It was a warm, summery day in late September 1924 when a group of Mexican immigrants began to congregate outside a boardinghouse on Clara Street, north of what is now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and west of Vignes Street. It was a small, bustling, mostly Latino community near downtown, where the Twin Towers jail complex now stands.
Folks were listening to Jesus Lajun’s comical story about his detective work in tracking down an overpowering and nauseating odor beneath his house. He had found a decaying rat, he told them; he picked it up with one hand and threw it in the trash.
A week later, Clara Street was in mourning. Lajun’s daughter, Francesca, 15, was dead, a victim of what the coroner called double pneumonia.
Then, a neighbor, Lucena Samarano, who was six months pregnant and had cared for Francesca while she was ill, miscarried and also died. A few days after her funeral, attended by a host of friends, Samarano’s husband, Guadalupe, died. Within six weeks, the only survivor of the eight-member Samarano family was 14-month-old Raul.
The man who had found the rat, Lajun -- also spelled Loujon -- was nursing a bloody cough and a painful, egg-sized swollen gland in his groin. By the end of October, he too was dead.
An ambulance driver who transported the sick became ill and died. So did Father M. Brualla, who had administered last rites to several victims and said Mass at Lucena Samarano’s funeral. Within days, a dozen more deaths occurred in the neighborhood and in the Belvedere district on the east side of the river, according to Dr. Robert S. Cleland, a former Los Angeles County Hospital pathologist who colorfully described the events in a 1971 article for Westways magazine.
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. Fearing financial devastation if word got out, city and state officials kept the port open and covered up the outbreak as best they could.
Newspapers, including this one, largely cooperated. “No Genuine Plague: Sensational Stories Are Without Foundation,” blared a 1900 Times headline. San Francisco officials explained sending an army of exterminators throughout the city as just a “precautionary measure.”
The disease smoldered in San Francisco until the epidemic ended in 1908, after 280 cases and 172 deaths, according to author and Wall Street Journal reporter Marilyn Chase in “The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco,” published in 2003.
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, according to Dr. Helen Eastman Martin in her 1979 book “The History of the Los Angeles County Hospital.”
Then, on Oct. 30, nearly a month after the disease had claimed its first victim, Los Angeles County Hospital pathologist George Maner looked through his microscope and identified the killer bacterium: plague. Maner, who had never worn gloves during autopsies, started wearing them right then, Martin wrote.
Health officials acted fast, placing a strict quarantine on an eight-block area around 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. Macy Street Elementary School was included. A six-block area in the county’s Belvedere district was quarantined too; people there had attended Clara Street funerals.
Armed police officers and World War I veterans patrolled the roped-off boundaries, where they distributed food to more than 2,500 penned-up residents.
The disease was equated with ethnicity; the low-income quarantined neighborhoods and other slums were deemed a menace to public health.
“Some newspapers referred to the plague as being a Mexican disease,” said Bill Estrada, a curator at El Pueblo de Los Angeles. The plague “only fanned the flames of racial attitudes that had been around a long time. Poor Mexican immigrants were accused of bringing unsanitary conditions with them.”
Although antibiotics didn’t exist yet, an anti-plague serum had been developed in 1894 by Swiss bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin. But Los Angeles had none. Five hundred doses were sent from the East Coast but arrived too late to be of much use to the dying, according to Martin and a Times article. Only one patient received the serum, Martin wrote; it’s unclear whether he or she survived.
Once in a human host, the disease becomes either bubonic plague or the more contagious pneumonic plague, which is transmitted through coughs and sneezes.
Inside the quarantine lines, strangely garbed medical professionals set up a temporary lab and gathered blood samples from barrio residents. A few resisted. Many distrusted the police, who were holding them against their will.
In early November, Macy Street school Principal Nora Sterry tried to enter the area. When guards stopped her, she appealed to health officials and the mayor, who also refused.
“They can’t keep me out,” she told a Times reporter. “All my children are in there. And if you see the flag waving from the mast in the Macy Street schoolyard tomorrow morning, you will know I am in there.”
Sure enough, the flag was waving by morning.
Sterry gave residents hope and inspired them with her courage. She opened the school kitchen, where she cooked for the community -- which had been limited to rations brought in by the police. She organized musicians who lived inside the quarantine area to serenade nightly.
And Sterry, who was also a Red Cross volunteer, persuaded residents to submit to the blood tests. Most were healthy and eager to get to their jobs outside the quarantine area.
She rented a bedroom from a resident because, once inside the quarantine area, she wasn’t allowed to leave.
The scourge abated with the quarantine, which was lifted on Nov. 13, after nearly two weeks.
Ecstatic residents showered Sterry with flowers from their gardens. Children gathered their pennies to buy her a gold medal, which she pinned on her dress, The Times reported.
Thirty-seven people had died.
The city and the county of Los Angeles embarked on a $50,000 rat extermination program in 1924-25, burning and demolishing many of downtown’s run-down buildings. Martin wrote that “157 rats and five squirrels [were] found to be plague infected” in rich and poor areas, including downtown, Beverly Hills and the harbor.
Semi-retired attorney Leonard Smith, 87, who lives in Newport Beach now, remembers the fear of the plague and the fires.
“I was 6 years old, living in Boyle Heights, when my mother grabbed me and my brother and took us to the west bank of the river, where we watched the fires on the east side of the river” in the Belvedere area, he said in a recent interview.
“My mother wasn’t afraid [of the plague] because she had the utmost faith in garlic,” he said. “She hung a bag of it around my neck like a necklace to ward off whatever it was -- spirits or rats.”
Sterry continued to crusade for better housing, piped-in water and sewers in her school district. In 1931, when state legislator George Bliss of Santa Barbara proposed legalizing the segregation of Mexican children in public schools, she objected. The Senate quashed the bill.
In 1934 she was appointed to the Los Angeles County Board of Education, serving until her death in 1941, at 61. Within weeks, Sawtelle Boulevard Elementary School in West Los Angeles rededicated itself as the Nora Sterry Elementary School. But no photograph of her hangs there today.
Southern California’s rat and squirrel populations continue to be a major pool for the plague and the most common source of it in humans. Fleas can move from rodents to pets and then to people. Earlier this year, Santa Monica killed squirrels in Palisades Park to reduce the number of plague-carrying fleas.