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

Fresno appeared to have broken the grip of the influenza pandemic by the end of November. The city gradually began to reopen, with theaters welcoming viewers and churches welcoming worshippers for the first time in almost two months. But other emergency measures—including the mask requirement—would remain in place, authorities insisted, at least for the time being.

Day 49—Friday, Nov. 22, 1918

All Fresno churches and theaters can open their doors this coming Sunday, announced the Fresno Morning Republican on Friday, November 22, under two conditions. First, no one would be allowed to enter a theater or a church without a mask. Second, theater owners must employ “a sufficient number of health department deputies” to make daily calls on homes with active flu cases and otherwise ensure that the Board of Health’s isolation laws were being enforced. The theater owners, reported the paper, eagerly agreed to these conditions, promising to undertake “the whole financial burden” of employing the requisite deputies.

Pool halls and bowling alleys—which had also been shuttered during the epidemic—would be permitted to reopen provided their patrons wore masks, too.

These policy changes reflected an ongoing and significant decline in new influenza cases. All 38 physicians in the city had checked in with updates the day before, stated city health officer Carleton Mathewson, and they reported just 23 new cases in total. The outbreak appeared to be under control.

Still, Dr. Mathewson and his colleagues left some restrictive measures in place. Saloons, soda fountains, and ice cream parlors would continue to close at 8 pm. And no definitive decision had been made on when city schools would be reopened. Dr. Mathewson believed that it would be safe to resume classes on Monday, November 23, provided students wore masks. But he and the Board of Education preferred to wait a week longer—until the Monday after Thanksgiving—by which time they hoped that the mask regulation would no longer be necessary. This would prevent students from suffering the “great hardship” of wearing a mask all day in class.

In the meantime, Fresno theater managers—including men representing the Liberty, the Hippodrome, and the Bijou, among other theaters—made plans to mark the reopening with a grand celebration on Saturday. Hollywood star “Fatty” Arbuckle—“his big, smiling face tied up in four layers of gauze”—would be on hand to lead a parade that afternoon, and the Musicians’ Union band would provide the marching tunes.

Day 51—Sunday, Nov. 24, 1918

Just 17 flu cases were reported the day before, declared the Morning Republican on Sunday, November 24—Day 51 of the pandemic. Theaters and churches were slated to reopen that day, and city authorities were monitoring the situation closely. Several health deputies planned to attend theater shows, noted the paper, while “the churches have promised to take care of their own.”

Among the houses of worship slated to reopen were St. Alphonsus’ Church, the First Armenian Presbyterian Church, St. John’s Catholic Church, and the North Side Christian Church. The First Baptist, First Methodist, and First Congregational, and First Presbyterian churches announced that they were postponing a resumption of services until the following Sunday.

Day 52—Monday, Nov. 25, 1918

The Monday, November 25th edition of the Fresno Morning Republican was filled with news of the reopening of Fresno’s theaters the day before and especially Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s appearance to mark the occasion.

Many of the stories were relayed by a columnist called Old Missouri:

“Yesterday was the reunion day for throngs of bemasked devotees of things dramatic,” Old Missouri began, “and they filled the various theaters from early to late and drank their fill of good things of the stage and screen.” The actors and actresses at the White and Hippodrome theaters went to sleep last night “fully convinced that they were far greater and funnier and smarter…than they had ever admitted to themselves,” for everything they did on stage that day “got across with a whiz and a bang.”

Audience members, Old Missouri insisted, had little trouble keeping their masks on because they seemed to “realize that good reason lurks behind the order” and, moreover, that another shutdown might follow if they refused to obey. An additional, particularly welcome development was the departure of “that old theater ‘smell’ that used to meet us at the outside entrance and walk with us to the seat and fold itself around us and envelope us and never leave.” Old Missouri wasn’t sure whether the usual stench “had been drowned in the sea of new paint that has freshened the different houses” or “in the ocean of fresh San Joaquin valley air” that has flooded the theaters in the many weeks that they had been closed. In any case, the change was quite an improvement.

Old Missouri also had a great deal to say about “Fatty” Arbuckle’s visit. Fatty, whose brother William resided in Fresno, was no stranger to Fresno. But this time he came down from San Francisco to help reopen Fresno theaters as well as to visit family. It appears that the parade scheduled for Saturday may have been rained out, though hundreds of people had come out looking for Fatty anyhow. On Sunday afternoon and evening, however, he did appear at Kinema Theater, which was showing “The Law of the North.”

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Not as tall as he looks on screen, observed Old Missouri, Fatty wishes he would get opportunities to do something other than slapstick. “I will enjoy Fatty more after this,” concluded Old Missouri,” for I know him now, not as the coarse, ungainly, rather objectionable clown I always thought him, but as a decent, quiet, mannerly lad who talks sense sensibly.”

Before his appearance at the Kinema, Fatty paid a visit to one of the emergency hospitals, where he picked up a flu mask. He wanted to get a mask “to pass the police,” stated another Republican column, “and to protect himself from the tiny germ that he said had “laid him flat for nearly two weeks.” The flu “was no joke,” said Fatty.

A third story reported that the police had to chase three boys out of Fatty’s big car, which he had parked near city hall. Officers came across the boys while they “were ransacking the pockets in the car.”

Day 53—Tuesday, Nov. 26, 1918

“The Fresno police have great respect for the influenza,” wrote the Republican on Day 53 of the pandemic. A number of officers have been stricken by the virus, including Chief John Goehring, who was slightly ill at the moment. Thus, the police were big believers in flu masks. “So long as the mask ordinance is in effect,” stated the chief, “it is up to use to enforce it. It is generally believed that the masks prevented hundreds of cases and deaths.”

Day 54—Wednesday, Nov. 27, 1918

On November 27, one day before Thanksgiving, the Republican informed readers that last two temporary hospitals—at the county orphanage and the day nursery—had closed the day before. And just 11 new cases of the flu had been reported. Dr. Mathewson insisted that he was pursuing a policy of “watchful waiting” on when he would allow the masks come off. He was as “silent as sphynx” on the issue, concluded the paper.

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.