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

By week 6 of Fresno’s influenza pandemic, there appeared to be light at the end of the tunnel. New flu cases were down, hospitals had enough beds for the sick, and city health officials were cautiously optimistic. What’s more, on November 11, 1918—Day 38 of the outbreak—the United States and its allies agreed to an armistice with Germany, signaling an end to fighting overseas. Perhaps the twin scourges that had plagued the globe—the Great War and the Great Influenza—were both coming to a close.

Day 36—Saturday, Nov. 9, 1918

“Flu Cases Show Big Decrease in Fresno,” declared a Fresno Morning Republican headline on Saturday, November 9. Just 2 deaths and 44 new cases had been reported the night before. Even though this latter figure was likely lower than the actual number of new cases in the city—many physicians did not provide updates in a timely fashion—it nonetheless indicated a sharp drop from the previous week’s average of 100 new cases per day.

“The influenza is not over yet,” observed Republican editor Chester H. Rowell, “but it is a lot better, and the end is near.” Rowell urged Fresno residents to be neither overconfident nor overanxious. “It is important that every one remain scared enough to wear his mask,” he wrote, but “it is also important that people cease to be afraid to go about their ordinary affairs.” Health authorities would determine when schools, theaters, and churches should reopen. In the meantime, Rowell insisted, “Let every workingman seek his job and every shopper her usual store”—provided, of course, that they wore their masks.

Day 38—Monday, Nov. 11, 1918

Two days later, at around 2 a.m., the whole city of Fresno was awakened by plant whistles signaling long-awaited news: World War I—the Great War, the War to End All Wars, a war that had cost the lives of tens of millions of people across the globe—was over. A few hours earlier German representatives had signed an armistice with the United States and its fellow Allied Powers, agreeing to cease all hostilities at 11 a.m. Paris time, or 3 a.m. in Fresno. “PEACE SIGNED,” announced the Republican’s front-page headline on Monday, November 11.

The city sure “had a great time rejoicing when the news come that the Armistice was signed,” wrote Fresnan Mary Jane Driver to her daughter Rose, in Greeley, Colorado, of the spontaneous celebrations that broke out in the early morning hours of Armistice Day. “All the whistles blew & Bells rung all the rest part of the night….The streets were filled with people.” Men, women, and children rushed out of their homes, many in their night robes, most wearing their masks. The Home Guard, in white masks and carrying weapons, reminded one of the Republican’s reporters of the Ku Klux Klan.

Mayor William F. Toomey, decked out in white, led Fresno’s enormous Armistice Day parade, on November 11, 1918. Most of the participants wore flu masks. Photograph by Pop Laval. Courtesy of Pop Laval Foundation.

Some of the celebrants sang, others danced, and still others drove automobiles up and down up and down the streets, dragging tin cans behind them. A parade, accompanied by a band, broke out. As the impromptu procession wound its way through town, it stopped at each corner so the band could play a song and the Home Guard could fire a volley. Meanwhile, Spanish-American War veterans “set off a blast of dynamite that rocked the town” and Chinatown residents replied with rockets. “It was their celebration, too,” noted the paper the following day.

Later that morning, the enthusiastic residents staged a second, much larger parade—”the greatest street pageant ever witnessed in Fresno,” according to the Republican. The crowd was estimated to be 25,000, more than half of city! At the front of the procession marched Mayor William F. Toomey, decked out in a white suit and, like most participants, wearing his flu mask. The parade also featured city and county officials, the police force, boy scouts, and representatives of every Allied nation wearing colors of their homeland. Perhaps the most distinctive element of the parade was a gray, horse-drawn hearse bearing a sign that read, “The End of a Perfect Swine.” Inside the hearse was a pig dressed in a “Hun helmet,” a symbol of the defeated German nation.

Fresno’s Armistice Day parade featured a hearse that bore a sign that read, “The End of a Perfect Swine,” and carried a pig dressed in a “Hun helmet,” symbolizing the defeated German nation. Photograph by Pop Laval. Courtesy of Pop Laval Foundation.
A page from a Nov. 16, 1918 letter Fresno resident Mary Jane Driver sent to her daughter Rose in Greeley, Colorado. It discusses Fresno’s Armistice Day celebration and flu outbreak. Courtesy of Jeanette Brantley.

“When the news came,” Mary Jane Driver wrote Rose a few days later, there were 500 drafted “boys” ready to report for duty, “so they helped to Celebrate.” So, too, did 17 men who had been locked up for minor offenses in the Fresno jail, all of whom were set free to join the party. “It will seem good when it is all over & the live Boys come back home,” Driver concluded, “and when we can go on the st[reet] without a mask over our mouth & nose.” There are “not so many cases of influenza as there has been,” she informed her daughter, “but the schools & Churches & theaters are closed yet.”

That evening two thousand people gathered at Courthouse Park for an interdenominational thanksgiving service. As city clergymen led the crowd in prayer, other members of “the joy-crazed populace” continued to march and motor “along to the boom of drums, the blare of brass and the pop of exploding powder.”

Day 39—Tuesday, Nov. 12, 1918

Fresno has never “had such a day to celebrate,” effused the Republican on Tuesday, November 12, of the previous day’s festivities. “It was celebrated so well, so appropriately, so variously, so spontaneously.” And, judging by reports and photographs, most of the people who had come out to mark Armistice Day had worn their flu masks. Yet city health officer Carleton Mathewson was still nervous.

“It takes three days for the germ to incubate,” Mathewson explained, “and we cannot tell until then what effect the celebration has had upon the epidemic. It is very apparent, however, that the people completely forgot about the flu in their desire to celebrate the great victory, and we can only await results.”

Fresno would not know until the end of the week, or later, whether the celebration it staged to mark the end of the Great War had caused a setback in the fight against the Great Influenza.

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.

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