Maybe we are a morose bunch, but current events aroused our curiosity about a past pandemic that visited Seattle in 1918. For those of you with similar tendencies, here is Chapter 16 from our 2003 book, Eccentric Seattle, by J. Kingston Pierce. We hope you all stay safe and healthy!
Above: Seattle policemen in December 1918, wearing masks made by the Red Cross.
Danger in the Air
Like hundreds of thousands of others, Seattleites perished from influenza in the worst epidemic this country has yet known.
Nobody who lived through the autumn of 1918 could ever forget how nature declared war on humanity, just as humans were ending the First World War against themselves.
The firestorm of battle that had engulfed Europe for four years was then dwindling to coals. Germany, in full retreat on the Western Front, would be granted an armistice on November 11, 1918, effectively ending the conflict—though a formal treaty wasn’t inked until 1919. At the same time, however, the United States was under attack by a particularly virulent form of influenza—the Spanish flu—that seemed to rise out of nowhere and was spread merely by breathing.
Some claimed the disease had been deliberately created and covertly circulated by German spies. Others posited that it had incubated accidentally in Europe through the mixing of poisonous gases with vapors given off by rotting corpses. There was even one theory, advanced through the press by the wife of an American official living in France, that the Spanish flu was some form of mesmeric warfare engineered by the German army—a “malicious suggestion on the world . . . frightening unto death thousands of our people.”
But no psychic “suggestion” could have killed as many humans as this pandemic did in 1918 and 1919. Twenty to 40 million people perished around the world, and 675,000 of them were Americans—more Americans than those who died in combat during all of the wars fought in the 20th century. Most bewilderingly, casualties weren’t just the aged or the infirm, the common victims of flu. They primarily were men and women in the prime of their lives, from about 21 to 40 years of age. Regardless of whether rich or poor, obscure or renown, all appeared susceptible. Among the flu’s victims were Irma Cody Garlow, Buffalo Bill Cody’s daughter, and Leopold Kahn (a.k.a. “Admiral Dot, the El Dorado Elf”) one of showman P.T. Barnum’s first dwarfs. President Woodrow Wilson, actress Mary Pickford, and General John Pershing all contracted the disease, but survived.
Like other U.S. cities, Seattle suffered. Public gatherings were prohibited in order to stem the spread of the disease by personal contact. Residents took to wearing gauze masks, hoping to protect their lungs. Yet few families in the city escaped without at least one of their number being struck down by the Spanish flu, and it wasn’t unusual for whole clans to succumb at once. On October 18, 1918, the Seattle Union Record headlined a grim fact—Seattle’s morgue was “jammed with dead bodies.” And the news was destined to get much worse.
It’s hard now to imagine in our era of rabid health consciousness and frequent medical breakthroughs, but during that postwar autumn fear held Washington’s largest city tightly in its grip. No one knew for sure whether he or she, or the people they cared most about, would wake up one morning full of vigor and optimism—and then be dead by nightfall.
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History knows it as the Spanish flu. However, that’s a misnomer, for while Spain was particularly hard hit by this long-ago contagion, the epidemic apparently started in the United States. In March 1918, ill soldiers at Fort Riley, Kansas, began filling the camp hospital. Before spring was out, 48 of them were fitted for caskets. Cause of death was listed as pneumonia.
From there, the silent killer traveled rapidly and extensively. Almost two million soldiers, many of them from Kansas, unknowingly carried the flu with them to Europe that summer. By the end of August 1918, another military hospital, this one in Boston, Massachusetts, was overwhelmed by men complaining about hacking coughs, muscle aches, fevers as high as 105 degrees, wild bouts of delirium, and a bluish complexion with purple blisters—not at all the kinds of minor ailments normally associated with the flu. This version hit its victims within one to three days of exposure, could overcome even a hardy man within an hour, and often progressed into severe bronchial pneumonia. Odder still, when doctors autopsied the casualties, they found lungs filled with a bloody, foamy fluid. The victims quite literally had drowned.
Not surprisingly, the disease couldn’t be contained to the ranks of the military. Patriotic gatherings heralding America’s participation in what was then known as the Great War were popular all over the nation. Every time civilians crowded into streets with army or navy inductees to sing songs and boost public morale, it threatened to escalate the epidemic. As September wound to a close, Boston counted 1,000 of its citizens dead from influenza. By the third week of October, Philadelphia had lost 4,500 and the city had to appeal to the federal government for funds just to bury the decaying dead before they caused a secondary epidemic. As the airborne slayer wound west, Chicago’s death toll rose to 8,500. By mid-October San Francisco reported another 4,000 cases of influenza—one doctor claimed to have seen 525 new patients in a single day.
Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson must have cringed when, in the midst of this mounting crisis, he was told by the city’s health commissioner, Dr. J.S. McBride, “the circumstances for an uncontrollable epidemic hardly could be worse.”
The big problem, of course, was that Seattle was surrounded by military facilities—a naval training station at the University of Washington, the army’s Camp Lewis 35 miles to the south, and Bremerton’s Puget Sound Navy Yard. The transfer of sick men from Philadelphia to Bremerton in September 1918 imported influenza into the area. Within weeks, Camp Lewis was hit too, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported in early October that 700 instances of “flu-like” illnesses had been recorded at the UW naval station.
