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The White Plague in the City of Angels

Caroline Luce, Author
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Kaspare Cohn Hospital, ca. 1902

While the boosters were pleased by Los Angeles’ growth, the city’s increasing population of tuberculars was a cause of great concern among the city’s civic leaders, as they feared that the rising number of tuberculars would damage the city’s reputation. Despite the climate’s curative effects on some, by health officials’ best estimates, tuberculosis was to blame for one out of every six deaths in the county, a reality that threatened to undermine their efforts to expand the local economy and population. As elsewhere, anxieties about racial and cultural purity fused with fears of the spread of the disease, resulting in a public outcry and demands that the city act to stop the inflow of sick migrants. Local health professionals expressed their concerns about contagion most vocally: one local doctor argued that every aspect of the tuberculars’ lives should be controlled, proposing prohibitions on their ability to marry non-consumptives and to be buried in local cemeteries, and insisting that the state must work to create facilities for “the segregation and isolation of the consumptive poor.” [6] 

Similar concerns of contagion were expressed by the city and state Boards of Public Health, both of which demanded that legislation be passed to check the influx of invalids into the state. One local leader captured the sentiments: “Why should this glorious State be stocked with consumptives and their offsprings? Simply because we can sell a few town lots?... For instead this State producing a people with mental and bodily vigor… we shall have a race weak in mind and body, and deeply tainted with a predisposition to consumption.” [7] These officials proposed health inspections at local harbors and railway stations, insisting that “the general appearance of the travelers [cannot] be relied upon to tell who are dangerous consumptives” and that public health officials themselves should conduct the tests. The City Council mounted two unsuccessful campaigns to impose barriers on entry to the city: the first was a campaign against “tramps” in the 1890s that peaked in an attempt to impose a statewide quarantine; the second was a campaign by the City Council in 1900 to pass a law banning out right the entry of everyone suffering from tuberculosis. While both measures failed, the campaigns reflected the increasing intensity of the efforts by local civic leaders to stop health seekers from coming to the city. Those most concerned formed the California Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis in 1907, waging a massive public health campaign similar to one in New York in the 1890s.

These concerns were shared by leading members of Los Angeles’ Jewish community. These men and women had emigrated decades earlier, mainly from various German states and Western Europe, and had found great financial success in Los Angeles. The pioneers of this generation of immigrants - men like Isaias W. Hellman, Harris Newmark, Solomon Lazard, and Joseph Baruch – created large retail and wholesale trading enterprises and invested in real estate, oil and utilities. As a result, they helped to build the city’s first banks, develop its power, water and gas lines, and subdivide its new residential districts and towns. By the turn of the century, these “prosperous and acculturated” Jews had settled in affluent neighborhoods south and west of downtown and had been fully integrated into the city’s Anglo elite. They expressed the utmost concern over the city’s new Jewish arrivals: articles in the B’nai B’rith Messenger warned that “immense hoards of Jewish immigrants” were importing “immoral and unsanitary conditions,” and that the city was “overrun with people who have come from all parts of the world in quest of health, with little health and little means.” [8] 

These observations were colored by disdain for Eastern European Jews in particular, but they also reflected the attitudes that many arriving tuberculars confronted upon arriving in Los Angeles. Most could not work because of their ailments, and found it difficult to find housing because people were reluctant to rent to them, fearing they would spread their disease to other tenants. If they did not have family members or friends to support them, the tuberculars ended up hopelessly dependent on charity, turning either to the county’s relief “rolls” or to the city’s oldest charity, the Hebrew Benevolent Society, of which most of the leading members of the Jewish community were members. Jewish elites worried that the new arrivals would drain Jewish community resources and potentially threaten their status among the city’s Anglo elite.

In 1901, Jacob Schlesinger, the president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, recognized that health care concerns were becoming the most pressing problem among the city’s Jewish population and proposed the idea of creating a Jewish hospital to care for the rising number of victims of tuberculosis in the city. Most leaders of the Society opposed the idea, fearing that creating such an institution would only make matters worse as it would attract even more migrants suffering from tuberculosis to the city. But one of the board members expressed a keen interest in helping. His name was Kaspare Cohn

Kaspare Cohn, nephew of pioneer community leader and memorist Harris Newmark, landed in Los Angeles in the late 1850s and became a successful entrepreneur and pillar of the Jewish community. In keeping with his commitment to the principles of tzedekah, in 1902 he donated a beautiful Victorian house at 1443 Carroll Avenue in Angelino Heights to be used as a hospital for Jewish tuberculars.
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