CEDAR FALLS – It was the horrible, putrid smell that drove Jesus Lajun to crawl under his house in the Macy Street neighborhood near the newly christened West Port of Los Angeles. He scooted out, swinging a bloated, dead rat in one hand and the remains of a nest in the other.
Many of his neighbors shrieked and ran back into their own homes.
Days later, Lajun and his daughter Francisca had fallen desperately ill.
It was the Black Death — Bubonic plague.
You dirty rat.
The 1924 plague outbreak in Los Angeles is at the heart of Jeff Copeland’s new historical medical thriller, “Plague in Paradise.” The newly published, literary non-fiction book from Paragon House has had more advance sales than the combined advance sales of Copeland’s more than two dozen previous books. He is a professor in the department of languages and literature at the University of Northern Iowa.
“It’s an amazing story in history, a gruesome story that was shoved under the rug by Los Angeles’ city officials when it happened. They hushed it up, covered it up because the city had worked hard to present itself as the ‘Paradise of the West,’ the perfect climate, healthy living.
“They decided it was a ‘Mexican problem’ and quarantined the neighborhood with armed guards,” Copeland says. There were real-life villains, but his story focuses on the heroes — a Catholic priest, Father Medardo Brualla, whose church, Our Lady Queen of Angels (“La Placita”) became an isolation ward for victims, and a handful of doctors and nurses, especially Dr. Matthew Thompson and Nurse Maria McDonnell. They made it their mission to treat the afflicted and track down the original source of the outbreak, which became known as the “Death House.”
Their efforts later helped lay the foundation for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Unearthing details about the plague outbreak turned out to be the “toughest research I’ve done for any of my books,” Copeland notes. Records had been buried for decades, various accounts differed in their details and a media blackout at the time meant there were few newspaper articles to mine for information about the Los Angeles plague.
“It was a little like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Some records hadn’t seen sunlight since the 1920s. Material may have been buried on purpose, I think, because tensions ran high on both sides. Depending on the perspective, details varied. The principals involved were dead and their families scattered to the wind. There were some eye witness accounts, which I used those as sources. I went to California to go through archives and records and walk the area where the Macy neighborhood once stood.”
Now it is an industrial area and home to the Twin Towers Jail Complex. The only sign that it was once a neighborhood is La Placita, which continues to serve parishioners. The church’s death records proved enormously revealing in Copeland’s quest. He also reveals what happened to Dr. Thompson, Nurse McDonnell and other individuals in the aftermath of the plague outbreak.