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

As Fresno approached the seventh week of its influenza outbreak, city health officer Carleton Mathewson breathed a sigh of relief—the enormous Armistice Day parade held on November 11th did not appear to have sparked a new wave of the virus. Still, Mathewson and his fellow officials insisted that the “flu lid” must stay on, despite a growing chorus of complaints, not unlike those we hear today.

Day 41—Thursday, Nov. 14, 1918

On November 14, Day 41 of the pandemic, the Fresno Morning Republican reported that the Fresno Board of Health “held its position against a vigorous offensive” the day before. This assault was not mounted by the flu virus, nor by another deadly disease, but instead by “business interests” who claimed to be the “main suffers since the ‘flu lid’ was clamped down on the city.” But after “a family conference” between Dr. Mathewson, Mayor William Toomey, the City Trustees, and the Board of Health, the city agreed to keep the lid “nailed down tight.” Masks would remain on, theaters and schools would stay shuttered, and churches would have to hold all services outdoors in the open air.

Immediately after this meeting, Dr. Mathewson learned that several saloons were violating the “no congregating or loitering allowed” order by “permitting patrons to stand maskless at the bars in groups and talk without interruption.” What’s more, some hotels were allowing guests to lounge around without masks, some women were trading their gauze masks for chiffon veils, and countless men had returned to “the smoking habit,” presumably unmasked. So, Mathewson instructed the chief of police to rigorously enforce the flu ordinances.

When asked when he thought the mask regulation might be removed, Dr. Mathewson declined to offer a definitive answer. “I think it will be unsafe to remove them until the daily number of new cases is reduced to ten at most,” he concluded. Fresno had averaged 48 new cases a day over the past few days. For the time being, in other words, the masks would stay on.

The November 14th issue of the Republican also highlighted the fact that the flu virus was an equal opportunity predator, infecting the prosperous and poor alike. One story documented that a family of four, all of whom lived together in a single tent and were desperately ill, had been recently been transported to city hospitals. A second story noted the passing of Henry Markarian, president of the California Fig Growers’ Association. After a two-week battle with influenza and pneumonia, the well-known owner of Markarian Fig Gardens had died in his Blackstone Avenue home.

Day 43—Saturday, Nov. 16, 1918

“All City Doctors Report New Flu Cases,” read a Republican headline on Saturday, November 16. Since the start of the epidemic, city authorities had struggled to get physicians to complete daily reports on time. But the latest figure—80 new cases on Thursday and 60 on Friday—represented a complete count.

These numbers were higher than the average daily totals from earlier in the week, which perhaps reflected a minor uptick as a result of the Armistice Day festivities. But Mayor Toomey insisted that instead they were the product of the improved reporting system. “For the first time we know the actual number of new cases in Fresno,” he remarked. Since testing wasn’t a viable option in 1918, full daily reporting was essential for health officials to be able to make an “accurate calculation of the progress” they were making against the virus.

Another bit of good news for the day: several rural school districts in eastern California reported that they had escaped the pandemic entirely. Clarence Medley, trustee of the Manzanita School District, underscored this point in folksy vernacular. “Out Manzinita way,” he said, “we haven’t had a single case of this influenza thing.” Though “the illness must have overlooked us,” added Medley, “we do not feel snubbed or hurt.”

Back in Fresno, according to another November 16th column, some saloon owners were doing their best to pretend they, too, were safe from “this influenza thing”—as Medley put it—by actively flouting the city’s emergency health measures. “It has been called to my attention by reliable persons,” said Dr. Mathewson, “that a number of saloons allow patrons to remain as long as they wish with their masks removed,” in violation of multiple city ordinances. This will not continue.

“They will be visited day after day, and the police will close up, without warning, all violators,” stated Mathewson. This 1918 conflict between saloon owners and their clientele, on the one hand, and city authorities charged with protecting public safety, on the other, will no doubt remind modern readers of a recent scuffle at a Fresno restaurant that is defying COVID-19 orders.

Day 44—Sunday, Nov. 17, 1918

53 new flu cases were reported yesterday, announced the Fresno Morning Republican on November 17, leaving health officials feeling optimistic. If the progress against the virus continues, speculated Dr. Mathewson, then the city might consider loosening the strict regulations in about a week. In the meantime, however, he urged his fellow citizens not to let up in the precautions they were taking. “One word more,” he added on Saturday afternoon, “let there be no visiting today. It should be remembered that in addition to the usual dangers, there are some carriers at large.”

Day 46—Tuesday, Nov. 19, 1918

By Tuesday, November 19, the dark cloud that the flu outbreak had cast of the city for the past month and a half seemed all but gone. “The menace is more or less eliminated,” Dr. Mathewson had declared the day before. The total number of new cases continued to decline and the temporary hospitals at the Parlor Lecture Club and the Christian Church had been closed. Mathewson couldn’t predict exactly how soon it would be safe enough “to open up the city”—perhaps two days, perhaps four days, perhaps more. But the outlook was “extremely encouraging.”

So, asked the manager of Kinema Theater, why not allow theaters to start welcoming viewers again? After all, theaters tended to be better ventilated than stores, which remained open. The Kinema manager added that theaters could flash a message on screen insisting that all patrons who fail to wear masks would be required to leave.

Dr. Mathewson replied that theaters posed too great a risk at the moment. In the theater, he insisted, “people are seated side by side,” while people who go shopping, “go into a store, buy what they want, and leave.”

There is, in short, “no comparison.” And with at least 119 deaths from the flu already—a figure that Mathewson viewed as lower than the actual number of deceased—the city health officer was not willing to take a chance. Lives were at stake.

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.