The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco, California


The author takes a look at the devastating disease, the Bubonic Plague, and how it brought death and destruction to Chinatown in the City by the Bay.

Marilyn Chase begins her book, The Barbary Plague, with the history of San Francisco stating that it was once a boomtown brought on by the Gold Rush of the late 1840s. The city now had skyscrapers, cable cars, grand hotels, horse drawn carriages, Victorian mansions on Nob Hill and the Cliff House Restaurant. The railroad barons, Hopkins, Huntington, Crocker, and Stanford called it home. It was golden city of California.

The Arrival of the Black Death

Chase explains how the Bubonic Plague first broke out in Hong Kong and how infested rats somehow boarded the ship Australia and made its way to the California city of San Francisco. Ironicly it was during the Chinese New Year.

The Year of the Rat

Ms. Chase gives background information on how the Chinese were discriminated against and how riots erupted on New Years Eve in 1900 between the Americans and the Chinese people. She explained how gunfire found its way to Chinatown and how the authorities were able to take control of the situation. The Chinese were then forbidden to celebrate their own New Years, which ironically was the Year of the Rat, in order to keep from any further rioting.

Chase gives background information on the Chinese culture and the meaning of rats to the culture. She shares a poem written by the Chinese poet, Shih Tao-Nan in 1792 in regards to the meaning of dead rats found in homes:

The coming of the devil of plague

Suddenly makes the lamp dim,

Then it is blown out,

Leaving man, ghost and corpse in the dark room.

She explains how the Chinese people in the old country would flee their homes when a dead rat was found.

Denial, Politics and Medicine

Chase points out that the plague first occurred in Chinatown and later moved into the city. She gives much detail of how the Chinese tried to convince city officials to listen to the stories of the dead rats showing up in Chinatown. She explains that concerns of the Chinese were ignored due to racial tensions until August of 1900 when William Murphy the first American was taken by the plague.

After Murphy’s death, several other deaths occurred. The deaths eventually got the attention of public officials, which included the health department.

Chase writes an exemplary book rich in historical background and filled with truths on how racial discrimination can be detrimental to progress.


  1. Chase, Marilyn. The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco. New York: Random House, 2003.