New: Tales of Fictional Berkeley Plagues

Steven Finacom
Copyright by the author
Wednesday March 18, 2020 - 09:36:00 PM

Has Berkeley ever been depopulated by a virulent plague?

Yes. At least twice, in fact! In fiction and novels, that is.

Both stories provide a glimpse of fictional worlds which have now come perhaps a little too close to our own current reality. Empty streets, a depopulated Berkeley campus, infectious disease that can strike instantly at anyone. 

The better known story is probably Earth Abides, written by UC Berkeley professor and popular novelist, George Stewart. But Stewart had a more famous predecessor who wrote a lesser known novel with almost precisely the same theme and trajectory. 

That was Jack London. His 1912 novella, The Scarlet Plague, originally published in magazine form, is the first fictional account I know of that depicted a Berkeley shut down by a terrible and sudden outbreak of disease. 

Below I summarize their plots and essential messages. Spoiler: if you want to read them yourself, and be surprised by the endings, don’t read any further. 

Both stories are largely set in Berkeley and have shared themes and trajectories: 

  1. humanity is suddenly and catastrophically devastated by an infectious disease that spreads relentlessly and rapidly and kills almost everyone;
  2. the protagonist, one educated man (in both cases, a UC Berkeley scholar) survives;
  3. he gradually discovers and joins with a small group of other survivors;
  4. their first common cause is to continue to survive themselves; next, to multiply so that humanity won’t die out. Finding a sustainable way to live and rapidly producing and raising children become their paramount missions;
  5. the protagonist takes it as his additional mission to re-establish a form of civilization, and…
…well, you will need to read more of this essay to find out. 

With real prescience Stewart prefaces his story with a quote from virologist and biochemist Wendell Stanley that rings eerily familiar today. Stanley, who would join the UC Berkeley faculty in 1948, wrote in 1947: If a killing type of virus strain should suddenly arise by mutationit could, because of the rapid transportation in which we indulge nowadays, be carried to the far corners of the earth and cause the deaths of millions of people. 


The Scarlet Plague 

Bay Area native Jack London is probably best known today as a writer of adventure fiction, and somewhat lesser known as a prolific crusading journalist and Socialist of his era. What may be least known about his literary output is that he also wrote what might be called “futurism”, usually in literary service to his Socialist sympathies, and some of his books explored realms that today would be called science fiction. 

His novel, The Iron Heel, is set in a dystopian future in which super-rich oligarchs rule the country and control all the points of power, including government, industry, commerce, and the military, while the poor and working class have few rights or opportunities and lead abject wage-slave existences.

The world of The Scarlet Plague is a bit gentler, but also similar. Extremely rich oligarchs are also in command there. There’s “the Board of Industrial Magnates…who ruled America,” with the leader living on a thousand acre estate in the East Bay Hills. 

Technology in this world of the future has advanced to a point where “dirigibles and flying machines” can reliably travel 200 miles an hour and there are eight billion people in the world; the East Bay alone has a population of seven million. (London writes in a common vein of futurists who can somewhat extrapolate the evolution of current trends and technology, but do not make great leaps of speculative imagination. Although he places his story a century in the future from 1912, its world and characters are much closer to 1912 then to the actual 2013.) 

The main character, James Howard Smith, is a comfortably well off young professor of English literature at UC Berkeley who has essentially inherited his academic position. 

Sixty years later, as a white bearded “Grandser” with a goat skin for clothing, he tells his grandsons the story of the plague in flashbacks while they graze their goats near Ocean Beach in a depopulated San Francisco. 

First he tries to explain what pre-plague life was like. 

You remember those great stone houses, Edwin, when we came down from the hills from Contra Costa? That was where I lived, in those stone housesin the University of Californiathat is the name we had for the houseswe taught young men and women how to thinkThere was very much to teach. The young men and women we taught were called students. We had large rooms in which we taught. I talked to them, forty or fifty at a time, just as I am talking to you now. I told them about the books other men had written before their time, and even, sometimes, in their time…” 

One of the boys rudely interrupts. Was that all you did?just talk, talk, talk? Who hunted your meat for you? and milked the goats? and caught the fish?” 

The boy can’t grasp the concept of intellectual pursuits or education or even reading but in a distant way he puts his finger on a common complaint about humanities scholars in higher education—they just like to talk. 

In The Scarlet Plague, the Berkeley academic world is upended when disease strikes in 2013. It is called the “scarlet plague” because, the narrator relates, “the whole face and body turned scarlet in an hour’s time”. It is all over the world, all over the country, after arriving first in New York—and then all over the Bay Area. 

