1916: New York City struggled to control an epidemic of poliomyelitis. Nine thousand cases of the infectious disease, also called infantile paralysis, were reported; 2,343 people died. Most of the victims were children.
The disease was known to be caused by the poliovirus, but the way the
virus spread from victim to victim was not yet understood. Scapegoats were
found. Newly arrived Italian immigrants in the Pigtown district were suspected
of bringing the disease into the country. Cats were blamed, and tens of
thousands were slaughtered by the authorities, assisted by eager young boys who
wrongly believed there was a bounty on the animals. On 26 July, The New York
Times carried the headline:
72,000 CATS KILLED
IN PARALYSIS FEAR
Other culprits suggested by the general public included ice cream, summer fruits, “moisty air”, tarantulas (which injected the virus into bananas), feather pillows, the tickling of children, and sharks (which breathed in poison gas and germs from dead bodies on the battlefields of Europe and carried the gas and germs across the Atlantic).
Source: Tony Gould, A Summer Plague: Polio and Its Survivors (1995), chap. 1