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

In the days following the Board of Health’s collective resignation, Fresno mayor William F. Toomey scrambled to bridge the divide between the physicians, who were charged with leading the fight against the deadly flu pandemic, and the Fresno Board of Trustees, whose support they needed to implement any emergency health measures.

Day 94—Sunday, Jan. 5, 1919

Mayor Toomey has returned from Los Angeles, where he was visiting his sick father-in-law, announced the Fresno Morning Republican on Sunday, January 5. Frustrated by the developments while he was out of town, especially the Board of Health’s resignation in response to the Board of Trustees’ refusal to support its proposed flu ordinance, Toomey pledged to bring both boards as well as the recently appointed civic committee together at City Hall on Monday.

“The board of health should not have resigned,” Toomey insisted. “And they were foolish to wipe out the quarantine at the meeting two weeks ago.” The mayor said that he had yet to read the Board of Health’s proposed ordinance, adding that in general he was against closure of the city to combat the flu. He preferred a strict quarantine. “While in Southern California,” Toomey remarked, “I visited many cities around Lois Angeles, and found that the quarantine was universally employed and universally effective.”

Still, the mayor suggested that he would defer to the medical experts: “I believe the laymen should leave a great deal to the physicians judgment.”

The Fresno Ministerial Union, for its part, passed a resolution in which it offered a vote of thanks to the Board of Health for its service and protested the Board of Trustee’s failure to back the proposed ordinance. Seven churches, meanwhile, continued to hold services, despite the pandemic.

The Republican also relayed the city health department’s monthly report, completed the day before, which reflected the devastation of the flu virus’s second wave. In December 1918, when the second wave began, a total of 114 Fresnans had died of all causes. The flu and flu-induced pneumonia was responsible for half of those deaths—73 in all. And since start of the new year the virus had already claimed 3 more lives. What’s more, the paper added, these figures did not account for those patients who had died at the orphanage or at other institutions outside the city. Though not yet as deadly as the first wave, the second wave was taking a remarkable toll on the city of just 45,000 residents.

The one piece of good news was that just 30 new cases had been reported the day before, a significant decline from the average daily total over the past several weeks.

Day 95—Monday, Jan. 6, 1919

More good news arrived on Monday, January 6—Day 95 of the pandemic. Although reports of new cases from Sunday were incomplete, stated the Republican, the “doctors who sent reports said they had observed a marked improvement all over the city.” Notably, the number of patients in the Red Cross hospital’s pneumonia ward had declined from 17 to 9 and no new patients had been admitted to the hospital the day before.

In addition, the paper observed that the White Theater had decided to close last night after a performance of “Have a Heart.” The disagreement between the Board of Health and the Board of Trustees, it seems, had provoked confusion among the public about the current health crisis, leading to sparse crowds at all Fresno theaters.

One Board of Trustees member defended his opposition to the ordinance in the Republican. “I did not vote against the health board’s proposed ordinance because it included the closing of saloons,” said F.L. Irwin. “In my opinion the ordinance as presented was absolutely ridiculous. It provided for the closing for 5 per cent of the city’s business and allowed 95 per cent to remain open.”

Irwin offered some pointed comments about the Board of Health resignation, too: “I want to say that if the mayor and the city trustees should resign like a bunch of children every time anything disagreeable occurs, we’d have a change of mayor and trustees every two or three weeks.”

Mayor Toomey was more diplomatic. He declared that a “family gathering” to heal the rift had been rescheduled for Tuesday.

Finally, one curious story from the January 6th edition: 4 businessmen and 1 city official “are secretly carrying on a practical experiment in the use of vaccine to prevent influenza,” stated the Republican. The vaccine was produced at the U.S. Naval Training School at Goat Island, where reportedly there had been no cases of the flu. Alas, the newspaper never followed up on this story and the supposed vaccine.

Day 96—Tuesday, Jan. 7, 1919

“Health Board in Office, Says Toomey,” proclaimed a Morning Republican headline on Tuesday, January 7, 1919. The day before the mayor had sent a letter to all five physicians comprising the board, in which he highlighted his complete confidence in all its members and urged them not to quit. “This is a serious time for anything like this to occur and I want to assure you that I am very sorry anything has happened between the Board of Health and the Board of Trustees,” he explained. “I beg [you] to remain.”

The Republican also observed that the Board of Trustee had rejected two flu ordinances in a meeting the night before because neither had been endorsed by the Board of Health. The first was Mayor Toomey’s proposal to declare the “Spanish influenza” a quarantinable disease; the other was Trustee Thomas M. Anton’s proposal to close the city for all hours but mealtimes. Despite the Board of Trustee’s unwillingness to back the Board of Health’s proposed ordinance, in other words, several trustees remained committed to following the expert guidance of the Board of Health. What remained to be seen was whether the latter would follow the mayor’s wishes and rescind its resignation.

Fortunately, the flu’s grip on the city continued to loosen. 38 new cases and 3 new deaths had been reported on Monday, bringing a total of 188 new cases and 15 deaths since the beginning of the new year. City health officer Carleton Mathewson attributed the improvement “to the good sense of the Fresno public.”

Despite the failure to pass the Board of Health’s ordinance, he said, “the public has become aroused to the danger of the situation and a great number of people are respective the provisions of the ordinance because they know it was the measure the board of health sought.” Mathewson noted that the schools were closed, numerous churches weren’t holding services, and people were avoiding theaters. Fresnans “are more careful about not gathering in crowds. They are spending more time in their homes. They are wearing masks with greater care.”

What the city needed to do now, he added, was to prevent another flare-up. And, of course, a resolution to the dispute between the Board of Health and the Board of Trustees—and the public confusion it engendered—was sure to help on that front.

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.

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