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

Fresno appeared to have its flu outbreak under control by the second half of January 1919. Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths were all down sharply. But as some residents pushed to return to the status quo, Fresno leaders urged citizens to exercise caution and heed the guidance of experts, lest the city reopen too quickly and a third wave of the virus take hold.

Day 101—Monday, Jan. 13, 1919

A consensus of doctors agrees that the second wave of the virus has “passed its peak and is breaking,” reported the Fresno Morning Republican on Monday, January 13. Just 41 new cases had been reported the day before—the lowest total since the beginning of the epidemic.

The course of the second wave in Fresno, noted the paper, followed the pattern observed in most other parts of the country: the second wave tended to peak in weeks 3 to 5 and begin to decline starting in week 6. Since Fresno was now in the sixth week of its second wave, health officials were confident that the situation would continue to improve.

Notwithstanding this encouraging news, Republican editor Chester H. Rowell penned a biting editorial on the doubt that “ignorant” people still cast on emergency measures such as the mask ordinance. Many newspapers, said Rowell, are publishing “communications from persons transparently ignorant of everything which would qualify them to have an intelligent opinion.” What’s more, when the San Francisco supervisors held a meeting on its mask ordinance, they opened the floor to a slew of uninformed individuals who presented “proposals and objections grotesquely ridiculous.” Several of the supervisors, added Rowell, “were not much better equipped.”

While some people argue that doctors, too, don’t agree completely on the efficacy of masks, Rowell made a point of distinguishing between “the ignorance of the trained scientists,” which he judged “a positive quality,” and that of the “ignoramus,” which “is a negative one.” Scientists know what they know and what they don’t—and they base their conclusions on “the background of all the facts, all the certainties, and all the probabilities and possibilities.” In contrast, Howell insisted, “the judgment of the generally ignorant…is worth considerably less than nothing at all.” 

Of course, America was a democratic country and Howell believed that “ignorance has certain rights” in a democracy. The laws of nature, however, “have no charity on ignorance. In their court, only the voice of knowledge is listened to.” Thus he concluded that “we shall be punished, frequently with death, if we give equal heed to ignorance and knowledge.”

Today, Howell’s words seem prophetic. Since February, the United States has struggled not only to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus but also rampant misinformation about it—misinformation that is often amplified by the White House. The result? 185,000 Americans deaths and counting, which represents 22% of the world’s share despite the fact only 4% of the global population lives in the United States.

Day 103—Wednesday, Jan. 15, 1919

“Flu Epidemic at Standstill,” announced a Morning Republican headline on Wednesday, January 15—Day 103 of the health crisis. Just 26 new cases were reported the day before and not a single death.

The paper reported more good news on January 15th: the rift between the Board of Trustees and the Board of Health appeared to be over. The night before the trustees had passed an ordinance giving a majority of the board the power to close businesses and places of entertainment and amusement should it be “deemed necessary to preserve or protect the public health.” This ordinance resolved the problem that had precipitated the mass resignation of the Board of Health—the ability of a minority of the Board of Trustees’ members to block the implementation of Board of Health recommendations.

Meanwhile, the Fresno State Normal training school (now Fresno State) made public its plan to begin part-time work for its grade-school pupils. On Wednesday the school would begin a “rotation scheme” to bring together children of all ages. All the pupils would wear masks, though the youngest pupils would “not be expected to remain long enough to have their masks tiresome.”

Day 104—Thursday, Jan. 16, 1919

A meeting of Fresno ministers yesterday, stated the Morning Republican on January 16, agreed to reopen city churches—most of which had been closed since late 1918—for one, 11 am service this coming Sunday.

Day 105—Friday, Jan. 17, 1919

The Fresno Merchants’ Association, observed the Republican on January 17, had documented that the first wave of the flu epidemic cost almost $20,000 locally. The costs, which included supplies such as beds and bedding as well as nurses’ salaries, would be split between the city and county.

The January 17th edition of the paper also included an updated from Dr. W.W. Cross, resident physician of the Red Cross Hospital. 14 patients had been discharged the day before, leaving just 56 patients left in the facility. “The influenza epidemic undoubtedly is passing,” said Cross,” but the great danger now is that people will begin to feel too secure, will be careless about wearing their masks in the theaters and elsewhere, will begin to go about business as usual and there will be another bad flare up.”

Day 109—Tuesday, Jan. 21, 1919

On Monday night, the Board of Trustees unanimously passed a new city ordinance giving the Board of Health the power to quarantine all influenza cases, just as it already can do with cases of smallpox and other highly communicable diseases.

Day 111—Thursday, Jan. 23, 1919

“Nine Flu Cases Is Record of Day,” proclaimed a Republican headline on January 23. “Although the epidemic continues on the decrease,” cautioned city health officer Dr. Carleton Mathewson, “I want again to urge the people to continue the exercise of every precaution to prevent another flare-up.”

Day 112—Friday, Jan. 24, 1919

Fresno city schools will reopen on Monday, February 3, reported the Republican on Friday, January 24. All children attending class will be required to wear a mask. The resumption of face-to-face classes was being delayed additional week on the recommendation of the Board of Health.

The Republican also praised the Board of Health and other city authorities for their work implementing “drastic methods” to stop the spread of the flu during the first wave of the disease. “Fresno had fewer deaths from the disease during the months of October and November than any city in California in proportion to its population,” maintained the paper, citing 117 deaths in those months. And with just nine new cases reported the day before, the second wave seemed to nearly be over.

Day 119—Friday, Jan. 31, 1919

Fresno High School principal Walter O. Smith cheered the success of its correspondence school, stated the Republican on the last day of January. Eighty-one percent of students have kept up with their work, an “excellent record” given that some have had to deal with flu in their homes and other challenges. The correspondence school would come to a close that day and Fresno schools would reopen on Monday.

Day 122—Monday, Feb. 3, 1919

Back-to-back columns published in the Fresno Morning Republican on Monday, February 3—Day 122 of the 1918-19 pandemic—indicated that after four long months the crisis was indeed coming to an end.

First, the paper highlighted that after being closed for six weeks all city schools would reopen that morning. And students would not be required to wear masks, despite prior messages to the contrary.

Second, the Republican announced that the Board of Health had rescinded its flu mask restrictions for the city as a whole. The board made the decision primarily because of the reopening of city schools—it deemed “the wearing of masks” to be “incompatible with work in the classroom.” Still, Dr. Mathewson recommended that all people attending theaters, churches, and similar gatherings to voluntarily wear masks for the time being. But for the first time in months, Fresnans did not have to follow the mask order. “Those who go out today minus the muzzle will run no danger of being apprehended as evaders of the law,” 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.