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

At the dawn of 1919, Fresno faced twin crises—a second flu wave and a political struggle over who was in charge of the city’s emergency response to the epidemic. When the Fresno Board of Trustees once again rejected the recommendations of the Board of Health, the physicians comprising the latter committee resigned en masse in protest. Meanwhile, the deadly virus continued to spread through the community largely unabated.

Day 90—Wednesday, Jan. 1, 1919

On the final day of 1918, observed the Fresno Morning Republican on January 1, 1919, the Board of Health selected a three-member civic committee to coordinate the flu response of all city agencies. The new committee was made up of ex-Senator William Chandler, William Glass, president of the Chamber of Commerce, and Charles Cearley, president of the Fresno Merchants’ Association. The Board of Health hoped that it would help “bring about harmony and concern of action” that was necessary to stamp out the ongoing health crisis.

In another positive sign that city officials might have figured out how resolve their differences, the Board of Trustees, which had declined to back the Board of Health’s restrictions a few weeks earlier, declared its “determination to stand behind the board of health in any measure” it may adopt. The Board of Health was scheduled to meet on New Year’s Day to draft an ordinance that would be presented at a trustees’ meeting the following day.

The Republican also relayed that 85 new flu cases had been reported the day before and the Red Cross hospital was tending to 103 patients. Given the extent of the second outbreak, city health officer Carleton Mathewson stated that if it were up to him, Fresno would implement “general closing” for the next week to ten days.

In addition, the paper insisted that the new plan to conduct school remotely, which had commenced two days earlier, was proceeding nicely. As Fresno schools—like many across California and the rest of the country—make preparations for remote learning this fall in order to stem the spread of our own viral outbreak, it is worth noting that we have been here before—and without the benefit of tablets, computers, or the World Wide Web.

According to Fresno’s 1919 remote learning plan, high school students received their weekly correspondence lessons in the mail, while grammar school students in upper grades followed a “home study” program. Students at Washington Grammar, for instance, had been summoned by telephone to report to school to get assignments for the week. Thereafter, they would come to school each Thursday at various times to turn in work, get new assignments, and meet with their teacher for 50 minutes in groups of 5 or 6.

“The home study plan is not being carried out in the elementary grades,” added the Republican, owing to the fact that the pupils will have several years in which to make up the deficiency.”

Day 91—Thursday, Jan. 2, 1919

“Drastic Measures Recommended to Check Flu,” announced a Morning Republican headline on January 2, 1919—Day 91 of the epidemic.

The Board of Health proposed a series of measures that included:

  • closing all amusement places, including pool rooms, theaters, bowling allies, and dance halls
  • closing all other businesses, except restaurants and drug stores, at 7 pm
  • shuttering all churches
  • closing all clubrooms, lodges, and other places of assembly at 7 pm
  • outlawing public gatherings
  • removing furniture from hotel lobbies

City health officer Mathewson, for his part, continued to advocate “a complete closing” of the city.

The Board of Trustees was scheduled to consider these recommendations at a special meeting that afternoon.

Day 92—Friday, Jan. 3, 1919

Yesterday afternoon, reported the Fresno Morning Republican on January 3, the newly created city committee amended the Board of Health recommendations to include saloons. This addition would redress one of the main objections voiced by pool-room owners, ministers, and other critics of earlier Board of Health recommendations.

The amended ordinance would also call for “separation, after 7 p.m., of all guests in restaurants and public dining rooms,” highlighting that social distancing in the face of a contagious virus is also not a new tactic.

The Board of Trustees, which had failed to reach a quorum for the special meeting scheduled that day, planned to take up the proposed ordinance in the next day or two.

In the meantime, Republican editor Chester H. Rowell published an editorial strongly backing the amended flu ordinance. “It is…not a question either fairness or unfairness to close pool rooms and leave grocery stores open,” he explained. “Both are legitimate business and neither should be discriminated against in favor of the other in ordinary times. But in an emergency like this the business interests of both are ignored and only the public interest is considered.” Rowell then added that “a saloon is by habit a gather place, and it would take more vigilance than is available to reverse this habit. Men in saloons are less cautious than elsewhere.”

Day 93—Saturday, Jan. 4, 1919

“City Health Board Resigns After It Is Refused Support,” proclaimed the Fresno Morning Republican on the front page of its January 4th edition. “Blocked in every effort to secure power” from the city trustees “to enforce closing measures,” wrote the paper,” the entire Board of Health had resigned the night before. The civic committee overseeing the epidemic fight supported this move.

The city trustees had voted 5-3 in favor of the Board of Heath’s ordinance, but to pass the health measures needed unanimous support from the trustees.

Dr. Carleton Mathewson, the city health officer, chose not to follow the board and also resign. “I have done the best I know to check the flu,” he said. “I was making great progress when I was stopped. I do not care to resign. I would rather be kicked out.”

“Hot words were exchanged during the meeting before the council,” observed the Republican. Two church representatives strongly objected to church closings. “I wish to know what good it does to close some places and leave open other places?” asked Rev. Father Malloy. “And why you should close the churches and allow the rummages sales to go on, I do not see.”

Board of Health president T.M. Hayden said that he and his colleagues felt betrayed for the trustees’ “promises of support had not been kept.” Hayden insisted that the Board of Health’s strict ordinance was necessary because Fresnans had failed to abide by the mask regulation. “I still believe,” he told the city council meeting, “that the mask alone, if properly worn, is sufficient. But it has not been properly worn. Therefore we must do everything—adopt every measure—which we believe will check the spread of the flu.” So, the Board of Health had targeted all “non-essentials” for closure.

Dr. Mathewson added that Fresno at that point had the “largest percentage of flu cases of any city in California in proportion to the population.”

The three trustees who refused to back the proposed ordinance—and thus sparked the mass resignation—insisted that they would have supported a measure that closed the city entirely. But they couldn’t vote for an ordinance “that closed certain lines of business while department stores and other places where crowds collect were allowed to remain open.”

Republican editor Chester Rowell backed the Board of Health’s resignation, calling it “the most effective and dignified way of making protest against the refusal of a decisive minority of the City Trustees to co-operate.” The resignations would not immediately impact ill patients, he held, because the board’s work relates to public policy “not the actual care of the sick.” But by resigning en masse the board members drew attention to the fact that a small number of “inexpert persons” were setting city health policy over the objections of medical authorities.

Howell also included an impassioned and timely (both then and now) call to arms:

“Doubtless the epidemic will wear itself out in time, even if we surrender to it, after it has used up all the inflammable human material at hand. Some of us will die, and most of us will survive, if nothing is done. But fewer of us will be sick, fewer of us will die, and more of us will survive, if we take united action, under the direction of the best judgment of the authorities who have the responsibility of our protection. And mere fatalistic surrender is not the civilized way of facing such emergencies.”


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.