Dispatches from Fresno, 1918-19: Following the ‘Spanish’ Flu Pandemic in Real Time, Part II

General Hospital of Fresno County, 1917, courtesy of the San Joaquin Valley Library System

As Fresno’s flu outbreak passed the one-week mark, the virus’s deadly potential started to come into focus, at least for some local officials. Stories about the pandemic’s impact in California appeared more regularly in the pages of the Fresno Morning Republican, while Central Valley communities began to suffer a number of tragic, pandemic-related ‘firsts.’

Day 6—Thursday, Oct. 10, 1918

The California Board of Health has reached out to Fresno city health officer Dr. C. Mathewson, wrote the Republican on Oct. 10, advising the city “to take all necessary measures to prevent spread of the influenza or grippe locally.” The board authorized Fresno officials to isolate every person afflicted with the flu and called on nurses and physicians to report in writing all known cases. Should an epidemic take hold in Fresno, state authorities stipulated, residents must be urged to avoid crowded offices and street cars.

Tulare County, meanwhile, recorded its first death from the virus: William Rutherford, who had recently come from Oklahoma. Rutherford’s wife, three kids, and a nephew were all in a Visalia hospital, added the Republican, “stricken by the same malady.”

The October 10 edition of the paper did include some uplifting news, including a piece on former Fresnan Margaret Staples, who had “recently gained the distinction of being the first San Francisco girl” to be sworn in as a Marine Corp Reservist, or “Marinette,” as the female enlistees were sometimes called. Yet even this feel-good story couldn’t escape the pandemic’s taint. In a letter Private Staples sent to friends in Fresno, which the Republican reproduced in full, she mentioned the arrival at her San Francisco recruiting office of two ill Marines, just back from overseas. “Imagine how scared we were,” Staples wrote, when a doctor “pronounced them both sick with Spanish Influenza.”

Day 7—Friday, Oct. 11, 1918

Stories in the Fresno Morning Republican on October 11 highlighted the virus’s rising tide in the city and adjacent areas:

  • Dr. Mathewson announced that 35 influenza cases—some mild, some severe—had been reported to him the day before. The city health officer also relayed that Fresno had not yet suffered a death from the illness.
  • The paper observed that the city had taken its first action to forestall further transmission of the flu. The previous evening Dr. Mathewson and Dr. Ralph Nauss, of the state Board of Health, had visited fifteen “drinking places,” instructing their managers “to sterilize all drinking glasses” or face closure.
  • After the arrival of the virus in Selma, just twenty miles down the road from Fresno, Selma authorities implemented the first quarantine in the vicinity, closing all public schools, theaters, lodge assemblies, and church gatherings.

Day 8—Saturday, Oct. 12, 1918

“Action on ‘Flu’ Delayed 24 Hours,” declared a headline in the Fresno Morning Republican on October 12. With 50 reported cases of the flu in the city, health officials vowed to spend the next day determining “whether the danger of the spread of the Spanish influenza in Fresno warrants the summary closing of all public amusement places” and the prohibition of large public gatherings. Fresno mayor William F. Toomey, for his part, voiced his opposition to these measures unless the Board of Health deemed them “absolutely necessary.”

As the Board of Health deliberated, reports of illness in the city mounted. On the evening of October 11, the Fresno County Hospital had announced that it was caring for six new influenza patients (one man and five women), most of whom had been hospitalized in the past day. The hospital also noted that the city had experienced its first fatalities from the pandemic: “One patient died since October 6 and two since the 9th.”

Another Republican column identified a fourth Fresno victim: a twenty-eight-year old bricklayer S.A. Barry who had passed away on October 11 from a bronchial pneumonia brought on by a bout of influenza.

Eight days after the virus first appeared in Fresno, the burgeoning health crisis was becoming impossible to ignore. But key questions remained unanswered: Would city officials take decisive action to halt to the spread of the virus? And, if so, when?

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 BeeFor more installments in our Dispatches from Fresno series, click here.