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The Return of Black Death: How Prejudice and Folly Almost Caused Hawaii's Demise

The Bubonic plague was a nightmare. It killed millions during the 14th century, some calculate the total death toll to be more than half of Europe's population back then. When the plague ended, everyone thought the worst was over. Until 1899, when the plague reappeared in Hawaii.

On the morning of December 8, 1899, Yuk Hoy, a forty-year-old bookkeeper, awoke in his bed to the flash of a high fever and a mysterious swelling in his thigh. Unable to do much more than mumble, he laid his head down and drifted in and out of sleep, largely ignored by the other men crammed into a windowless room of a two-story flophouse in Honolulu’s overstuffed Chinatown.
Having arrived just weeks before from his native China, Yuk Hoy had few friends in the bustling city, and his absence over the following days went unnoticed at the general store on Maunakea Street where he worked. Only his increasingly frantic cries alerted others to the misery of his existence.
Woken by his wails, a man named Fong, who lived on the same floor, stumbled in darkness to find him trembling in a litter of straw, his body quivering, as Fong would later describe it, “like the branches of a tree in thunder and lightning gone crazy.”

Yuk Hoy was brought to one of a few Chinese doctors who were trained in Western medicine, Dr. Li Khai Fai. After examining the symptoms, Dr. Li knew the fate of the man. It was something he had already seen once in his life, something he thought he would never see again. He brought other doctors to show them the case but by the time the other doctors arrived, Yuk Hoy was dead.

So when exactly did the Bubonic plague arrive in America? What were the subsequent events following this tragic discovery by Dr. Li? And how did the local government in Hawaii decide to fight off the disease? Read them on Lapham's Quarterly.

(Image credit: Hawaii State Archives/Wikimedia Commons; US Public domain)

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