McBride had downplayed this news from the military bases. But after the first two civilians died in Seattle, Mayor Hanson—a former real-estate agent and ex-state legislator who was more than aware of how his response to the crisis might affect his political ambitions—decided to make the fight against influenza his greatest campaign yet. He told McBride to do whatever was necessary to protect Seattleites from contagion. The health commissioner responded on October 5 by forbidding dancing in the city (then a favorite evening amusement), closing pool halls and the public library, prohibiting “all entertainments in cafes, restaurants and hotels,” and ordering businesses to “prevent the gathering of crowds.” Later, theaters and schools were shut down. So were churches, with McBride telling any ministers who protested, “religion that won’t keep for two weeks is not worth having.” Most of the press endorsed McBride’s drastic regulations. The Seattle Times told residents that it was their “patriotic duty to . . . check the spread of the disease.”
Linking the civilian battle against influenza with the U.S. military’s titanic struggle with Germany proved highly effective not only here, but across the country. It made it easier to convince citizens that they should stay in their residences, give their homes a “thorough cleaning,” and, when in public, wear six-layer gauze masks that authorities said would curb the airborne transmission of influenza—though such porous masks couldn’t possibly have restrained the microbes that caused the disease.
Across the United States, a sense of community solidarity kept people’s spirits up while pulling together to defeat the dreaded flu, even as worries abounded that no cure would be found. One national health official lamented to local authorities that the best thing they could do was “hunt up your wood-workers and cabinet-makers and set them to making coffins. Then take your street laborers and set them to digging graves.” The use of folk remedies was rampant. Some mothers told their children to stuff salt up their noses, wear goose grease poultices, or eat inordinate amounts of onions. Patent medicine companies capitalized on people’s fears by pushing bogus panaceas. Seattle came up with its own vaccine and began inoculating residents, but like similar cures developed back east, this was never more than experimental.
By mid-October, reports in the newspapers of Seattle’s fight against the influenza were competing with dispatches from the war front. The numbers of sick and dead were growing, with 1,368 cases reported locally by October 11. Emergency hospital services were stretched to the limit, especially since so many doctors had left to help in Europe. Downtown stores, wanting to maintain their business activities but at the same time wishing to endorse public safety, urged Seattleites to, “shop by telephone. It is not unpatriotic.”
As the weeks wore on, stories appeared about undertakers garnering unfair profits, as well as landlords who hoped to protect themselves by evicting from their rental properties sick tenants and nurses who’d been exposed to flu patients. A phony policeman levied $5 fines against people he met on downtown streets who weren’t wearing masks—he made a tidy bundle before being caught. Worse happened in San Francisco where an actual health inspector shot a man who refused to don his mask.
On November 11, 1918, news of victory in Europe suddenly forced Seattleites out of their doldrums—and a little out of their minds. The P-I reported that the streets were filled with celebrants and “not a gauze mask was visible.” Mayor Hanson and Dr. McBride reiterated that continued vigilance against the disease was essential, but it was a losing cause. Seattle wanted to celebrate the victory over the Germans, and victory over influenza—the number of new cases, in fact, had dropped since October. The health department reluctantly lifted the rule about wearing gauze masks. Business activity started to pick up again. Theaters reopened and immediately were filled—with the P-I joking in a headline, “‘Flu’ May Be Followed by Film Epidemic.”
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A second wave of influenza struck Seattle in December 1918, causing commissioner McBride to order a 10-day quarantine for the newly sick, but the city no longer took the peril so seriously. The worst of the epidemic was over—at least in the United States. It continued to rage for a few more months in the South Pacific and Europe, and killed 60 percent of the Eskimo population in Nome, Alaska. Records show that at least 1,372 Seattleites perished from the flu.
No cure for the contagion had been found. It appeared simply to have run out of people who were susceptible its dire affects. However, that was blessing enough, for when the body counts were done, they showed something nobody could have expected—more civilians were dying at home than soldiers on European battlefields in the autumn of 1918.
Although Seattleites generally appreciated the restrictions under which they had to live during the influenza scare, they didn’t have to like their state. A bit of doggerel from the October 8, 1918, Seattle Post-Intelligencer captured the spirit of those days:
Too Much Precaution
By Carlton Fitchett
At home we’re trying mighty hard to follow the directions. To fight the “flu” we stand on guard, with fear in our complexions. With windows open to the breeze we wait with breath abated, and every time the children sneeze the house is fumigated.
The doctor says, “Take lots of air, if you’d escape contagion; rub antiseptics in your hair while Spanish ‘flu’ is ragin’.” So on the porch I moved my bed, a process quite exciting, and rubbed some ratbane on my head to keep the germs from biting.
That night it rained and also blew; the rain fell helter-skelter, and though the sheets were soaked clean through, I scorned to flee to shelter. I figured this was but a ruse, a sortie to upset me, and if I waved the flag of truce the germs would up and get me. All night I fought temptation off to seek my bedroom stuffy, and in the morning had a cold and eyelids red and puffy.
A doleful life I led that day and not a bit decorous; the street cars running out our way were open-faced and porous, and when I took a seat inside the drafts were far from pleasing, and so I oped my features wide and started in a-sneezing.
The boss, a man of little shame and much inclined to scoffing, he dubbed me a Castilian name when I came in a-coughing. They wouldn’t let me in at home, they shunned me as a leper. The shows were closed, I couldn’t roam to view some vodvil stepper. With rancor I did cogitate while through the rain a-sloshin’; the reason for my sorry fate was too darned much precaution!
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(Post photo credit: https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/records-list.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=593457)