By the end of September 1918, as Spanish Influenza1 traveled quietly from east to west across the United States, Humboldt County residents started to hear about a new, especially particularly “energetic” and “swiftly spreading” germ that was ravaging communities across the country.
It was not a bad cold, officials warned, or even “la grippe,” a familiar form of the flu. Instead, this was a virulent and deadly virus. The US first case of Spanish Influenza, or “flu,” was identified in March of 1918 at a military base in Kansas — but even as the virus spread out of Kansas, first through the close quarters of army camps and prisons and then into American towns and cities, governments and media outlets in the US and abroad downplayed the danger as countries sought to keep spirits high and attention focused on the war.
On September 29, 1918, Edmund Wilson of Boston City Hospital, who had seen his community overrun with at least 10,000 cases, tried to warn the public of the “dreaded epidemic” and the Humboldt Times ran the story. His statement included symptoms to watch for, such as coughing, body pain, headaches and worse, included “simple” precautionary measures:
Keep away from infected persons. … Promiscuous spitting and coughing should be absolutely prohibited. Antiseptic-gauze masks should be worn by all attendants on a case. Public towels and drinking cups should be avoided and great care exercised in handling … all articles that have come in contact with the stricken.
Wilson concluded with a reminder that “only by loyal and intelligent co-operation of the general public can the epidemic of Spanish influenza be prevented from spreading throughout the country…” Unfortunately, still in the midst of war, America’s attention was elsewhere, and the virus spread unchecked. Just days after Wilson’s address, the Office of the Surgeon General reported 14,000 new influenza cases and hundreds of deaths.
The warnings were not heeded locally either. In July of 1918, Imogene Lockwood arrived in Humboldt County to train and work at the Union Labor Hospital in Eureka. Imogene noted in her diary that her first “Dr’s Lecture” on October 1, would be presented by Dr Wing, the City of Eureka’s Health Officer. Wing focused on pediatrics and obstetrics, Imogene wrote, without a mention of Spanish flu. Headlines in the Humboldt Times that day were all about the War, boasting of Bulgaria’s defeat and the anticipated Turkish surrender.
On October 2, the front page of the Humboldt Times did run a piece stating that the “Spanish Grippe” was spreading rapidly, but seemed to imply it was concentrated in Army camps. There was no local story and on October 3, Thompsons, a local merchant, advertised the “famous Beacon” blankets, and wool-filled comforters, without recognizing a potential new demand for their wares…
On October 4, the front page of the Humboldt Times featured excerpts of a National Health Service report citing an “alarming increase in the disease’s spread,” with over 120,000 flu and pneumonia cases and almost 2,500 deaths — but still there was no local coverage. Germany’s impending defeat grabbed the headlines instead, and on October 5, when the paper printed an Associated Press story about the “epidemic” and said the best way to combat the epidemic was to “prohibit public gatherings,” there was no local elaboration.
On October 6, 1918, the Humboldt Times did publish a national call for nurses, including those trained to be “merely assistants” asking them to prepare for deployment to areas of high infection. Within weeks, Humboldt County resident Mrs. Ira Russ was reassuring the young women on her list of volunteers that patient care would be “so light as to be well handled by a practical nurse.” Later, too many would lose their lives to the flu instead. October 8th’s paper was filled with news about the German’s surrender and the end of the war and included only a very short piece about a brigadier general who had lost his life to the Spanish Flu.
On Oct. 10, 1918, the Associated Press reported that Spanish Influenza had taken 7,432 American lives, infected 211,000 others and that another 25,083 suffered from pneumonia. California reported one thousand cases, though “only a few deaths.” Doctors in California, Nevada and Arizona, the story announced, had also been “mustered” to combat the Spanish Flu. The next day, a published statement from the Red Cross pleaded with Americans to uphold their “patriotic duty” and “Take Great Care To Prevent Spread On Pacific Coast,” warning that “the shortage of nurses and doctors is very serious… and an epidemic may spread so fast as to get entirely out of control.”
Spanish Flu Arrives in Humboldt County
On Saturday, October 12, 1918, the Humboldt Times announced the first identified cases of Spanish Influenza. The virus had arrived with two Austrian brothers, who had recently traveled north from San Francisco and then immediately infected their rooming house hosts, a man and wife “named Garbish.” Eureka City Health officer Dr. Lawrence Wing announced that “All but the woman are now in bed with the malady and are isolated.” Asked to elaborate, Wing said the sick would stay in their rooms — but he would not order a quarantine, “unless we are so instructed by the State Board of Health.”