(There’s a presage of way COVID-19 was initially handled in that news reports reveal that the plague was rampant in London for two weeks before it reached the United States, but the British had suppressed any news of the outbreak. So North America might have survived if governments had known immediately what was happening in England and quarantined ships of both the air and the sea arriving from Europe.) 

You know what sickness is. We called it a disease. Very many of the diseases came from what we called germsa germ is a very small thing.” “No one ever recoveredfrom the moment of the first signs of it, a man would be dead in an hourmany died within ten or fifteen minutes of the appearance of the first signs. 

The bodies decomposed quickly, almost falling apart before the eyes of horrified observers, and hastening the spread of the pathogens. 

The Scarlet Death broke out in San Francisco. The first death came on a Monday morning. By Thursday they were dying like flies in Oakland and San Francisco. They died everywherein their beds, at their work, walking along the street. It was on Tuesday that I saw my first deathMiss Collbran, one of my students, sitting right there before my eyes, in my lecture-room.

The stricken co-ed turned scarlet, and almost all the other students ran out of the room. She lay on the floor, a bundle of notebooks under her head. And we could do nothing.She died in just 15 minutes. 

Yet in those few minutes I remained with the dying woman in my classroom, the alarm had spread over the university; and the students, by thousands, all of them, had deserted the lecture-room and laboratories. When I emerged, on my way to make report to the President of the Faculty, I found the university deserted…”

Everything had stopped. It was like the end of the world to memy world. I had been born within sight and sound of the university. It had been my predestined career. My father had been a professor there before me, and his father before him. For a century and a half had this university, like a splendid machine, been running steadily on. And now, in an instant, it had stopped. It was like seeing the sacred flame die down on some thrice-sacred altar. I was shocked, unutterably shocked. 

Professor Smith rushes home and his housekeeper, who has already heard of the death in his class, flees, dropping her luggage in her haste to get away from him.I can hear her scream to this day. You see, we did not act in this way when ordinary diseases smote us. We were always calm over such things, and sent for the doctors and nurses who knew just what to do. But this was different…” 

Society falls apart by the hour. Dead bodies lay everywhere. Thursday night the panic outrush for the country began.The wealthy fled by airship to Hawaii, but not only did they bring the plague with them, but they found the plague already there before them. Communication ceased with other cities, nations, continents. There is one last radio broadcast from burning New York with the operator saying a serum has been reportedly discovered in Germany. Then, silence. 

With the coming of the Scarlet Death the world fell apart, absolutely, irretrievably. Ten thousand years of culture and civilization passed in the twinkling of an eye. 

As chaos spreads, Professor Smith and his brother organize a party of those who are not yet sick, gather provisions and weapons, and barricade themselves in the Chemistry Building on the Berkeley campus. His brother catches the plague and dies before they get there, as do many others. 

The sights in the street were terrible. One stumbled on bodies everywhere. Some were not yet deadThere were numerous fires burning in Berkeley, while Oakland and San Francisco were apparently being swept by great conflagrationsTruly, my grandsons, it was like the last days of the end of the world.” “It was an awe-inspiring spectacle. Civilization, my grandsons, civilization was passing in a sheet of flame and a breath of death. 

There were numerous stalled motor carsPeople slipped by silently, furtively, like ghostsall fleeing out of the city of death. Some carried supplies of food, others blankets and valuables, and there were many who carried nothingCivilization was crumbling, and it was each for himself. 

The Chemistry Building offers only a temporary respite. The refugees dig a well and organize themselves and fight off attacks by roving bands of looters. Then the powder works north of Berkeley explode, breaking the windows and allowing in contaminated air. Many desperate or depraved people roam the campus have given themselves over to wild carousing and destruction and repeatedly try to storm the building. 

After all, what did it matter? Everybody died anyway, the good and the bad, the efficient and the weaklings, those that loved to live and those that scorned to live. They passed. Everything passed. 

Soon, the plague appears among those in the Chemistry Building. Leaving the dead lying, we forced the living ones to segregate themselves in another room. The plague began to break out among the rest of us, and as fast the symptoms appeared, we sent the stricken ones to these segregated roomsIt was heartrending. 

(A note about locations. Jack London, who grew up in Oakland, was familiar with the Berkeley campus and had even been a student there for a semester. His description of the “great stone buildings” is true to form for the early 1900s when the grand, granite, edifices of the Beaux Arts campus were rising. He refers to the campus refuge as the Chemistry Building, but from his details—of a central courtyard with concrete floors, a location high on the campus, etc.—I wonder if he was describing the granite sheathed Hearst Mining Building, the largest, most magnificent structure on the campus in 1912, aside from Doe Library. In that year the actual Chemistry Building on the campus was a large brick affair, without a courtyard.) 

