Snapshots of History

Kill the Rats!

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When we hear “bubonic plague” most people tend to think of the “Black Death” that swept across 14th century Europe. Transmitted to humans by bites from infected rat-fleas, the pandemic infamously killed up to a third of the entire population of Europe. What is mostly unknown is that bubonic plague also had deleterious effects on the populations of Asia, South America and North America. Cases of bubonic plague have been reported in nearly every country in the world. And while we also tend to think of bubonic plague as relegated to the history books, stunningly, cases are still being reported into the 21st century.

The United States remained plague-free until 1900 when an outbreak occurred in San Francisco. Though this outbreak was nowhere near the proportions that had affected Europe and Asia (“only” 121 people died), it was enough to thoroughly scare some other states into ending all trade with the entire state of California, fearing that the plague would literally be imported into their populations as well. Since rat infestations were mostly a problem of urban centers, many American cities began to put in place practices to stave off an outbreak of plague.

Philadelphia was no exception. Philadelphians were urged to “rat-proof” their homes and businesses and to turn over any trapped rats to the city for disposal. On September 4, 1914, the Philadelphia Bureau of Health erected a rat receiving station at the Race Street Pier and offered a bounty: two cents for each dead rat and five cents for live ones. By January 1, 1915, the Bureau reported that 5,238 rats had been turned in to the station. The Bureau of Health was also greatly expanded during this time including the hiring of a team of special agents, the “rat patrol”, who inspected all incoming ships and set and monitored traps all along the waterfront.

The measures apparently worked as Philadelphia did not experience a plague outbreak. Fears of bubonic plague would be overshadowed in a few years as Philadelphians, and indeed all Americans, would have to contend with a far more deadly epidemic – the Great Influenza.


Zueblin, Charles. American Municipal Progress. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1916, p. 129.

“Kill the Rats!” is the first article in “Snapshots of History,” a new series of blog entries that will provide background info on select images from the database.

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