GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — It's been 100 years since the Black Death came to Galveston.
A seaport city that has seen more than its share of death and destruction, the island is approaching one of the most gruesome anniversaries in its long history: a 1920 plague outbreak that left more than a dozen people dead, sent a bolt of cold fear through the populace and led the city to declare war on rats.
The war was over by the year's end, with more than 40,000 dead rats and the plague successfully eliminated.
The outbreak is not the most well-known disaster in Galveston's often bleak history. Even other pestilence, such as yellow fever, comes more quickly to mind. But local historians argue the public health crisis caused by the plague left an enduring mark on the island, The Galveston County Daily News reported.
The plague outbreak happened at a fascinating time in the island's history, said Paula Summerly, a medical historian at the University of Texas Medical Branch. With the city raised and the seawall constructed after the catastrophic storm of 1900, Galveston was set to become an entertainment destination because of its resorts and gambling establishments.
But the city was not without strife. Away from the beach, a dockworkers strike divided black and white workers and led to violence in the streets. It was in that setting that the plague appeared.
"There was civil unrest on the port side, and bathing beauties on the seawall," Summerly said.
Summerly has worked since 2015 to uncover Galveston's plague history, much of it by searching the extensive medical history archives at the library.
Her discoveries have turned up newspaper articles and a doctor's journal documenting the city's fight with the plague. She has even found a jar containing the preserved bubo — the inflamed lymph node that gives bubonic plague its name — that was biopsied from Emil Horridge, a 17-year-old feed store employee who was the first diagnosed victim in the outbreak.
"The poor young man was buried just five hours after the autopsy at 10 at night because they were absolutely terrified," Summerly said.
Bubonic plague kills by attacking the immune system and cutting off cells' ability to communicate with each other. If an infection is not treated, the disease overloads the body's natural infection-fighting abilities and causes victims to go into septic shock.
A person might not show signs of infection for five days after being bitten by a plague-ridden flea, which had bitten a plague-ridden rat. Death can occur within three to five days after symptoms emerge.
The plague can cause painful swelling in the lymph nodes, induce fever and seizures and make skin die, causing necrosis on extremities. The disease can also infect the lungs or blood stream. In any form, it can cause a quick and painful death.
Horridge's grave can still be found in the Lakeview Cemetery in Galveston.
Like so many visitors to Galveston, the bubonic v bacterium Yersinia pestis, likely entered through the port, where ships from around the world carried not only goods but rats, Summerly said. The rats carried fleas, which are the main culprits in spreading the illness.
A hundred years later, one can still find traces of the outbreak throughout Galveston and the city's efforts to eradicate it, said Dwayne Jones, executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation.
While many houses in Galveston proudly display plaques stating they survived the 1900 Storm, some other buildings still bear marks of 1920 rat-proofing in the form of raised concrete barriers around their foundations, Jones said.
"The city implemented ordinances to close up the opportunities for rodents," Jones said. The idea came from San Francisco, which had dealt with its own plague outbreak about 20 years before Galveston.
Summerly and the historical foundation partnered to create a lecture series about the plague, and her interest in the event helped solve a mystery for the historical foundation, Jones said.
The foundation restores historical houses and buildings and had encountered some with the concrete barriers, which had no obvious architectural purpose, Jones said.
Summerly's plague research identified the barriers as anti-rat protective measures, he said.
"A lot of the corner stores from that period were rat-proofed and they're still there, I'm sure," he said.
Galveston's rat-proofing efforts were extensive. In addition to altering buildings, the city declared an all-out war on rats. City crews placed poison in the rocks along the seawall and fumigated houses with cyanide to kill the rodents.
Rat catchers collected or killed more than 46,000 rats over the course of the year and delivered many of them to a laboratory set up at the corner of 22nd and Market streets, where pathologists dissected the animals in search of the disease.
Homeowners were required to pull up the floors in their homes once a week to ensure rats weren't nesting there.
The efforts worked. The city's last confirmed case of bubonic plague was diagnosed in 1921.
The plague is still around in the United States. These days, however, rather than in port cities, cases are most frequently found in the "four corner" states — Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado.
Since 2000, there have been an average of seven diagnoses of plague each year in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. None of the cases occurred anywhere near Galveston or the Gulf Coast.
There's no chance the 1920 plague is still hanging around in the rats and fleas of Galveston, said Vladimir Motin, a professor in the Department of Pathology at the medical branch.
"Galveston's doctors were so good, they eliminated the plague," Motin said. "They had one message: Kill the rats. That poison was everywhere. You had to kill all the rats around, and then they were good."
If plague-infested rats turned up on the island today, a similar effort to locate and eliminate them might have to take place, Motin said. Fortunately, Galveston today would have a weapon the Galveston of 1920 didn't: antibiotics — which weren't discovered until eight years after the island survived its brush with Black Death.