47 out of the original 400 who entered the building survive to leave in a last, ill-fated, effort to make it to the country. They continue to manifest symptoms and die along the way. Only 30 are left when they make it to rural Hayward. Then eleven are left. Then three. Then just one, Professor Smith. 

Why this should be so there is no explaining. I did not catch the plague, that is all. I was immune. I was merely the one lucky man in a millionjust as every survivor was one in a million, or, rather, in several millions for the proportion was at least that. 

Professor Smith travels alone, securing a horse and some friendly dogs, and living off food he finds in the abandoned, empty, land. He spends three years in “the great hotel” in Yosemite which is well stocked with canned goods but experiences “utter loneliness that none but a man who has once been highly civilized can understand.” 

Ultimately he returns to the Bay Area and finds that other survivors have slowly gathered together and formed embryonic tribes. Ironically, one tiny tribe, the “Chauffeurs”, has been formed and ruled by the brutal and uncouth limousine driver for a now dead billionaire, and has forcibly taken the oligarch’s young widow as his wife and servant. 

A half century later there are growing tribes—the Santa Rosans, the Sacramen-tos, and the Palo-Altos, as well as the Chauffeurs, and a few others. “I estimate the present population of the world at between three hundred and fifty and four hundred”, Professor Smith muses. 

The great world which I knew in my boyhood and early manhood is gone. It has ceased to be. I am the last man who was alive in the days of the plaque and who knows the wonders of that far-off time. We, who mastered the planetits earth, and sea, and skyand who were as very gods, now live in primitive savagery along the water courses of this California countryIf only one physicist or one chemist had survived! But it was not to be, and we have forgotten everything. 

Still, he clings to some hope. All that is lost must be discovered agin.He has stored many booksin a cave on Telegraph Hill.In them is great wisdom. 

But then he realizes his ignorant and illiterate grandchildren, scoffing at or mis-understanding his tales, are evidence that the world must rebuild itself over many generations and cannot be re-made by one man in a few years. One boy brags about how he’s going to be a medicine man offering incantations and curses in exchange for food and clothing, the second dreams of being a warrior, and the third wants to become leader of the tribe. 

None are interested in scholarship or scholars, discovering better ways to do things, or learning to read. 

And even if some form of civilization rises again, London has his narrator say, “of what profit will it be? Just as the old civilization passed, so will the new. It may take fifty thousand years to build, but it will pass. All things pass. Only remain cosmic force and matter, ever in flux, ever acting and reacting and realizing the eternal typesthe priest, the soldier, and the king. Out of the mouths of babes comes the wisdom of all the ages. 

Earth Abides 

London told a tale of a civilization collapsing in a few weeks, disappearing in fire and debauchery and death. 

George Stewart crafted an equally horrific story—but also in some ways both gentler and more horrible than London’s fire and fury—in his post-apocalyptical novel, Earth Abides, which was published in 1949. 

Stewart was probably influenced by his own experiences as a recent Princeton University graduate who surviving the 1918-18 influenza epidemic which infected one in three humans then living and killed tens of millions (including some in Berkeley.) 

I have also wondered if he had read The Scarlet Plague? His theme and setting and the basic plot mechanics are so similar to London’s novella that it could be more than an curious coincidence. One powerful story can begat another one of the same type. And Earth Abides had similar impact on later novelists. Stephen King has apparently written that his apocalyptic horror novel, The Stand, was influenced by Earth Abides (in King’s novel, a weaponized super flu is accidentally released from a U.S. military base and devastates the world.) 

But back to Earth Abides. Stewart’s protagonist, Isherwood “Ish” Williams, a graduate student at Berkeley, is away in the Sierra doing ecology field research and suffers a snakebite. After weeks of slow and solitary recovery in a completely isolated cabin, he returns to settled regions and is astonished to find everyone gone, except for the occasional body. No fires, ruins, or visible disasters—just empty homes, towns, cities. Everyone it seems has died of a sudden contagion. 

He arrives in a country town, finding it untouched but empty of human life. 

Theres nobody!he decided. Then the grim suggestion of the word itself struck him. Nobodyno body! 

A last issue of the San Francisco Chronicle scrounged from a shop finally gives him some information. 

