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

As Fresno’s influenza outbreak neared the one-month mark, Mayor William F. Toomey highlighted the unprecedented state of affairs. “The city of Fresno is passing through the first serious epidemic in its history,” he announced, and the outbreak—which had sickened more than 2,200 residents, included the mayor himself—showed no sign of letting up.

Day 25—Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1918

City hospitals had difficulty finding enough beds for patients, reported the Fresno Morning Republican on Tuesday, October 29. The First Christian Church, opened as the city’s third temporary hospital just two days earlier, was already overcrowded. In response, the mayor’s office had started laying plans to outfit the Fresno State Normal School (later Fresno State, where I now teach) building as a possible fourth temporary hospital.

Authorities also declared that they had begun placing signs in the homes of sick individuals and would continue to search for more nurses, who were in short supply. Restaurant owners, for their part, were expected to begin voluntarily closing up shop each night at 8 pm.

Seattle streetcar conductor refusing to allow a passenger to board without a mask, 1918. Courtesy National Archives.

Meanwhile, city and county officials worked to adopt ordinances to ensure that influenza masks were worn in public at all times. On Monday, October 28, Fresno County supervisors had passed an ordinance that outlawed “appearing on the public highways or in public places without a gauze mask.” Violators would have to pay a fine of at least $25, or serve up to six months in the county jail, or both. The Fresno city Board Trustees had hoped to pass a similar ordinance but failed because they couldn’t get a quorum.

“One of the purposes of masks,” stated Republican editor Chester H. Rowell, “is to restore confidence in the people, and to enable them safely to go about their usual occupations.” This explained why Fresno was especially vigilant about enforcing the mask rule in places where the public still gathered—in stores, on streetcars, etc. After all, reasoned Rowell, at least some commerce must go on: “We can suspend amusements, or even education, for a time, but we can not suspend buying and selling without thereby suspending pretty much everything else.” In an era without smart phones, credit cards, or e-commerce of any sort, masks seemed to Rowell the best means of fighting the spread of the virus without shutting down businesses entirely.

But how effective were the masks? It was not clear then—and experts still disagree. Some argue that the porous, gauze masks of the 1918-19 pandemic could be effective in limiting transmission of the virus if used in combination with other social distancing measures, while others hold that they were completely “useless.”

In any case, the masks were certainly controversial. The October 29th issue of the Republican, in fact, included a story from San Francisco—which also mandated masks—where a deputy health officer had shot and severely wounded a man who refused to don one. It wouldn’t be long before Fresno saw similar resistance to mask regulations—and similar, if less violent, crackdowns by law enforcement officials.

Day 26—Wednesday, Oct. 30, 1918

One day after failing to pass a mask ordinance, the Fresno Board of Trustees adopted the measure, making it a misdemeanor offense to appear without a mask in any public place, including city streets, parks, omnibuses, and places of business. Violators were subject to a fine of between $25 and $300 and/or a sentence of up to six months in jail.

“I have received orders to enforce the new ordinance beginning tomorrow morning,” said the chief of police in comments printed in the Republican on October 30. “I have instructed every officer and inspector to arrest at once any one found in a public place without a mask.”

To drive home his point, the chief stated that masks were not “to be lowered or raised to allow the wearer to smoke a cigar, cigarette or pipe.” Some smokers, it appears, took this particular admonition seriously. Decades later, Emily Cole, who as a teenage girl had lived through Fresno’s flu epidemic, recalled that her father’s homemade mask was stained brown because he smoked his pipe through it.

Other Fresnans chose not to follow the rules. The day after the county imposed it mask ordinance, noted the Republican, three men were arrested—the first of hundreds of locals who would face fines and jail sentences over the next few months.

Dr. Carleton Mathewson, Fresno’s city health officer, insisted “the wearing of masks” is “our greatest hope in checking the spread of the disease.” But he also continued to recommend a host of other social distancing measures, including the suspension of the upcoming Halloween holiday observations. “I urge all parents to keep their children at home” on Halloween, he said. “The police have been instructed to send any children home who are found on the streets.”

In addition, Mathewson announced that at the request of the mayor he had taken a leave from his own medical practice. Mathewson said he needed to devote all his attention to the public health crisis, just as every hospital in bed in the city was needed to treat the ever-growing number of ill residents.

On this front, the Republican highlighted that the city was preparing to open a fifth hospital, not at the Fresno Normal School building, as officials had been contemplating, but rather in the clubhouse of the Parlor Lecture club.

The day before, observed the Republican, Fresno’s last hospital bed had been taken up by “a delirious mother” who came into the First Christian Church hospital “with a nursing babe in her arms.” The mother was so sick that she couldn’t recall her husband’s name or even her own. “Only a very thin thread holds the young mother to life,” concluded the paper.

The last bed at the First Christian Church temporary hospital was taken by a “delirious mother” just two days after the facility opened on Oct. 27, 1918. Courtesy of the San Joaquin Library System.

Day 27—Thursday, Oct. 31, 1918

The nurse shortage had become acute by Day 27 of the outbreak. “It will be impossible for the city authorities to cope with the situation,” Dr. Mathewson argued, “unless more nurses are made available.” One new volunteer nurse was Mrs. William F. Toomey, the mayor’s wife, who “has heroically remained at her post for three days without relief,” according to the Republican.

Mayor Toomey, who had recently caught the flu himself, chalked up the nurse shortage, among other challenges, to the actions of “slackers”—specialist physicians “who have not offered to help the city in combating the epidemic” as well as “professional nurses who have declined to give up temporarily their private practice for the public good.” Fortunately, added Mathewson, Fresno policemen and firemen were doing their best to pick up the slack, driving “improvised” ambulances and delivering drugs and other supplies day and night.

The October 31st edition of the Republican also included an editorial declaring that the paper had no intention to publish the myriad home cures that readers had sent in recently. “In time of public stress it is dangerous to place reliance on these remedies,” explained editor Charles Howell, “instead of in the precautions based on the experience of millions of cases which are recommended by the public authorities.” Despite the fact the even the best medical minds of his day did no know what was making people sick—in fact, they didn’t even know that the flu was caused by a virus!—Howell understood the value of scientific methods.

Day 28—Friday, Nov. 1, 1918

“Death Claims Eleven ‘Flu’ Victims in City in One Day,” declared a Fresno Morning Republican headline on November 1, marking a grim milestone: the highest daily death total since the outbreak started almost one month earlier.

Most of the deaths, maintained Mathewson, were due to a failure of sick individuals to go to the hospital in time. Fortunately, the city had just received 75 new cots, which would be used to outfit the latest temporary hospital in the Parlor Lecture club. Added Mathewson, “We now have for the first time enough nurses to handle the patients the county hospital, the orphanage, the day nursery and the Christian church.”

Another bit of good news: Mayor Toomey, reported the paper, was now back in the office, having “sufficiently recovered” from his bout with the flu.

Yet the November 1st edition also contained word that ten men had been fined $25 each for violating the new mask ordinance and five other men had been arrested on the same charge, indicating that many people in Fresno was not on board with the city’s new emergency regulations.

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.