October 1924, Los Angeles
Dr. Giles Porter with the City Health Department went to the home of Jesus Lajun located at 700 Clara Street. Mr. Lujan worked for the Los Angeles Railway. He was ill with what appeared to be flu-like symptoms; however his groin area was swollen and tender. His daughter Francisca, 15, also shared the flu-like symptoms. She was running a temperature, and complained of a sore throat and headache. The following day, October 4, her pregnant neighbor Luciana Samarno stopped by to check on her. Francisca's condition had worsened and she was taken to the hospital but died en-route. The cause of death listed on her death certificate was double pneumonia.
157 rats and five squirrels [were] found to be plague infected” in rich and poor areas, including downtown, Beverly Hills and the harbor.
It all began in late September, early October when Jesus Lajun, trying to track down a bad odor found a decaying rat under his house. He threw the carcass in the trash. It was after this that humans started to die.
Dr. George Stevens suspected that a highly contagious disease was infecting the neighborhood where the Lujans lived, and he contacted the Los Angeles General Hospital and requested a quarantine ward for the patients. Dr. Elmer Anderson had been attending other patients in the area, which presented with the same symptom: fever, backache and chest pain.
On October 29, Dr. Emil Bogen responded to a one bedroom house. An old woman was found crying coughing up blood, which she had been doing for two days. A young man lay on a couch. His fever was 104 degrees and he complained of a pain down his spine. Both of them were taken to Los Angeles General Hospital.
Nearby in another house a couple with their daughter exhibited the same symptoms. Their corneas were cloudy and their face had a blue tinge. Four brothers at a neighbor’s house, 742 Clara Street (north of what is now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and west of Vignes Street), were also sick. Their parents had recently died of pneumonia. It became known as the “death house” as it appeared to be possessed by evil. There were other adults living there, and cultures taken from them were tested on a guinea pig which soon died. The adults also died. Health investigators started to re-examine the cause of death for the people struck down. They ran the gamut from pneumonia, typhus, influenza and meningitis.
Luciana Samarano also lived there and died in mid-October. She was 39 years old and her cause of death was listed as heart disease. Her husband Guadalupe sickened and died a few days later. A neighbor Jessie Flores who had come to the house to help died. Father Medardo Brualla who administered last rites for Jessie and Guadalupe sickened and passed away a few days later.
Health officials still unaware of the full implications of the numerous deaths released Guadalupe and Luciana’s bodies back to their family members for funeral services which were held inside the house at 742 Clara Street. Horace, a cousin to Luciana sickened and died. An autopsy of his body found evidence of Yersinia pestis, the Black Death.
Seventeen people attended Luciana's funeral in the house, by the end of the month 12 of them were dead.
The four Samarano brothers all sickened and three died like their parents with the exception of 14-month-old Raul. Other family members who lived in the small house on 742 Clara Street sickened and exhibited symptoms which included stupor, fever, weakness and irritability. Even neighbors or family members who came to the house to help would eventually yield to the disease.
Guadalupe Valenzuela from Marianna Street in Belvedere Gardens across the city, along with her son Jesus and daughter Maria sickened and died. At least one of them had attended the funeral at 742 Clara Street. When Maria told officials that they were expecting relatives from New Mexico guards rushed to meet them at the train station and stop them from visiting the sick house.
A month after the first death, the body count rose. Anyone who had lived there, and it appeared there was quite a number of boarders who called it home, or visited the house on Clara Street fell ill. They tried to outrun death by moving, but it was too late. Visiting the Samarano household was not the only way to contract the disease. A friend to anyone living there also guaranteed a death sentence. One of these was Emmett McLauthlin an ambulance driver who lived on Hope Street and had transported people from the boarding house to the hospital.
Guadalupe Samarano’s nurse, Mary Costello, 32, complained of pains in her chest, chills, backache and headaches. Kept in an isolation ward, by Halloween she was spitting up blood. Doctors treated her with an intravenous injection of Mercurochrome solution, germicide and herbicide. A week later she improved slightly, but was still plagued with the symptoms of pneumonic plague consistent with the strain of plague bacillus a month later.
The neighborhood surrounding 742 Clara Street, bounded by Alameda Street and the Los Angeles River and Macy Street (now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue) and what is now Rondout Street, and a six-block area in the county’s Belvedere district; people there had attended Clara Street funerals were quarantined. The roped off area was patrolled by the Los Angeles Police Department and health department guards. Many of them were veterans who served in the First World War and had quarantine experience.
Anyone exhibiting symptoms of plague were sent to the county hospital, and undertakers were instructed not to embalm any bodies of anyone dying of an undetermined cause until it could be examined by the State or City Health Department. They also set up rodent trappings.
Charities delivered packages of food and milk to each house, and the Catholic Board of Charities sent a priest and social worker to each house inside the quarantine area. Doctors and nurses went house-to-house on a daily basis. The quarantine lasted two weeks.
The City Council granted $250,000 from November 1924 to July 1925, and then $500,000 for the next twelve months for a rodent eradication program which targeted rats and squirrels. It also aimed to extinguish Yersinia pestis. An emergency laboratory known as the “ratatorium” examined the carcasses of countless rats. The extermination effort which besides the quarantine area included downtown, Beverly Hills and the harbor, eventually found 157 rats and 5 squirrels to be plague infected.
The county hospital quarantined not only patients but hospital personnel suspected of having plague or coming in contact with a plague victim. Housed in the contagious disease building they were labeled with red tickets to set them apart from other patients.
“For years, as eastern papers and publications pointed out, Los Angeles boosters crowed about the unique symbols of southern California living. Sunshine, fat oranges, pretty little bungalows, palm trees: boosters bombarded eastern cities and eastern folk with these ever-so-familiar images. But now, as Los Angeles found itself in a public relations tight spot, competitors and critics seized the opportunity to point out the limits of booster hubris in the City of Angels. Even typicality had its limits, if not its opponents.”
In early November, Nora Sterry the principal at the Macy Street school who was also a Red Cross volunteer, opened the school kitchen where she cooked for the community. She organized musicians to nightly serenade those who were not allowed to leave the area until November 13, when the quarantine was lifted. Many of the children living in the quarantine area attended the school.
Rev. James E. Doty, pastor of the Bochette Baptist Church became ill after helping Nora Sterry. His wife and Clara Neilson head of the Sunday school also helped. He kept open the mission located at Bochett and Avila streets, holding religious services and meetings to rally the spirits of those quarantined, even those most of them were Catholic.
William Boardman Knox wrote a piece for The Nation criticizing the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce for keeping the plague under wraps. He claimed the quarantine had resulted in a mass exodus and economic collapse for the city. "Land values dropped 50 percent; bankruptcy courts were flooded with yesterday's millionaires; bank clearings were cut in half”, he wrote.
These strains, once transmitted to a human host became either bubonic plague or the more contagious pneumonic plague, which is transmitted through sneezes and coughs.
Doctors suspected meningitis, influenza, pneumonia, even typhus. But the culprit was something more insidious that had inspired fear since before the Middle Ages. Plague had crept into San Francisco in 1900, probably carried by fleas on rats aboard a ship that had stopped in China. The disease smoldered in San Francisco until the epidemic ended in 1908, after 280 cases and 172 deaths. But that didn’t mean the end of plague in the United States. The disease moved from San Francisco rats to ground squirrels and other wild rodents and spread into the Sierra, the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest. It reached Oakland in 1919 -- and Los Angeles in 1924. But no one considered the possibility of plague at first.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by Marlene Pardo Pellicer