© 2024
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Bubonic Plague Scare


As hyperbolic newspaper headlines go, this was a doozy. It even took precedence over the electrifying stories about Nazi threats and Russian and Japanese military attacks. Readers of the daily Jamestown Sun on August 7, 1941 were greeted with a top-of-the-fold, bold face headline in capital letters screaming: BUBONIC PLAGUE FOUND IN NORTH DAKOTA.

The sub-headlines, a staple of vintage newspaper layout read: “Malady, Scourge of the Middle Ages Has Been Discovered Here, and Rats and Fleas Have It,” followed by “Public Health Workers Find it Difficult to Check on Disease.”

Nearly lost was the sub-head less startling: “Human Beings Not Affected Williams Says.” That was North Dakota health officer Dr. Maysil Williams who advised there was little cause for alarm and there had been no North Dakotans affected. However, the Bubonic plague had been discovered on over 100 fleas taken from a number of ground squirrels shot in the state’s northwest Divide County around the City of Crosby.

North Dakota’s assertion that no humans had been infected mirrored similar findings in a number of southwest and western states. North Dakota health officials were on the alert because of the findings in neighboring states – all reporting infected fleas but no infected people. Historically, infected fleas must be brought into close contact with humans by their preferred hosts, the common species of brown rat, Dr. Williams explained. Nonetheless, public warnings were issued as standard procedure.

Public health surveys in the U.S. taken from the early 1900s through the nineteen forties uncovered plague in wild rodents, but the disease had only affected the lower animals. Bubonic Plague first reached the United States in1900 carried from stowaway rats from the Orient who transmitted the disease to ground squirrels in San Francisco.

One of the Middle Ages’ chief plagues, it was still found in India and China in 1941. Even then, few American doctors had ever been confronted by the disease.

The stunning headlines of August 7, 1941 would be eclipsed four months later to the day, however, when the Japanese launched a sneak attack on a little known American naval harbor in the Territory of Hawaii.

Dakota Datebook written by Steve Stark


The Jamestown Sun, Aug. 7, 1941