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

Week five of Fresno’s flu epidemic brought more bad news and—in a welcome change—some good news as well. The virus continued to spread rapidly through the community, infecting hundreds and killing dozens. Local businesses struggled to keep afloat, while turnout in the November election declined significantly. But by the second week of the month the flu appeared to be losing its grip on the city, suggesting that Fresno’s strict social distancing measures were bearing fruit, despite some residents’ refusal to comply.

Day 29—Saturday, Nov. 2, 1918

“From San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Fresno, and the state at large,” enthused the Fresno Morning Republican on November 2, “come reports that the influenza outbreak is being brought under control in California more than twice as rapidly as had been possible in any of the Eastern states.” Republican editor Chester H. Rowell attributed California’s successful response to the pandemic—which the state appears to be replicating during the current crisis—to a range factors, including the climate, food, and, shocking as it is to hear today, better air quality. “But the principal reason,” he wrote, “is that we have taken more vigorous measures than others.”

Rowell urged his fellow citizens to continue to take all necessary precautions and pledged that his newspaper would keep publishing unvarnished stories about the outbreak. After all, he wisely concluded, “the sober truth, in print, is the only antidote for hysterical falsehood in rumors.”

Not everyone in town, however, was as committed as Howell to telling to truth or to following the emergency measures. “Owing to his obstinacy in absolutely refusing to wear a mask as required,” recounted one story in the November 2nd edition of the paper, a man named J.S. Norton was sentenced to 25 days in jail. Seven more men had been arrested in violation of the mask ordinance, according to another story.

That second column’s headline—“Chinese Refuse to Wear Masks”—highlights another similarity between the 1918-19 pandemic and our own—this one more troubling. Just as the coronavirus crisis has sparked an uptick in hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans, the earlier viral outbreak opened the door to anti-Asian generalizations and stereotypes. Although the Republican was not as bigoted as many publications of its day, in this story the paper went out of its way to flag the Chinese heritage of three of the violators, while not addressing the ethnicity of the remaining four—who comprised the majority of the men arrested.

Day 30—Sunday, Nov. 3, 1918

By Day 30 of the epidemic, things seem to be slowly improving in Fresno. Seventy-five new cases and seven deaths had been reported the day before, both improvements over recent numbers. “The city at last reached a perfection of organization unequaled in the state,” claimed the Republican, “and all known cases were receiving careful attention.” Every hospital in the city was now sufficiently equipped, supplied, and staffed with nurses, added the newspaper.

Meanwhile, all city teachers had been asked to report to their schools on Monday morning for patrol duty. Each teacher would be assigned to a portion of the school’s district, which they would patrol several times a day, breaking up any gatherings of children. The teachers would also help with a city-wide canvass for flu cases. The day before, observed the Republican, investigators had found a home with a dead mother, a gravely ill father, and four unattended young children. “It is to take care of such unfortunate cases as these as well as to fight infection,” concluded the paper, “that the canvas will be made.”

Day 32—Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1918

Tuesday, November 5, was election day, with candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and Congress competing at the polls. Yet with the flu still running rampant through town—127 new cases had been reported in the past 24 hours—leading Fresnans worried that people would not turnout. “Do not let the fear of influenza keep you away from the polls,” Mayor William F. Toomey had advised in the run-up to the election. “It is not unsafe to go out of doors if you wear your masks.”

Day 33—Wednesday, Nov. 6, 1918

The mayor’s and others’ fear that the flu epidemic would negatively impact the election were well founded. The outbreak, for one, made the voting process uncomfortable for all involved. Officials placed polling booths outside despite bitterly cold weather, wrote the Republican, leaving those standing in line to vote exposed to “the full sweep of the wind” and complaining of “cold feet.” Everyone—from clerks to judges to children—wore masks, and voters were encouraged not to linger at the polls. One woman who turned up to vote, added the newspaper, “refused to sign her name in ink, objecting to using a ‘public pen.’”

The flu also depressed turnout. Although the votes had yet to be fully counted on Wednesday, several precincts reported thin crowds. A poll worker at Precinct 19, for instance, spent much of her day knitting. The final voting tallies suggest that these initial impressions were accurate: turnout was down significantly. Indeed, in 1918 just 64,221 people voted in the race for the Seventh Congressional district, which represented the city—an almost 20% drop from the 78,785 people who had cast a vote in the previous midterm election.

Day 35—Friday, Nov. 8, 1918

“The big raisin plants in Fresno are seriously short of labor,” stated the Republican on Friday, November 8. So many employees have been sent home because of illness that plants had become overrun with fruit, “unable to handle anything like the normal capacity.” This shortage was particularly problematic because it undercut the U.S. war effort oversees by delaying army orders. Plant operators hoped that high school boys might be brought in for one or several weeks to replace the sick laborers.

Fortunately, the November 8th issue of the paper also contained positive news: the flu seemed to be “losing its hold in Fresno.” The number of new cases was down to 36—a significant decline. There were fewer new deaths as well. Because of this improving situation officials were able to close the temporary hospital at the First Christian Church. “We really feel that we have passed the crisis here,” said city health officer Carleton Mathewson, “and that the flu soon will be driven out altogether, if the public continues to observe all prescribed precautions.”

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.