The fires would rage in pockets across the city. In the so-called “Mexican district”—epicenter of the 1924 outbreak of the ancient, dreaded plague—buildings were ripped apart, bulldozed, or simply burned in the night. Across the city line, in the neighborhood of Belvedere Gardens, in what is now known as East Los Angeles, there were similar scenes.
“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,” LA native Leonard Smith would recall decades later. “It was an eerie sight to see the ‘sky high’ flames at night and the reflections in the river, as well as the shadowy figures of firemen running around the quarantined area.”
The plague’s arrival to the City of Angels in the fall of 1924 would devastate families, panic city officials, and lead to the wholesale destruction of a once-bustling Los Angeles neighborhood. By June 1925, hundreds of structures in Los Angeles were eradicated in an attempt to stamp out the plague and its carrier, the rat.
“They just went in and burned it all down,” says historian William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.
The trouble began on Clara Street in the riverside “Mexican District,” a neighborhood of upward of 2,500 people living in rundown wood-frame homes and dirt yards east of Downtown, where the Twin Towers Correctional Facility now stands. “It [was] poor and working class and polyglot,” Deverell says.
Also referred to as the “Macy Street District” and “Little Mexico,” this neighborhood of makeshift lean-tos, aging catalog kit houses, crumbling brick structures, and adobes abutted the old Chinatown (where Union Station now stands) and the original Los Angeles Pueblo, which we now think of as Olvera Street and La Placita.
The neighborhood was a bastion for working-class transplants. At the turn of the 20th century, it boasted both Italian and Syrian communities. By the 1920s, its predominantly Latinx population mixed with the other immigrant-heavy neighborhoods inhabiting the acreage around the Old Pueblo, participating in a hardscrabble, multicultural economy.
It was a place with a somewhat rural feel, where chickens and farm animals ran free. Many of its residents were foreign-born laborers, living in conditions far different than the privileged folks participating in the boom-time buildup of LA’s sky-scraping Downtown metropolis less than a mile away. The local papers rarely bothered to report on the area at all, and when they did it was to describe a thief being pursued by a mob, or to recount a patronizingly comical tale of a local gravedigger chasing a chicken around Clara Street.
That changed in late September 1924, when, according to historian Cecilia Rasmussen, a day laborer at the nearby Southern Pacific rail yard (now the Los Angeles State Historic Park), was standing in the street chatting with neighbors. “Folks were listening to Jesus Lajun’s comical story about his detective work in tracking down an overpowering and nauseating odor beneath his house,” Rasmussen wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “He had found a decaying rat, he told them; he picked it up with one hand and threw it in the trash.”
By October 2, Lajun’s clapboard home at 700 Clara Street was filled with sickness. He was suffering from mysteriously swollen lymph nodes and a bloody cough. According to Deverell, his teenage daughter, Francisca, also terminally ill, was nursed by her pregnant neighbor Luciana Samarano, who lived with her husband and four sons at 742 Clara Street.
After Francisca’s death (her father would die days later), Samarano returned to 742 Clara Street, once a pleasant clapboard home built in 1895 by developer Nella Mead. The structure would become a “death house,” starting with the death of Samarano, followed closely by her husband and three of her four sons. According to Deverell, Samarano’s last rights and subsequent wake at the house would further spread the mysterious disease, killing numerous people, including a priest from the nearby La Placita and Samarano’s mother.
Family members who lived in the settlement of Belvedere Gardens, which one city leader claimed was “built out of piano boxes,” attended the wake as well, bringing the sickness back to their neighborhood.
On October 29, Dr. Emil Bogen was called to the Mexican District and confronted a neighborhood filled with pain and death. In Plague in Los Angeles, 1924: Ethnicity and Typicality, Deverell writes:
Bogen and the attendants found a group of people clustered around the front porch of a little house. In the house’s only room, an old Mexican woman lay crying on a large double bed. Her cries were regularly broken by hacking coughs. A young Mexican man of about thirty lay on a couch against the wall; he did not cry, but he was clearly “restless and feverish.” Several other people were in the room; one man agreed to translate the discussion. Bogen found out that the man had gotten sick the day before, that he had a pain down his spine, and that he was running a dangerously high fever of about 104 degrees. He had red spots on his chest. The old woman had been coughing for two full days. She spit up blood.
The next day, pathologist George Maner of the Los Angeles General Hospital darkly joked that perhaps the mysterious disease was none other than the legendary plague, the “black death,” which had killed one-third of the population of Europe during its worst outbreak in the 14th century. His offhand comment was confirmed when he and colleagues looked at samples from a recently deceased victim. It was indeed the ancient, rat-borne plague that was now ravaging the Mexican District.
Terrified, the Los Angeles health department sprang into action. “Once you diagnose something as ‘plague,’ I think people snap to attention,” Deverell says.
A quarantine began at midnight October 31, boxing in the blocks among Alameda Street, the Los Angeles River, Macy Street (now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue), and what is now Rondout Street. According to Deverell, a similar quarantine was placed on Belvedere Gardens establishing a perimeter from Carmelita Street, to Brooklyn Avenue, to a ravine near Marianna Street to Grandview Street. Scattered homes with plague cases in different locations were also quarantined.
“They quarantine the neighborhood by force,” Deverell says. “They stretch fire hoses as perimeters, and they sign up World War I veterans to help patrol the quarantine boundaries. So, it’s fairly militarized. On the one hand, though, that kind of aggressive quarantine, as in today… it works. And it’s brutal.”
