The phrase: “Bubonic Plague” conjures images of medieval times, when the infamous “Black Death” swept through mainland Europe and Asia, decimating cities and inciting mass chaos. Experts estimate this deadly epidemic killed over half the population of Europe in the 14th century, making it one of the most lethal diseases in history. Less known, however, is that the bubonic plague still exists today, with about 650 cases reported a year. In the early 20th century, the United States faced a renewed threat of the Black Death (caused by bacterium Yersinia pestis), with causalities hitting major port cities across the South (Kugeler et al, 2015).
The Florida and Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project offers insight into this terrifying, yet often forgotten, moment in American medical history. Early reports on bubonic plague suggest that South America and the Caribbean, particularly Cuba and Venezuela, were hit hard by the infection. Florida news outlets relayed the quarantining of port cities in these countries and several American harbors refused to welcome incoming steamships. The port of La Guayra, Venezuela was said to average about 10 plague deaths a day in 1908 (Ocala Evening Star, 1908). In March 1914, The Ocala Evening Star described panic in Key West following rumored cases in Havana, causing tourists to rush from Cuba in fear. While the paper assures that “with modern knowledge and science, it is declared that there is no reason to fear an epidemic,” (Ocala Evening Star, 1914) fears of the plague dominated Florida newspapers for the rest of the decade.
Despite no confirmed reports of the bubonic plague in the early 1900s, Florida’s position as a gateway to the tropics led many to worry that infection was an imminent possibility. Government and public health officials worked tirelessly to curtail possible transmissions of the disease. “To avoid the germ,” cautioned The Pensacola Journal, “the rat and the flea must be banished, or rather must be denied entrance at the seaports of this country…This deadly and inseparable trio must be fought as one, for they can not be parted” (The Pensacola Journal, May 1914). In addition to the disease’s deadly potential, an outbreak of the plague in Florida would have disastrous economic consequences. “Once entered here, it would probably be stopped here, but at what cost to Florida? Quarantine, stoppage of traffic, immense commercial loss and infinite delay to the splendid development of the state—these are some of the possibilities” wrote a Pensacola journalist (Pensacola Journal, May 1914).
Floridians had reason to panic, nearby New Orleans had witnessed several fatalities caused by plague in 1914 after infected populations of “wharf rats” were discovered in the warehouse and shipping districts (Pensacola Journal, July 1914), Local governments took quick action to rid neighborhoods of disease-carrying rodents. “It is war against the rat” declared one newspaper (Pensacola Journal, May, 1914). Florida’s State Health Officer, Dr. Joseph Y. Porter, advised a simultaneous attack on rats, their food supply, and their habitats. More would be done to fight the disease, he claimed, by eradicating rat populations than by quarantining persons and shipping vessels (Pensacola Journal, July 1912). In the Pensacola City Hall, the state bacteriologist examined dozens of rats each week for signs of illness (Pensacola Journal, Sept. 1912). City commissioners offered a reward of five cents for each rat delivered to the board of health office, urging every man, woman, and schoolboy in Pensacola to do their part in ridding the city of infectious critters (Pensacola Journal, June 1914). A Pensacola businessman, Nat Kaiser, offered to personally pay a premium of $25 to the citizen catching the most rats. The fight against the plague was a community effort, but it could also be quite lucrative for an enterprising individual (Pensacola Journal, July 1914).
In the end, Florida managed to avoid any cases of the plague in the early 20th century. While the outbreak did hit New Orleans, it never reached the same levels of infection as Pacific port cities. While the Western strain flourished among urban rats and native ground squirrels in San Francisco, a mix of inhospitable ecology and extensive public health efforts stunted the disease’s transmission on the East Coast (Kugeler, 2015). Thankfully, community and government cooperation reduced what could have been a disastrous epidemic to a minor anecdote in the region’s history.
“173 Rats Have Been Examined” The Pensacola journal. (Pensacola, Fla.), 29 Sept. 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87062268/1912-09-29/ed-1/seq-2/>
“Chained to the Corpses” The Ocala evening star. (Ocala, Fla.), 29 April 1908. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84027621/1908-04-29/ed-1/seq-1/>
“Five Cents for Every Rat Delivered at the City Hall” The Pensacola journal. (Pensacola, Fla.), 30 June 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87062268/1914-06-30/ed-1/seq-1/>
“Florida and Hated Plague” The Pensacola journal. (Pensacola, Fla.), 10 May 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87062268/1914-05-10/ed-1/seq-2/>
“Florida State Health Officer Writes Mayor” The Pensacola journal. (Pensacola, Fla.), 13 July 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87062268/1912-07-13/ed-1/seq-3/>
Kugeler, K. J., Staples, J. E., Hinckley, A. F., Gage, K. L., & Mead, P. S. (2015). Epidemiology of human plague in the United States, 1900-2012. Emerging infectious diseases, 21(1), 16–22. doi:10.3201/eid2101.140564
“More Active Campaign for the Eradication of Bubonic Plague” The Pensacola journal. (Pensacola, Fla.), 09 July 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87062268/1914-07-09/ed-1/seq-1/>
“Peril of the Bubonic Plague” The Ocala evening star. (Ocala, Fla.), 09 March 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84027621/1914-03-09/ed-1/seq-1/>
“Reward of $25.00 For One Catching the Most Rats” The Pensacola journal. (Pensacola, Fla.), 23 July 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87062268/1914-07-23/ed-1/seq-1/>