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

As Fresno moved into the fourth week of its influenza outbreak, the situation appeared increasingly dire. Each day brought 100 or more new cases, the death toll climbed steadily, and city authorities struggled to keep up with an epidemic that threatened to overwhelm Fresno’s communication and health care infrastructure.

Day 19—Wednesday, Oct. 23, 1918

“Governor Asks Every Citizen to Wear Gauze Mask,” announced a front-page headline in the Fresno Morning Republican on Wednesday, October 23. Acknowledging the danger that the flu posed throughout the state of California, Governor William D. Stephens called on residents to cooperate with city, county, and state officials to combat the virus. His main recommendation: donning gauze masks in public.

New York street cleaner in flu mask, October 1918. Courtesy National Archives.

With more than 700 flu cases reported in Fresno, city authorities embraced the governor’s recommendation, though initially they only ordered people “who serve the public” to wear masks. Included in the new mandate were all clerks, packing house employees, barbers, streetcar conductors, elevator boys, waitresses, and bartenders. “Fruit must be packed and business must go on,” said Mayor William F. Toomey. “The masks if worn by everybody will check the epidemic. There is only one alternative—close every thing up.”

Then, as now, officials recommended that the general public make their own masks because no organization or agency, including the Red Cross, had a sufficient supply. The Republican printed basic guidelines for DIY masks: They “must cover both mouth and nose and must be made of from 4 to 6 thicknesses of sterile gauze or cheese cloth.” People were advised to boil their mask each night to sterilize it.

City health officer Carleton Mathewson warned that all individuals sick with the flu will be isolated according to state law. “Violators of the isolation law may and will be punished just as those are punished who break quarantine.” He also asked city residents to help out with enforcement of isolation by notifying the police if they witness an ill person “going about.”

A Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Company notice highlighted the strain the pandemic was putting on the city’s communication network—not unlike what is going on now in New York City, where the 911 system has been overwhelmed in recent days.

“Please do not telephone—day or night—unless it is absolutely necessary!” pled the company. Not only had the flu outbreak cut into PT&T’s “operating forces,” it also had “caused a tremendous increase in the volume of local telephone calls” at a time when nurses, physicians, and government officials needed to use phone lines.

“Keep your head,” Republican editor Chester H. Rowell advised his readers. As “sensational” rumors about the epidemic circulated around town, Howell took a moment to address the two types of stories that appear in a crisis:

  • “One line of whispered chatter is that there are a great many more cases than the papers are reporting and that the morning toll has been very high.”
  • “On the other hand, you will hear the talk that there is no such thing as Spanish influenza, that it is all pure newspaper sensationalism.”

Rowell viewed the latter form of gossip—accusations of newspaper sensationalism—to be the more dangerous, for it opened the door to inaction in the face of a deadly threat. “The epidemic is serious and the only way to check it is to recognize its seriousness and co-operate fully and cheerfully with the health authorities,” he insisted. Rowell pledged that his newspaper would continue to report the news fully and accurately, regardless of how painful it was: “There has been and will be no suppression of facts.”

Day 20—Thursday, Oct. 24, 1918

“Every man, woman and child who walks on Fresno’s streets today must wear a gauze ‘flu’ mask,” declared the Fresno Morning Republican on October 24, Day 20 of the outbreak. The day before, observed Dr. Mathewson and Mayor Toomey, hundreds of people had ignored the order that those who serve the public must to don masks. “So many excuses were made, so many persons denied that they came within yesterday’s order,” the officials observed, that they had “determined to make the order general.” 

Fresno residents, stated Mathewson, could purchase masks from the Red Cross for 10 cents or from drug stores for 15 to 25 cents.

Day 21—Friday, Oct. 25, 1918

One day after Fresno mandated masks in public, the Republican announced that city health officer Carleton Mathewson had the power to arrest any resident who ignores the mask order and “forcibly isolate” any flu patient who refuses to stay at home. Fresno police were ordered to begin enforcing the mask regulation at once.

Some residents, meanwhile, voiced concerns that saloons in the city remained open. “I see no difference between closing the saloons and closing the stores, the restaurants and the soda fountains,” replied Mathewson. “They are obeying my orders to sterilize all glasses in boiling water [and] are being watched.” The night before, in fact, Matthewson had closed four saloons, including the Center Bar and the Louvre Saloon, for failure to ensure that their bartenders wore masks.

Mayor Toomey and the Fresno Board of Trustees ordered the streets of downtown Fresno and Chinatown to be flushed by the fire department. The city, noted the Republican, would thereafter wash downtown streets every day rather than once a week, which was the custom to date.

The October 25th issue of the paper also included the first list of residents (35 to that point) who had died in the pandemic, beginning with Cuanatemoe Sisneross on October 7 and extending through Lucy Charrone and Peter Lau on the day before.

Day 22—Saturday, Oct. 26, 1918

The public is generally complying with the new mask order, reported the Republican on Day 22 of the pandemic. But the chief of police also informed the paper that several “willful” people had resisted. Thus far the police had guided individuals stopped on the street without a mask to a place where they could purchase one. Going forward, however, officers planned to arrest violators.

The October 26th issue of the Republican included news that Fresno’s soda fountains, candy stores, and ice cream parlors had “voluntarily agreed” to close down at 8 pm each night for the duration of the epidemic. And, at Mathewson’s request, city saloon owners said that they, too, would abide by this new closing time.

The four saloons that the city health officer had shut down on Thursday evening for failing to abide by the mask regulation remained closed. In addition, Mathewson had closed two grocery stores near the Santa Fe depot as well as a Japanese restaurant where, it was reported, “the manager…was going from an influenza patient directly into the dining room and serving patrons.”

Day 23—Sunday, Oct. 27, 1918

“Hospitals Crowded With Influenza Patients,” declared a Fresno Morning Republican headline on Sunday, October 27. With 133 new cases reported the day before, all three Fresno hospitals—the permanent county facility and temporary hospitals at the county orphanage and a nursery—had run out of beds. At around midnight the night before, health authorities reached out to pastors at “the larger and more modern churches.” By the early morning, twenty members of Fresno’s Home Guard were at work preparing the First Christian Church as a fourth hospital.

According to Mathewson, five stores on just one block of Tulare Street had been closed because clerks working in them failed to wear masks. Several other businesses were also shut down, including Edvin’s Cafe on I Street and the Fresno Steam Laundry, where 27 unmasked employees worked.

Finally, the Republican reminded readers that area churches, including St. John’s Catholic Church and the Northside Church, would continue to hold all services outdoors.

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.