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

As Fresno entered the third week of the flu pandemic, health officials scrambled to check the rapid spread of the virus and to convince residents to take it seriously. “This influenza is no joke,” observed Fresno County Hospital superintendent Dr. J. D. Morgan. “The epidemic has not yet reached its height….No reasonable precaution should be neglected.”

Day 15—Saturday, Oct. 19, 1918

“Grip Causes 2 More Deaths,” announced a headline in the Fresno Morning Republican on October 19, Day 15 of the outbreak. Dr. Carelton Mathewson, Fresno’s health officer, also reported that the city had 36 new cases of the flu. The public must “take the utmost precautions against infection,” he urged, “in order to check the epidemic.”

It was not clear, however, that city residents were ready to take such steps. “The influenza mask has made its way from New York to Fresno,” observed one story. Yet the masks—which ranged from cheesecloth coverings to chiffon veils—had elicited laughter from those “who had never suffered from the grip.”

And the Society page reported that numerous bridge games, dinner parties, and club meetings went on as planned. At least a few social gatherings, including Miss Ilma Perrin’s “informal knitting party,” had been postponed indefinitely.

Day 16—Sunday, Oct. 20, 1918

Sunday, October 20, brought a bit of positive news. In the latest Liberty Loan drive, cheered Fresno Morning Republican editor Chester Rowell, Fresno County has gone “over the top”—“fully a million dollars over.” Fresnans should be particularly proud, he continued, because they had raised this sum in the face of raisin crop damage, German peace talk, and the influenza outbreak.

The paper also relayed that Fresno churches, which had been closed to check the flu pandemic, were coming together to hold a “large open-air meeting” at Courthouse Park at 11 am that day. It is not clear why congregation leaders deemed it wise to gather together into one combined service.

Meanwhile, the small town of Coalinga announced that it had over 100 cases of the virus, several of which have developed into pneumonia. As a result, Coalinga closed its schools, theaters, and churches and banned dances and fraternal meetings.

Day 17—Monday, Oct. 21, 1918

Monday, October 21, brought grim headlines. “Grip Epidemic Is Much Worse, Say Officials,” declared one. “Two Thousand Cases in Kern,” announced another. Fresno health officials warned that residents “are being needlessly exposed to the Spanish influenza, and the epidemic has reached all parts of the city, prostrating numbers of persons and causing daily deaths.”

300 cases have been recorded in the last ten days, observed Dr. Mathewson, but he viewed that figure as a gross undercount. “I have every reason to believe that there are hundreds of other cases,” maintained the city health officer. Mathewson attributed the underreporting to “a lack of co-operation on the part of the families of infected persons” as well as the failure of overburdened physicians to file flu cases in a timely manner.

Still, Mathewson argued that the city continued to step up the fight against the virus. It had ordered saloons and restaurants to sterilize all dishes and glasses, to refrain from employing used napkins for drying, and to send home all sick employees. And “more drastic regulations”—including “the probable closing of pool halls” and the “possible closing of saloons, soda fountains and candy shops”—were in works.

But such measures, he added, would matter little if the public didn’t take greater caution. Too many sick people were going out. Mathewson himself had observed “a number of young students in shops mingling with bad coughs and colds.”

Making matters worse, the Fresno County Hospital was nearly full, occupied mostly by “indigents,” according to hospital superintendent J.D. Morgan. Just “one of the cases admitted in the last week has been dismissed,” he said. The city and county had begun working to transform the county orphanage—which had closed earlier that year—into a pay-patient hospital. Unfortunately, only two nurses to run this second hospital had been secured so far. Morgan also noted that the flu epidemic was “very severe” among Fresno’s Mexican residents, and most members of that community were being treated at home.

Fresno County Orphanage, which had been closed in early 1918, was transformed into a pay-patient hospital during the pandemic.

Day 18—Tuesday, Oct. 22, 1918

“Fresno Reports 213 New Influenza Cases in Day,” proclaimed the Republican on October 22. This extraordinary uptick—which pushed the city’s total number of cases above 500—spurred new steps to fight the pandemic:

  • All poolrooms were closed as were some other gathering spaces.
  • New warnings were issued to restaurants and saloons.
  • The county orphanage opened as a new, temporary hospital for pay patients. Beds in the Fresno County Hospital were reserved for “new indigent cases.”
  • The City Council authorized the purchase of hospital equipment to outfit a day nursery at D and Santa Clara streets, which would serve as the city’s third hospital.

The October 22nd issue of the paper conveyed the news that Fresno’s first health care worker had died from the pandemic. Dr. Edward Schwartz, who had worked at the county hospital since July, as well has two of his patients—Gus Behrens, a city employee, and Victor Caleddrivi, a 17-year-old student—had passed away the previous day.

The Republican also reported on the unanimous adoption of resolutions objecting to the city’s decision to allow pool halls and saloons to remain open while closing churches and schools at the open-air church service held at Courthouse Park on Sunday. This protest foreshadowed a more pitched fight that would erupt after a second wave of the flu hit Fresno in December.

In the meantime, comments by Fresno mayor William F. Toomey highlighted the growing concern, even among pandemic skeptics. “The time for withholding facts from the public has passed,” concluded Toomey, “and the time is here when it seems necessary to make the public a warning that conditions are so serious that every possible precaution must be taken.” Toomey had been slower than many of his colleagues to acknowledge the danger posed by the flu. But by Day 18 of the Fresno’s pandemic, the mayor could no longer downplay the threat.

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.