Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Honolulu's Chinatown

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A little over a century ago, bubonic plague--the same Black Death that decimated medieval Europe--arrived on the shores of Hawaii just as the islands were about to become a U.S. territory. In this absorbing narrative, James Mohr tells the story of that fearful visitation and its fiery climax--a vast conflagration that engulfed Honolulu's Chinatown.
Mohr tells this gripping tale largely through the eyes of the people caught up in the disaster, from members of the white elite to...
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Overview


A little over a century ago, bubonic plague--the same Black Death that decimated medieval Europe--arrived on the shores of Hawaii just as the islands were about to become a U.S. territory. In this absorbing narrative, James Mohr tells the story of that fearful visitation and its fiery climax--a vast conflagration that engulfed Honolulu's Chinatown.
Mohr tells this gripping tale largely through the eyes of the people caught up in the disaster, from members of the white elite to Chinese doctors, Japanese businessmen, and Hawaiian reporters. At the heart of the narrative are three American physicians--the Honolulu Board of Health--who became virtual dictators when the government granted them absolute control over the armed forces and the treasury. The doctors soon quarantined Chinatown, where the plague was killing one or two people a day and clearly spreading. They resisted intense pressure from the white community to burn down all of Chinatown at once and instead ordered a careful, controlled burning of buildings where plague victims had died. But a freak wind whipped one of those small fires into a roaring inferno that destroyed everything in its path, consuming roughly thirty-eight acres of densely packed wooden structures in a single afternoon. Some 5000 people lost their homes and all their possessions and were marched in shock to detention camps, where they were confined under armed guard for weeks.
Next to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Chinatown fire is the worst civic disaster in Hawaiian history. A dramatic account of people struggling in the face of mounting catastrophe, Plague and Fire is a stimulating and thought-provoking read.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Mohr's study thoroughly describes this landmark even in Hawaii's history and places it directly within the context of its time."--The Hawaiian Journal of History

"Extensive research, sturdy prose, impressive analysis."--Kirkus Reviews

"Compelling.... Mohr covers the doctors' best efforts like a detective writer, highlighting the clues they used, and the ones they simply could not have been aware of at the time.... The narrative is rich with cultural, political, and economic detail.... Opening the door onto the human strengths and shortcomings of the key players turns what could have been a flat textbook into a near-page-turner.... More than a century later, Mohr's sharp curiosity has helped convey the significance of this remarkable event to a wide audience."--Boston Globe

"James Mohr is not just content to tell a compelling story. He connects Honolulu's plague and the fire of 1900 to the great themes of the day: empire, race, power, and fear. I am now convinced that disasters are key historical moments when societies reveal their most fundamental truths. It all comes together here." --Elizabeth Fenn, author of Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82

"An excellent work of scholarship and a lively read. Professor Mohr has done exhaustive research in primary sources to document his fascinating tale of public health, politics, and racial relations. The book is a significant contribution to the history of medicine and public health and to American history more broadly." --John Parascandola, author of The Development of American Pharmacology: John J. Abel and the Shaping of a Discipline

"Plague and Fire is a riveting account of why, how and with what consequences physician leaders in Hawaii a century ago assumed emergency health powers. Mohr's themes have contemporary resonance, especially his analysis of the effects of scientific uncertainty on policy, competing perceptions of private interests and the common good, and the potential for public health interventions to become vectors for disaster." --Daniel M. Fox, President, Milbank Memorial Fund

Publishers Weekly
For the diverse citizens of Honolulu, the 20th century began with two catastrophic events: first, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague, and second, the efforts to contain the disease resulted in a conflagration that destroyed the city's Chinatown. Emphasizing the political and social aspects of the battle against the plague, Mohr, a history professor at the University of Oregon, offers an exceptionally well researched and lucid study of how the destruction proceeded. The fight against the disease fell to three physicians who were granted absolute authority by the government to take whatever measures they deemed necessary. How that authority was exercised, within complicated political currents that included racial prejudice, ethnic politics, a dearth of scientific knowledge, commercial interests and political ambitions, forms the center of the book. Mohr charts these events with precision. He also illuminates the issues that arise when civil rights and public safety clash. It is this perspective that provides relevance to what would otherwise be an ordinary historical monograph. But some readers will want more scientific information about the plague, and Mohr's generally commendable thoroughness is sometimes overtaken by repetitive details. The pictures of the aftermath of the Chinatown fire and the mass disinfections of Japanese and Chinese residents are a striking and valuable addition. 25 b&w photos. (Nov.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Three intrepid doctors have absolute authority to battle bubonic plague in 1900 Honolulu, but their policy of burning the houses of the infected results, inadvertently, in a conflagration and a contentious civil crisis. Mohr (History/Univ. of Oregon), who has previously charted the choreography of physicians and public officials (Doctors and the Law: Medical Jurisprudence in Nineteenth Century America, 1996, not reviewed), focuses here on the roles of medical professionals in public-health emergencies. When plague cases first appeared in Honolulu in late 1899, no one imagined that scores would die, thousands would be homeless, entire city blocks would be destroyed, and racial relations in the city-ever an issue-would worsen. The author begins with a glimpse of what happened on January 12, 1900 (the day the fire raced through the city), then retreats for half his text to examine a variety of medical and political contexts and to lead us back to his starting point. He explains that researchers had identified the culprit (the pestis bacillus). But no one knew how that bacterium infected humans. Rats were dying in droves, too, but no one suspected a connection. The Hawaiian government was in transition: the US was annexing the islands, but there was yet no official, only an ad hoc, territorial authority. When the plague appeared in Honolulu's Chinatown, however, three physicians took command to battle both the disease and the fierce forces of various ethnic, racial, and political constituencies (not to mention their own conservative colleagues and a capricious press). Whites deluded themselves initially, believing the disease was attacking only the "unclean" Asians in the de-facto ghettos.One death of an affluent white changed opinions. The physicians became benevolent dictators-condemning property, ordering fumigations and antiseptic showers, organizing evacuations and detention camps, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars from Hawaii's tiny treasury. Particularly strong chapters near the end describe the actual blaze and its aftermath. Extensive research, sturdy prose, impressive analysis. (25 halftones throughout)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195162318
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 11/1/2004
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

James C. Mohr is College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Oregon.

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Table of Contents

1 The world plague epidemic of the 1890s 7
2 The "existing government" of Hawaii 17
3 The arrival of Pestis 29
4 The government's plague fighters 41
5 Quarantine 55
6 December's debates and "a sad Christmas present" 69
7 The decision to use fire 83
8 Public health policy and the "great doctors' meeting" 99
9 Fighting with fire 111
10 The burning of Chinatown 125
11 Detention camps 143
12 The triumvirate struggles on 157
13 The frustrations of mopping up 171
14 Aftermath 189
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