Mayor George W. Cousins declared that if there were other cases by Monday, schools and public gathering places like churches and theaters, would close. But there were no cases identified that Monday and life continued as usual.
October 13 saw five new cases reported to the Board of Health, with area physicians reporting several more. A Eureka physician, Dr. Quinn, personally diagnosed five infections but declared the virus “not a quarantinable disease” and declined to give more specifics about the cases. This news was reported on page 6 of the Humboldt Times along with a warning the disease more often attacked young, strong, healthy adults between the ages of 20 and 40. The story included threats that if the virus continued to spread, officials might close “all places of public gatherings,” but that did not happen.
The Humboldt Times’ editor tackled the subject briefly on October 14, suggesting that the area’s citizens might well need to take precautionary measures “in time.” Above all, he declared “Do not let fear enter your mind. Exercise plenty, forget it and you will be less likely to become a victim.”
At least two local doctors assumed a similar attitude. Despite increasing fatalities across the country and rising local case numbers, on October 15, Dr. Quinn described the Spanish Flu as simply a more serious form of la grippe, or regular flu, brought on by a changing climate. The city’s health officer, Dr. Wing, predicted zero fatalities “if patients take care of themselves” and the epidemic was handled competently.
Imogene Lockwood, the young nurse at Eureka’s Union Hospital, seemed similarly unconcerned when was despite admitting that she had never been ill in bed “a whole day since I could remember, ” she fell sick and was down the greater part of a week. After all, on October 15 the County had only 19 official cases of Spanish Influenza and none appeared serious.
At this time, officials considered and then declined to close the schools, which they considered safer and offered “better sanitary condition than many of the homes from which some of the children come.” Also like COVID-19, initially the Spanish Flu was not considered a “children’s disease” and therefore even less dangerous than the measles or chicken pox. Officials also thought that closing the schools would enable many children “to run the streets and visit the picture shows and libraries,” which might lead to greater spread of infection than more sedentary classroom activities.
Officials did acknowledge that “moving picture shows and like gatherings” were a different matter but would not stop them until the county saw a “tendency to a rapid spread of the disease.”
On October 16, the paper offered a list of suggestions to avoid the flu. These included avoiding crowds and covering coughs and sneezes. Number five in the list of ten was to “Keep your hands clean and keep them out of your mouth.” In this issue, local doctor Charles Falk also offered suggestions on how to stay healthy and warned that unlike measles, scarlet fever or small-pox, which offered immunity to another “attack,” a bout of the Spanish Flu did not appear to offer the same protection.
Like COVID-19 today, in 1918 the more populated areas were hit with the “flu” sooner, “owing apparently to the more crowded conditions in the large cities.” On October 17, as case counts continued to rise, San Francisco ordered “practically all” public gathering places in the city to close per the city Board of Health. Theaters, churches, public and private schools, public and private dances and gatherings, cabarets and more were ordered to shutter their doors. Humboldt County officials, despite 21 new cases reported in a single day (principally in the lumber camps) and a new county total of 30 (official) cases, still resisted this drastic measure. Lack of information regarding the threat may have played a role, especially in the smaller communities, for as late as October 19, “Uncle Sam’s Advice on the Flu” ran on page 6 of the Blue Lake Advocate, while news about a county supervisor’s session, a new electric light plant and a recent timber deal made the front page.
In Eureka, however, October 19 marked a turning point. When the State Board of Health ordered closure of all “public places of amusement” and the temporary end to public meetings, the county followed suit. And though the state stopped short of closing schools and churches, the local board of health declared that it did not “see the advisability of closing merely a few of the places of greatest danger and leaving others open” and closed local schools and churches as well. The absence of 187 pupils from the high school and 216 from the grammar school may have played a part.
Unfortunately, the virus continued to spread. October 20 saw 132 cases reported to the Eureka City Health Office and by October 24, the number had reached 500. Nine people had already lost their lives …
Humboldt County’s efforts in 1918 to stop the spread of the deadly Spanish Flu, including masking up, social distancing, closing non-essential businesses and more.
1. Origin of “Spanish” influenza: There is no evidence the “Spanish flu” originated in Spain. During World War 1, Spain was one of the few European nations to remain neutral and had no reason to suppress news of the 1918 epidemic, which other countries feared might make them look weak or divert attention from the war. Because news of the virulent virus first broke from Spain, people erroneously assumed it originated there.
Lynette Mullen writes about Humboldt County History at Lynette’s NorCal History Blog.