Dispatches from Fresno, 1918-19: Following the "Spanish" Flu Pandemic in Real Time

Millions of Americans are scrambling to adjust to the extraordinary changes spurred by the novel coronavirus pandemic—schools and colleges have suspended classes, restaurants, bars, and theaters have closed, all public events have been canceled. Few, if any, of us have lived through something like this before.

But the coronavirus outbreak is hardly an unprecedented event, and we have plenty of information about what happened the last time around. A little over a century ago, in 1918-1919, an even deadlier respiratory virus killed 50 to 100 million people worldwide. That influenza pandemic sparked exactly the same sort of responses that began last week—schools and saloons were shuttered, public performances were outlawed.

To provide some historical context for the current state of affairs, I’ve decided to catalog, in real time, how my hometown of Fresno, in California’s Central Valley, responded to the 1918-19 flu pandemic. 

This is the first in a series of regular dispatches from 1918-19, as Fresnans (and Americans and people across the globe) struggled to deal with their own deadly pandemic.

Day 1—Saturday, Oct. 5, 1918

“Cases of Spanish grippe have been discovered in Fresno recently,” observed the Fresno Morning Republican, “but the grippe is not epidemic here.” In a brief column buried on page 11 of its Oct. 5 edition, the newspaper announced the arrival of a new flu strain that had been spreading across the country that fall.

Although dubbed the “Spanish grippe” or “Spanish flu,” this H1N1 strain did not originate in Spain. In fact, the first cases were observed in the United States in the spring of 1918. But World War I combatants, including Germany, France, the UK, and the US, initially censored stories about the virus, while in Spain, a neutral country, the press was free to cover the pandemic, giving the inaccurate impression that it was centered there.

By early October, Americans were dying from the flu from coast to coast. Yet the pandemic had only begun to touch Fresno, a small city (pop. 45,000) in the heart of California’s Central Valley. So, local authorities urged the public to take precautions, advising those who were sick to isolate themselves. 

Their broader message, however, was that there was little to fear. “Treat the grippe early,” concluded Dr. C. Mathewson, the city’s health officer, “and it is very amenable to treatment, and no serious complications are likely to occur.” Unfortunately, Dr. Mathewson and the rest of Fresno would soon learn how wrong this prediction was.

Day 2—Sunday, Oct. 6, 1918

One day after a Fresno health official announced the arrival of the flu, while also downplaying its danger, the Fresno Morning Republican displayed little concern over the local spread of the virus. Instead, the daily paper focused Central Valley readers’ attention on the devastating conflict in Europe, especially a German proposal to suspend hostilities and open talks to bring World War I to a close.

The Republican did include three brief pieces that touched on the influenza pandemic:

  • First, a column explaining that Philadelphia, an epicenter of the outbreak, was prohibiting liquor sales, or, as the paper put it, going “bone dry.”
  • Second, a report of the death of a Madera County man who was serving in the Navy in Brooklyn.
  • Finally, the Society page announced that Chester H. Rowell, editor of the Republican, and his wife had just returned from Berkeley, where their daughter Cora was a student. Cora, the column noted, was recovering from a bout with “something akin to the prevalent Spanish grip.”

For the time being, however, the flu pandemic stayed a minor story in Fresno.

Day 4—Tuesday, Oct. 8, 1918

As the influenza virus quietly spread through Fresno and surrounding communities, on Day 4 of its documented arrival in the city, the Fresno Morning Republican continued to treat the pandemic primarily as a national and international—rather than a local—threat.

Stories in the October 8th edition of the paper focused on the pandemic’s impact elsewhere:

  • In Washington, D.C., congressmen debated Germany’s armistice proposal before vacant Capitol galleries, which had been closed to limit the spread of the contagious illness.
  • In Quantico, VA, Brigadier General Charles A. Doyen, who commanded the first Marine corps regiment to be sent to the front in France, died of influenza.
  • In Williamsport, PA, a Woman’s Home Missionary Society national convention was postponed indefinitely.
  • In Camp Lewis, in Tacoma, WA, an army bulletin observed that “quarantines for influenza are practically valueless,” though it also warned soldiers and civilians “to remain away from crowds in theaters” and other public venues.
  • And in many places across the country, the virus was beginning to seriously undercut Liberty Loan campaigns to raise money for the war effort.

But for all the attention on the flu’s impact elsewhere, two stories in the Central Valley section of the paper made it clear that a storm was building closer to home:

The Felker family, of Waterford, CA, buried their 19-year old son Albert—the first victim of the pandemic in Stanislaus County. The Felkers had recently returned from Cuba, via New Orleans, aboard a train that carried two soldiers suffering from the flu.

A couple in nearby Riverbank also contracted the virus from soldiers traveling home by train, in this case from Kansas.

“The cases here are being isolated as fast as they develop,” concluded the Riverbank report. Whether it would be fast enough to contain the influenza outbreak in Waterford and the rest of the Central Valley remained to be seen.

Ethan J. Kytle is a professor of history at California State University, Fresno. His latest book, coauthored with Blain Roberts, is Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, which was published by The New Press in 2018. Ethan’s work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Civil War Monitor, and the Fresno Bee. For more installments in our Dispatches from Fresno series, click here.