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

As Fresno entered the second week of the influenza epidemic, all eyes were on the Board of Health, which had been considering closing public amusement places and outlawing public meetings to stop the spread of the virus since October 12. After four days of deliberation, the Board of Health took decisive action to stop the deadly outbreak.

Day 12—Wednesday, Oct. 16, 1918

By order of the Fresno Board of Health, announced the Fresno Morning Republican on Wednesday, October 16, “all public gatherings indoors have been prohibited and all schools in the city suspended.” The prohibition also applied to playgrounds, theaters, and churches as well as all sizable meetings, dances, and socials. The Board of Health had met late the previous evening and stipulated that the new measures were to go into effect the following morning—Day 12 of the outbreak.

City officials had hoped to keep schools open and to allow Liberty Loan drive rallies to continue unimpeded. But “the situation was deemed too serious.” The pandemic had already claimed six lives, observed city health officer Dr. C. Mathewson, while 251 were sick with the virus. And new cases were mounting, with 59 reported over the past 24 hours.

The Fresno Board of Health, it is worth noting, acted relatively swiftly compared to its counterparts in other American cities. According to a 2007 study, San Francisco implemented nonpharmaceutical interventions—as scholars label social distancing measures such as school closure and public gathering prohibition—24 days after its first case. The U.S.’s hardest hit city, Philadelphia, which suffered 16,000 deaths and 500,000 cases of the flu in the first six months of the pandemic, took 37 days to enact such measures.

How does Fresno stack up? Applying this study’s methodology to data I’ve culled for Fresno, which was not included in its investigation, I found that Fresno took 19 days to implement nonpharmaceutical interventions, less time than many larger and more densely populated cities. Indeed, on this front Fresno closely resembled St. Louis—perhaps the most successful city in terms of limiting the death toll from 1918 flu outbreak—which took 15 days to intervene.**

In addition to these new social distancing measures, noted the Republican, Fresno authorities began making preparations to expand the city’s number of hospital beds. And they instructed all physicians in the city to document new cases on a daily basis. “The movement for closing is state wide,” concluded the paper. “Southern California cities especially are closing, reporting success in combating the influenza.”

The Republican also cataloged the spread of the pandemic throughout California and the rest of the country for its anxious readers:

  • “Death toll high among cases of Spanish influenza,” announced a front-page headline. Although the virus appeared to be subsiding in army camps—where it had raged for more than a month—it had “reached epidemic proportions in practically every state in the country” despite “all the efforts by federal, state and local authorities.”
  • The nearby town of Clovis reported between 35 and 40 cases of the flu and one death, and it, too, canceled “schools, picture shows, and public gatherings.”
  • Hanford had 17 “authenticated cases” of the virus, “an exceptionally high percent for a community this size,” observed the Republican. The Hanford city trustees responded to the outbreak by naming a new board of health and making plans to refit the “old Anna Doran hospital” for city cases and the fair grounds for county cases.
  • Modesto displayed less alarm, despite roughly 50 cases. Officials closed theaters there were considering asking churches to suspend services. But the schools remained open and, according to Republican, residents believed “that the disease will prove no more serious…than a heavy cold.”
  • Bakersfield leaders likewise minimized the severity of their outbreak, even though the city was home to 400 people sick with the flu. “No serious cases are reported,” noted the paper, “and it is thought that the condition is well under control.”

Finally, the October 16 edition of the Republican included two flu-related advertisements, which would become a staple of the paper in the months to come.

This first ad claimed that Vick’s VapoRub stimulates “the lining of the air passages to throw off the grippe germs.”

The second ad was placed by the Owl Drug Company, which was located at the corner of J and Tulare streets. “It is not the function of The Owl Drug Stores to prescribe a remedy,” it stated, before adding that “frequent use of throat gargles, mouth washes, and nasal sprays is advisable as a guard” against the spread of the “Spanish Flu.” The advertisement included a list of prices for such items, concluding, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

** The 2007 study estimated the onset of the epidemic in a particular city by selecting “either the day of the first reported pneumonia and influenza case, or the calendar day of the first recorded pneumonia or influenza death minus 10 days, whichever was earlier.” According to my findings, the first reported date of a flu case in Fresno was October 5 and the first recorded flu victim in the city was Cuanatemoe Sisneross, who died on October 7. So, using this study’s criteria, Fresno’s onset day was September 27—19 days before nonpharmaceutical interventions were first implemented.

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.