Editor’s note: This is part two in a multiple-part series taking an historical look at the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918.
Though the county board of supervisors passed an ordinance requiring the wearing of masks in public on Oct. 28 of 1918, some local residents had already begun wearing masks voluntarily.
The day that the ordinance was passed, a Calaveras Prospect correspondent in Murphys reported, “There is quite a scare of the epidemic, and yesterday quite a few donned the flu masks. There are a few cases of influenza but they are very light. … The school has been closed for the present.”
On Oct. 31, the Stockton Daily Evening Record carried a dispatch from Mokelumne Hill.
“Although there are no cases of influenza in town so far, still the public school was closed Monday last as a precaution. Now the next thing in order is for the parents to keep their children at home and not let them roam around on the public street,” an article reads. “Quite a number of people have passed through town during the last few days, leaving the places where the influenza was prevalent, and going up into the mountains above us.”
In the Nov. 2 issue, the Prospect reported on the first case of influenza in San Andreas.
“Postmaster Geo. H. Treat is the first case to break out in San Andreas with the Spanish influenza,” an article reads. “While at this writing his condition is not alarming he is to be closely watched and kept in bed.”
The same issue carried a short message from the Prospect’s Mokelumne Hill correspondent.
“The Red Cross ladies in this place have been engaged for the past four days in making ‘flu’ masks,” it reads. “They charge five cents apiece for them.”
The American Red Cross expanded dramatically over the course of the war – from 107 chapters to 3,864 chapters – and played a leading role in responding to the pandemic.
It was reported that a Calaveras Union High School graduate, Gordon Keith, had been commissioned anEnsign of Engineers of the United States Navy.
“Gordon enlisted in the service last fall and is stationed at San Pedro,” an article reads. “In a letter to his parents he states that there has not been a single case of the influenza at the training camp, and that by the enforcement of a strict (quarantine) and the wearing of gauze masks the place is kept free from the epidemic.”
A lengthy article offered advice for the care of Spanish influenza patients.
“Diet during the Fever Period – The patient must be induced to eat more than his reduced appetite usually demands,” the article reads. “Liquid, or semi-liquid food only must be given at least every four hours. The basis of the diet is milk, supplemented by sugar and starch. The latter may be given in toast, starch and bread puddings, cereal mushes and gruels. Ice-cream may be given two or three times a day if desired.”
In the Nov. 9 issue, a Prospect correspondent in West Point reported, “So far we have had no cases of the Influenza. Everybody is seen with a mask on and are doing all they can to prevent the epidemic getting in our midst. I really think the gentlemen are finding it a pleasure in wearing them, as so many looks as though razors are a thing of the past.”
In San Andreas, the Red Cross was busy preparing to ship Christmas boxes to soldiers overseas, as well as making flu masks.
“The ladies have been busily engaged in making ‘flu’ masks for the past two weeks, which they have disposed of at ten cents each,” an article reads. “The proceeds go to increase the funds of the local branch.”
During the war, the Prospect often printed letters from local soldiers stationed on the Western Front.
“Our regiment is made up entirely of miners, many of whom have worked on the Mother Lode,” one letter reads. “France is a beautiful country behind the lines but the districts which have seen fighting are pretty badly wrecked, but not beyond repair, except some of the older master work, such as churches or cathedrals. However, from all the country I have been through, I think I’ll choose California for mine.”
Over the course of September and through the end of the war on Nov. 11, not one letter from Europe printed in the Prospect mentions the Spanish influenza, although the soldiers were likely painfully aware of it. More American soldiers would die of the flu than from battlefield injuries. The omission was likely due to a combination of the censorship of soldiers’ letters and the young men not wishing to worry their loved ones back home.
A Nov. 12 letter to the editor from a reader in Melones suggests that the county mask ordinance was lightly enforced.
“The authorities appear to think that the fact of having passed such a law is all that was necessary, and that the law would enforce itself,” it reads. “That law is a dead letter, it is a joke. I have this 12th day of November, seen a barber at his occupation, without a mask, several storekeepers and numerous saloon frequenters passing in and out of saloons without masks. The disease is spreading. Why not? One properly authorized officer could make a fine haul for the Red Cross in one day. It would be no trick to gather in one hundred cases in this community in one day. Let us hope that some one will get busy.”
The board of trustees of the City of Angels met with the board of health in a special session on Nov. 13.
“After some discussion it was ordered by the board of health to have removed at once all chairs and card tables from all saloons and pool and billiard halls until further notice as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the present epidemic of Spanish Influenza,” an article reads. “The City Marshall was instructed to enforce the order at once.”
On Nov. 16, the public school in San Andreas reopened after having been closed for two weeks, though the paper reported one new case in town.
“Constable Henry F. Zwinge was taken down with the malady and for several days was very low, having a high fever most of the time,” an article reads. “It is reported that there are eight cases at Mokelumne Hill, and that a new outbreak is running at Sheep Ranch. Thursday we were informed that City Health Officer Weirich reported twenty-seven new cases in Angels Camp.”
The Red Cross was busy setting up temporary hospitals in Angels Camp.
“The Red Cross branch has procured quarters and are fitting up to handle the new cases that are coming in at that place,” the article reads. “So far as we have been able to learn, there has been three deaths in the county from this cause. By strict observance of the ‘flu mask’ law the spread of the disease can be kept down. A strict enforcement of the law will have to be in effect if the epidemic continues.”
Just down the road from Angels Camp, Melones was also being hit hard.
“Reports from the mining town of Melones state that there are twenty-nine cases of influenza in that place,” an article reads. “The new outbreaks started from ‘Baldy’s’ saloon, the proprietor being a victim and did not take the proper precaution. The saloons are now closed and a strict quarantine is being enforced.”
Sources: “Pale Rider” by Laura Spinney; “The Great Influenza” by John M. Barry