Flu Epidemic of 1918 Sent Chills Through State
“If the epidemic continues its mathematical rate of acceleration, civilization could easily disappear from the face of the earth within a matter of a few more weeks.”
Victor Vaughan, head of the U.S. Army’s division of communicable diseases, 1918
As Asia’s bird flu generates an anticipatory panic, the so-called Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-19 is often cited. The outbreak was the deadliest and most memorable flu pandemic on record, claiming as many as 50 million lives worldwide, including nearly 700,000 in the U.S. It killed more people than died on the battlefields of World War I.
In contrast, bird flu’s effect has been negligible. Since 2003, the H5N1 strain has infected at least 126 people in Asia and killed about half of them.
Most American cities, including Los Angeles, were not prepared to fight the 1918 virus. But by the end of the second and most potent wave, California’s Board of Health had dubbed Los Angeles the safest large city in America -- meaning the least deadly.
Southland cities survived by imposing quarantines and controls within 10 days of L.A.'s first reported case, on Oct. 1, 1918.
By the middle of October, armed police “flu squads” were shooing shoppers along the sidewalks to keep groups from congregating.
Schools were closed, many for at least four months. L.A. officials canceled a wartime Liberty bond march and banned crowds from a number of public places, saloons, concert halls, churches and theaters. Police stood guard at the doors of rowdy taverns to enforce closure. Indoor dances, boxing matches and meetings were canceled. Public transportation vehicles were disinfected daily.
The City Council created a health advisory board made up of nearly a dozen local physicians, headed by Dr. L.M. Powers, the city health commissioner. Three makeshift emergency hospitals opened, including the 70-bed Yale Street Hospital, where the city’s poorest residents and most severe cases of influenza and pneumonia were treated. (Yale Street would close in late November, when daily cases in the city dropped below 300.)
The advisory board’s emergency laws stayed in place for nearly two months. Anyone who violated them was charged with a misdemeanor, with a conviction carrying a fine of up to $500 and a six-month jail term.
The strict measures paid off: Fewer than 70 deaths a week per 100,000 people were recorded from October through December. By comparison, San Francisco’s rate was more than twice that: 150 deaths per 100,000, according to state health department figures that The Times reported in January 1919.
The differential was due, at least in part, to each city’s cautionary measures. San Francisco went ahead with its Liberty bond parade, even though its first flu case had been reported two weeks earlier. Within another two weeks, nearly 5,000 had come down with the flu; 130 had died.
Each municipality made its own laws.
Pasadena required residents to wear face masks in public and arrested more than 60 people without them on the day the law took effect. However, when robbers began posing as health officials to get into people’s homes, Pasadena repealed the provision.
Los Angeles quarantined flu victims in their homes and, by and large, its residents cooperated. Along with the city’s rapid response, the quarantine helped to reduce the number afflicted.
The first wave of flu in the U.S. appeared at a military camp in Kansas in the spring of 1918. Soon it had spread through other military camps but caused few deaths.
But then a more virulent strain took hold among soldiers in the European trenches of World War I. Returning soldiers brought it to the East Coast.
The virus was erroneously dubbed Spanish influenza because so many in Spain had died from it.
Unlike many viruses, which are particularly dangerous to the very old and the very young, the flu killed mostly young adults between the ages of 20 and 40. It spread rapidly through the ranks of warring armies and around the globe.
Other soldiers brought the ailment back too, far beyond Kansas. In mid-September, a naval training vessel from San Francisco arrived in San Pedro with 400 of its 700 crewmen ill with the flu. At least 200 seemingly healthy sailors came ashore on leave.
More than a week later, military officials quarantined the docks, but by then it was too late. The first civilian cases of flu were reported Oct 1. Within 10 days, Los Angeles had more than 680 reported cases.
The federal government was fixated on events on the Western Front, maintaining that there was “no present cause for alarm” at home. But Los Angeles city and county health officials, who had been watching events unfold in the East, took steps to educate the public through newspaper stories.
They discouraged spitting on the sidewalks. They also asked people to limit funerals to family members, cancel wedding receptions, pay property taxes by mail and wear face masks. Although masks were not mandatory in Los Angeles, they were in San Francisco.
But because San Francisco reacted to the crisis more slowly -- and because its residents took the warnings less seriously -- its death rate was higher.
But at least some city officials were serious. One San Francisco deputy health officer shot a man in the leg and arm for refusing to wear a mask. The man was taken to a hospital, where he was arrested for violating the mask law.
In Pasadena, smokers cut holes in their masks for cigars, cigarettes and pipes.
The masks themselves inspired horror. Henrietta Lockwood, a tourist from Chicago, “went insane from sheer fright” as she stepped off a train in Pasadena and “beheld the masked city,” The Times reported in 1919. Hospital physicians said there was no doubt that “fear engendered by the masks temporarily unbalanced her mind.”
In late October of 1918, the local draft board moved a swearing-in session outdoors. After all, the war was still on.
Many movie studios shut down for a month, while wildcatters, shipbuilders and gravediggers -- outdoor occupations, that is -- put in overtime.
A few hundred members of the Church of Christ Scientist defied the law and attempted to reopen their church for services, saying the ban was “unconstitutional, invalid, void and an unwarranted exercise of police power.” Judge Thomas P. White ruled in their favor, saying that although the city had a legal right to prevent gatherings, the ordinance was faulty in primarily singling out churches and theaters.
In the November gubernatorial election, people went to polling places in masks. Because officials had banned public speeches, candidates had curtailed their campaigns.
As Christmas drew near, L.A. health officials urged the public to shop by phone and asked department stores to hold off on sales that would draw crowds.
On occasion, the flu inspired bizarre responses. Bedridden with the virus, Juan Rincon of Boyle Heights put a pistol to his head and killed himself.
“Wilson’s Solution,” a concoction invented by a druggist named Robert C. Wilson, went on sale in L.A. for 35 cents a bottle in November. Wilson theorized that influenza germs in the nose and throat could be killed by the vapors of his solution dribbled onto a handkerchief. The odor was considered “soothing on the respiratory organs.”
Despite the terrifying flu threat, people mustered the strength to defy danger -- even to mock it.
At the height of the epidemic, Los Angeles children skipped rope to this rhyme:
I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,