Plague in 1919 New Orleans

We think of the plague as something that belongs to Medieval times, but if you read the paper on this day in 1919, you would realize that the disease remained a problem in New Orleans only a century ago when a city sanitation worker became its latest victim. 
unknown. People Praying for Relief from
the Bubonic Plague. 1350. Hulton Archive. .

“Black Death” or more commonly referred to as simply “The Plague”, dates back to the 14th century in Europe and Asia. The plague quickly became a huge pandemic that spread from the rats that usually came through the ports. This plague killed the majority of the population in the span of a few months. Many did not understand the science of the disease and thought the plague was a punishment from God for their sins of greed, pride, blasphemy and lust.

Public Health Services, U.S. Workers Display
Rat-Trapping Equipment in New Orleans.
1914. National library of Medicine.

This horrid plague was found local within New Orleans when John Unger, a rat catcher in the public health service, contracted he seventh case of the Plague that very year alone. Doctors believe that he caught the plague when trapping a rat near Tchoupitoulas street. The plague originally came to New Orleans in the early 1900s from around the Gulf Coast. During the year of 1914 there were 31 cases of the plague reported in the city and 10 of these cases were fatal. The initial case was from Charles Lundene who was a sailor from Sweden.He lived in a homeless shelter where he began showing symptoms, which usually include large swollen lymph nodes also known as buboes which tend to occur during the first week of infection, fever, chills, weakness, fatigue, vomiting, bleeding from the mouth, nose, rectum, or under the skin, and blackening of the skin. Lundene died a few days later after experiencing many symptoms. The plague reached a peak in August of 1914. New Orleans was no stranger to epidemics – with the last yellow fever occurring in only 1905, so Mayor Behrman believed it necessary to assure people that there was nothing to worry about. He ordered the city’s Public Health Services to help rid the city of rodents that carried the plague, but many still fell victim to the disease. Men like John Unger in 1919.

Public Health Services, U.S. Lab Technicians Examine Dead Rats in New Orleans. 1914. National library of Medicine. .

Scientist examined thousands of rats between 1914 and 1915 and found Yersinia pestis which is a bacteria that is the leading cause of the plague.  This bacteria affects mammals when they are bitten by fleas carrying the disease and these animals, typically rodents, carrying the disease in term affect humans when they handle or are bitten by these infected animals. To prevent the spread of the plague infected areas were evacuated and quarantined, and all items within the homes were burned and many homes were also demolished. Houses outside of infected areas were raised and kept cleared underneath to prevent rats from coming in, a policy of closed garbage cans was  implemented and wharves along Jackson Square were demolished and replaced with the Moonwalk. New Orleans was officially ridden of the plague in the 1920s.

Today the plague is actually more common than you might think, and there are at least seven cases of the plague in the U.S each year. Most cases around the world appear in Africa, especially Madagascar, Asia and South America. The Plague often appears within small regions or towns that are often overcrowded with high populations and poor sanitation. As of now there is still no true vaccine available but scientists are working to develop one. However antibiotics can help prevent early infection if one has been exposed to the plague. 


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