The headlines told him what was most essential. The United States from coast to coast was overwhelmed by the attack of some new and unknown disease of unparalleled rapidity of spread, and fatality. Estimates for various cities, admittedly little more than guesses, indicated that between 25 percent and 35 percent of the population had already died…” 

He returns to his home in Berkeley and finds the town empty as well. It’s perhaps a measure of the times that Ish, a graduate student, lived in a shingled single family home in the Berkeley Hills, not a cramped shared apartment in the flatlands. 

San Lupo Drive was high enough on the hills to be proud of its view. As he sat there looking out, everything seemed about the samehe saw beneath him all the intricate pattern of the lights in the East Bay citieis, and beyond that the yellow chains of lights on the Bay Bridge, and still farther through the faint evening mist, the glow of the San Francisco lights and the fainter chains on the Golden Gate Bridge. Even the traffic lights were still working, changing from green to red. High upon the bridge towers the flashes silently sent their warnings to airplanes which would no longer ever be flying. 

Is he the only one spared? Initially he thinks so. Later, exploring the empty streets and periodically blowing his automobile horn, he discovers a few local survivors who were apparently either isolated themselves during the plague or had immunity. 

But all of them are distracted or aimless—one sits almost dead drunk with access to an endless supply of looted liquor, another setting himself up as a hermit surrounded with piles of canned goods and random miscellaneous, and now meaningless, luxury items he’s collected. No one is interested in having other than themselves for company. 

He begins to wonder was mankind going to survive? Well, that was one of those interesting points which gave him the will to live. But certainly the result of his days research gave him little confidence. In fact, if these survivors were typical, who would wish mankind to survive? 

Ultimately un-despairing, he makes a plan, gathers supplies, finds a reliable automobile and motorcycle as back-up and leaves Berkeley, traveling around the country to look for other humans. He finds some here and there, but all are just literally surviving, none trying to rebuild a functioning community. He finds no place that has not been almost entirely depopulated by the plague. 

Finally, he returns to Berkeley, where—of course, given Berkeley’s tendency to be at the beginning of things—he wants to either invent the new world or revive part of the old. He finds a few other survivors, this time congenial, they band together, and form a relatively pacific community living in adjacent houses in the Berkeley Hills. 

They agree to basic rules of living, amiably pair off male and female, and try to produce as many children as they can and avoid too much interbreeding in the early generations. The homes and shops of the still un-ravished but empty city around them supply ample canned goods, clothing, tools, guns and ammunition for hunting. For a time they even have electricity from distant automatically operating hydroelectric plants, and water, supplied from hill reservoirs by gravity, although eventually, inevitably, the utilities fail. 

As the children multiply, Ish attempts to educate them. He has intentionally preserved the University Library as a holy repository of human knowledge, and intends the collections of the Central Berkeley Library building to be the core of active education and study. 

But there is little interest. The children, born after the apocalypse, want to learn to hunt, fish, grow crops, cook, and play, not study. The one child that shows aptitude and interest dies young of disease (not the plague) carried by an adult newcomer to the community. 

And all of the other older adults are content just to have adequate food, shelter, and the security of a small community. They talk about doing great works, but nothing is seriously undertaken. 

The tribe goes through various experiences and travails, each year bringing new challenges and experiences. As the numbers multiply the original survivors age, and Ish begins to realize that he can’t forcibly recreate a technological and literate modern world on his own. 

Gradually the survivors die off and the children of the tribe become young, then mature, adults, still keeping together in a coherent social group and growing in size and security, but not interested much in the old times. The libraries Ish has saved and admonished them to respect become the equivalent of shrines viewed superstitiously and avoided by the young, not repositories of knowledge; after all, only Ish can read. 

At the very end, wildfire sweeps over the Berkeley Hills, relentlessly destroying the old brown shingle homes. The tribe flees ahead of the city-wide flames and after they traverse the flatlands and start climbing up the long incline of the deteriorating Bay Bridge to find a new home in the ruins of San Francisco, the extremely elderly Ish—like Jack London’s James Smith, the last and ancient survivor of the time before the plague—suffers a fatal collapse. 

Looking back at the burning East Bay he recalls the words of Ecclesiastes 1:4 Men go and come, but earth abides. 

As shall we all. 

Steven Finacom is a Berkeley community historian and a past president of the Berkeley Historical Society. He writes a weekly column for the Berkeley Voice on Berkeley history a century ago. 


You can read more about George Stewarts writing and Earth Abides here: 



A complete facsimile of The Scarlet Plague can be found online as a Project Guttenberg scan.