public health doctors understood the contagion of the disease and worked hard to quarantine the neighborhood and save those who exhibited symptoms. Others, including city officials and the local press, tried to cover up the story lest the tourist and harbor businesses suffer economically. Worse yet, some individuals and institutions lashed out at the city’s ethnic Mexican population, as they equated race, not poverty, with the disease. Before it was over, the L.A. plague outbreak killed about 40 people.
1957 FLU OUTBREAK
The first incidence of the influenza strain H2N2, also known as the Asian flu, was identified in Singapore in February 1957. That fall, infections peaked in the United States as schools reopened after summer break. California officials worried about a possible pandemic. USC reported over 250 cases. UC Berkeley sent 37 students to the hospital.
Statewide, influenza numbers spiked to at least 25,000, with most of the cases appearing to be H2N2. The Fresno County health department issued “do it yourself” tips, including keeping away from others, getting sleep, and drinking fluids. It warned of symptoms including chills, high fever, muscle aches, sore throat, sweating, and cough.
Dr. Lewis Bullock of the L.A. County Medical Association termed H2N2 a mild disease. He was wrong. It caused over 100,000 deaths in the United States and more than one million worldwide.
1980s AIDS CRISIS
California is deeply connected to the tragic AIDS epidemic. In 1981, one of the initial cases was detected in West Los Angeles. Later that year, Dr. Michael Gottlieb of UCLA identified the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, in a report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1985, actor Rock Hudson became a high-profile victim of the disease when he died in Beverly Hills. Ronald Reagan, the state’s former governor turned president, had a tepid response at first and did not publicly mention the term AIDS until 1986. Five years later, Los Angeles Lakers superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson retired after announcing that he had contracted HIV.
Gay men were hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic. Because of this, they faced not only the deadly impact of the disease but also stigma and discrimination. In response, California’s gay and lesbian communities rose to prominence in AIDS advocacy and prevention efforts, spreading awareness, building coalitions, and protesting inaction and discrimination.
In San Francisco, ACT-UP Golden Gate, one of many ACT-UP groups throughout the nation, focused on treatment, negotiated price reductions for medicine, advocated for better care at hospitals, and worked to see that new treatments and drug trials were not harmful to patients. The San Francisco health department played a role, too, working with advocacy organizations to address prevention. Bleachman (above), a cape-wearing bottle of bleach, reminded people of the disinfectant’s power to kill HIV, especially in the cleaning of syringes. AIDS has taken the lives of more than 700,000 Americans.
Daniel Wallace is a graduate student at USC. William Deverell is a professor of history at USC and the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.