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

As Fresno entered the final week of 1918, the second wave of the influenza outbreak showed no signs of breaking. This did not bode well given the fact that merchants, ministers, and civic leaders had effectively trumped nearly all of the emergency measures recommended by the Board of Health to slow the spread of the virus.

Day 83—Wednesday, Dec. 25, 1918

“Nurses are needed today—not tomorrow, but now—today,” announced the Fresno Morning Republican on Christmas Day. Just two nurses were currently working at the new Red Cross hospital, observed the paper, one working all night and the other all day. “The two were fully able to take care the sixteen patients that were brought to hospital yesterday—able to do the work because their hearts were big and brave.”

But they needed help. 75 new cases had been reported the day before, said deputy health officer Paul Norton, though he believed the number would have reached 90 had all the physicians in town reported their tallies. Board of Health members attributed the increasing number of ill patients to the decision to lift the quarantine—a decision made against the board’s recommendation—and Fresno residents’ “carelessness” after it was lifted.

The lone health measure still in place in the city was the mask ordinance. Yet Fresnans appeared increasingly unwilling to abide by it, too. Over the previous three days 150 people had been arrested for failing to wear a mask in public. “The desire of the health board is to compel everybody to wear a mask,” insisted the Republican, “not to compel everybody to pay a fine. Therefore it is urged that all obey the ordinance strictly, and save the fines.”

Day 84—Thursday, Dec. 26, 1918

Several Fresno churches, including St. John’s Catholic Church and Bethel Danish Lutheran Church, reported the Daily Republican on December 26, held “impressive” though “solemn” Christmas Day services. But the rising tide of flu-related illnesses and hospitalizations led many other churches to keep their doors closed on the holiday. As with the recent Fourth of July holiday festivities that we just marked in Fresno and across the country, it would take several days to determine whether the Christmas services exacerbated the health crisis.

Day 85—Friday, Dec. 27, 1918

The December 27th edition of the Republican included updates on school plans for the resumption of studies the following Monday. In light of the ongoing pandemic, Fresno high school students would commence instruction by correspondence. Each week, students would be issued assignments to be completed at home. They would be required to return the assignments by mail or in person. Some classes, added officials, may also meet outdoors.

The Board of Education also stipulated that all teachers were to report to their schools on December 30. “The board expressed the opinion that there was community work for them to do if the schools were not open, and that the teachers should be present to do any work necessary.”

Day 88—Monday, Dec. 30, 1918

The headlines in the Fresno Morning Republican on Monday, December 30—Day 88 of the pandemic—were grim. “Lives Endangered by Shortage of Nurses,” read one. “Close Up City to Check Flu, Says Mathewson,” proclaimed another. The situation appeared to be getting worse by the hour.

“I feel certain that there are more people in bed with the flue here in Fresno than at any other time,” stated city health officer Carleton Mathewson. “It is spreading like wild fire.” He insisted that the only viable response was “to close everything for at least a week,” with the exception of “absolutely essential” shops, such as meat markets and grocery and drug stores.

Mathewson deemed the mask requirement “extremely valuable” but not sufficient. Complete isolation of all sick individuals was also vital. “The people here and elsewhere, too, do not seem to realize the seriousness of the situation,” he opined.

The Republican echoed Mathewson’s warning. “That the flu is prevalent everywhere in Fresno,” insisted the paper, “is indicated by the case of Dr. W.W. Savage and his family,” who had visited Fresno from San Bernardino over the Christmas holiday. “They came to the city for one day,” noted Dr. W.W. Cross, who was head of the Red Cross hospital, “and now the entire family is down with the flu.”

Meanwhile, the Republican reported that there were 90 patients at the new Red Cross hospital, 17 of whom had pneumonia and 14 of whom were “hovering between life and death.” The hospital currently had plenty of rooms and supplies to care for additional patients. But it “can not accept another patient, not unless some more trained nurses come forward today and offer their services.” As a result, Dr. Cross made a public plea for all Fresno surgeons “to postpone unnecessary operations until after the flue epidemic is over a life-saving measure.” This, he hoped, would free up trained nurses, who might take charge of new crews of volunteer “practical nurses.”

Day 89—Tuesday, Dec. 31, 1918

Things remained critical in Fresno on the final day of 1918. 84 new cases had been reported the previous day on top of 160 over the weekend. To make matters worse, the viral outbreak had claimed 5 lives over the past 24 hours.

Despite the mounting illness and death, the Board of Health and the Board of Trustees remained at loggerheads. Board of Health president Hayden said his organization couldn’t act without a city ordinance and the trustees had thus far failed to provide one. Highlighting the rationale for the trustees’ inaction, Hayden observed, “It is certain that the business interests did not want the town closed up.”

Regardless, any moves by the Board of Trustees going forward would have to wait for all the trustees to return to Fresno. Trustees Goodfellow and Wilson were out of town as was the mayor, who was in Los Angeles at the bedside of his father-in-law.

One bit of good news was that the Fresno County Board of Supervisors had adopted its own ordinance empowering the county health officer to place rural districts in the country under strict quarantine. The reopening of Fresno, said the officer, had prompted many small communities to follow suit and “had resulted in flue increases.”

Finally, the New Year’s Eve issue of the Republican included an appeal from Fresno’s chief of police John G. Goehring that is worth considering now, as Americans hit the beach and hold backyard barbecues despite COVID-19 spikes across the country:

“It seems to me that all persons in Fresno who will pause to think will omit these usual New Year’s eve festivities tonight where such festivities mean gathering in groups or crowds. The influenza is with us and if we are to stamp it out we must use precautionary measures. There is no desire to interfere with anyone’s freedom or fun, but as too much hilarity would mean that the mask rule would be forgotten or ignored it is my belief that a decision to forego this end-of-the-year crowding of the sidewalks and assembling indoors would do much toward checking the further spread of this epidemic that is causing so much sickness and death.”

Wise words then and now.

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.