The guards ruled the quarantined district with an iron hand. They shot stray dogs, cats, and chickens with impunity, attempting to eradicate anything that might be carrying the plague. As residents continued to die, their bodies were quickly burned, increasing tension within the neighborhood.
“I think it would probably be very fearful because people sickened and died quickly,” Deverell says. “This is a largely Catholic population. So normally, there would be wakes with the body, and the public health officials and others are saying, ‘Nope, can’t do that.’ So that’s got to really be rough.”
One woman determined to bring comfort to the isolated district was Nora Sterry, principal of the neighborhood’s Macy Street School. Standing at the quarantine line, she was defiant. “They can’t keep me out,” she told the LA Times. “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.”
As residents within quarantined areas continued to endure a medieval hell, local white-owned papers and boosters downplayed the outbreak. “That notion of LA as a remarkably healthy, sun-dappled place… if you have the plague, you can forget that,” Deverell says. “And also, the notion of LA marketing itself as a ‘city of the future,’ it doesn’t help your PR if you’ve got a 13th- or 14th-century disease.”
The LA Times took to assuring its readers that plague was only “appearing in two small local Mexican areas.” City leaders blamed economically destitute Mexican Americans for the condition of their neighborhoods and homes. “I am not only familiar with the housing conditions of our Mexicans, but familiar with the Mexican peon’s way of living in Mexico,” Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce president William Lacy said.
While city leaders were reluctant to acknowledge the seriousness of what was occurring, public health officials were working tirelessly within quarantined areas. Charities delivered milk and food to homes, and nurses and doctors made daily tours of each house to check on the health of inhabitants, often aided by Spanish-speaking priests and social workers. (Residents stuck outside the quarantined area were forced to sleep at the Baptist Mission Church on Avila and Bauchet streets). All were questioned continuously by health officials.
“They’re doing what others are doing today,” Deverell says. “They’re saying, ‘Who were you with?’ And, ‘Where do they live?’ And, ‘Did you go there?’ So, they understand that kind of scatterplot contagion even a century ago.”
Members of the neighborhood also organized to bring cheer to quarantined areas. “A band of Mexican musicians was organized,” the LA Times reported. “Each afternoon they gave a concert in the school yard. Each night they serenaded with happy music those who had been stricken.”
By mid-November, it was clear the quarantine had been a success. Between 30 to 40 Angelenos had died of the plague, far less than many predicted. On November 13, the quarantine was lifted. But instead of rebuilding, the Mexican district and Belvedere Gardens would see increasing destruction in the coming months.
A search for rat holes in infested buildings was instituted throughout the city, particularly in the area around the old Pueblo, East LA, and at the LA harbor. The first plague-infested rat would be found at Simon Grocery Store near Clara Street. A large-scale, $250,000 rat extermination program began, and the city would eventually kill hundreds of thousands of rats and squirrels. Houses were also ripped off the wooden foundations so that vermin would be exposed.
Disinfecting crews hosed down entire neighborhoods. Coal oil emulsion was sprayed to kill fleas. Carbon monoxide was pumped into rat-infested buildings. Many suspect buildings were simply burned, especially in the previously quarantined areas. “They burn in other neighborhoods that are seen as rat and flea-infested,” Deverell says. “But then they pretty clearly cross over and start thinking, you know, ‘We’ve really got to make these Mexican neighborhoods go away.’”
In his book, Deverell writes of one report drawn up for the city:
“That the danger from infected rats exists… even in residence districts occupied by native Americans, and these must be dealt with as definitely as the foreign districts.” Be that as it may (apparently inhabitants of “foreign districts” could not, by definition, be “native Americans”), rat eradication work tended toward particular confluences of ethnicity and poverty. The program would work best “in the Mexican, Russian, Chinese and Japanese quarters by the destruction of all structures not worth rat proofing.”
These wood-frame structures in poor neighborhoods, considered a threat to the city’s progress, were declared a nuisance before being destroyed. This meant that owners were not entitled to any compensation for the destruction of their property. Orders were also given that the homes were not to be rebuilt, although Walter Dickie, secretary of the California Board of Health, did appeal for better low-income housing.
Some infrastructure improvements were made. On San Pedro Street, and in other areas east of Downtown, cement walks, brick foundations, and interior cement floors were added to homes, as were screens for windows.
Occasionally claims were made by people who accused the city of illegally destroying their property, and a few were given restitution. “There’s some, but it’s very modest,” Deverell says. “There are some claims made to the city in the aftermath of the plague outbreak. There was a tamale manufacturer who sought some claims for loss of produce. But by and large, I think the response was, ‘Sorry about that, out you go.’”
One successful claim was made by L.S. Camacho, whose San Pablo Court home had been destroyed by quarantine guards who stole doors, boards, and ladders. The county health department agreed that “half of the rear of the house was torn out by the guards.” Camacho was granted $15 as compensation.
Overall, around 2,500 buildings would be destroyed in the aftermath of the plague in Los Angeles. But amazingly, though much of the Mexican District, neighboring old Chinatown, and the old Pueblo district would be burned, dismantled, or transformed, the house at 742 Clara, where so much death had occurred, would survive for decades until it was torn down by the city, which owned the property. Today, the Twin Towers, the United States Post Office Los Angeles Terminal Annex, and nearby Union Station dominate the area.
The plague of 1924 would be the last large-scale outbreak of the “black death” in the United States. Like the homes of so many who lived through it, the story of what happened would be swept away. It was hidden under the gleaming, healthful image of the Los Angeles utopia, a promised land of clean, dry air and airy homes with spacious green yards dotted with orange trees.