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

By early December 1918—after a more than two-month fight to contain a pandemic that had infected nearly 10% of Fresno residents—things slowly began to return to normal in the Central Valley city. But not long after students had returned to school, churches had resumed services, and theaters had reopened their doors, the number of sick Fresnans began to tick upward.

Was a second wave of the deadly virus about to hit Fresno? And, if so, how would the city respond?

Day 64—Saturday, Dec. 7, 1918

“Wild reports” have been circulating “that the influenza situation is much worse than was being made public,” declared the Fresno Morning Republican on Saturday, December 7. According to these rumors, in recent days a “startling” number of residents had become ill and many of them had died.

The truth of the matter, insisted the paper, was that reported flu cases were indeed on the rise in Fresno—as they were in San Francisco, Stockton, and Merced. But the situation was not yet dire. Over the past week, the number of new daily cases had ranged from a low of 15 to a high of 28. Two people had died on Thursday and four more the following day.

City health officer Carleton Mathewson, for his part, deemed the situation “serious,” especially because the number of cases was increasing rather than decreasing. “In fact,” he stated somewhat ominously, “there are more cases now than there were when the first precautionary measures were taken against spread of the diseases in Fresno.” (The same thing, of course, can be said of our pandemic today: When Fresno’s shelter-in-place orders were issued on March 19 there were only a handful of cases in the county, while over the past few weeks the number of daily new cases here has sometimes topped one hundred.)

The one piece of good news about the developments in December 1918, held Mathewson, was that most of the new cases appear to be mild. But that didn’t mean that Fresno should relax. “Conditions here are not different from those of other places where, after the vigilance was relaxed, there was a recurrence of the trouble,” he maintained. Mathewson noted that the possibility of a second wave was one of the reasons he had opposed ending the mask requirement in the first place and wished that it would be reinstated now. “However the board of health ordered the masks off,” he concluded, “and I shall be governed by its decision.”

San Francisco and Stockton had resumed its mask requirements, added the Republican, and the Board of Health would likely determine whether Fresno would do so as well in a meeting scheduled for later that day.

Day 65—Sunday, Dec. 8, 1918

On Day 65 of Fresno’s flu outbreak, with 35 new cases reported the day before, the Fresno Morning Republican announced that authorities had agreed to implement a fresh approach to stopping the spread of the virus. The Board of Health had determined the previous afternoon that city would not return to the mask mandate, nor would businesses be closed. Instead, at 7:30 am on Sunday, December 18, the city would begin enforcing a strict quarantine.

Dr. Mathewson, who would oversee the quarantine, seemed to have changed his mind on the mask mandate over the previous 24 hours, suggesting at the December 7th meeting that he didn’t think that the situation was “dangerous enough to warrant a return to the mask.” Besides, he added, “the public wore masks chiefly when on the streets and least in offices, where they were most needed.” Then, as now, a sizable portion of Fresno seemed unwilling to heed the advice of medical experts and don masks in public.

Dr. Carleton Mathewson, Fresno’s city health officer, ably led the fight against the 1918-19 flu epidemic.

The new quarantine would be no different than those that had been enforced during smallpox or scarlet fever outbreaks in the city, Mathewson insisted. And the city health officer, it is worth noting, was well-suited to take the lead in this campaign. After all, the Stanford-trained physician had been selected by the Board of Health as the Fresno city health officer in 1917 in part because of his experience implementing a quarantine in San Francisco during the bubonic plague outbreak in 1901-02.

Dr. Mathewson expressed confidence in the quarantine, which he said was one of the first to be imposed to stop the flu pandemic in the United States. So far, Mathewson lamented, masks, isolation, and other measures had saved thousands of lives but failed to stamp out the contagious virus for good. But the city health officer “thoroughly believed” that the quarantine could do the trick, especially if the community helped enforce the measure. “It will be the duty of every citizen to report any violation of quarantine,” he maintained.

Day 68—Wednesday, Dec. 11, 1918

“150 Flu Homes Now Quarantined,” declared a Fresno Morning Republican headline on Wednesday, December 11. “Every case that has occurred in a lodging house or hotel has been removed to the country hospital,” said Mathewson the night before. “I do not believe there is a case left in any lodging house now. The situation I believe will be fully met by the enforced quarantine, but only time can make us certain of its success.”

Fresno would have to wait and see whether the quarantine was the solution the city had been searching for since early October.

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.