Editor’s note: This is part one in a multiple-part series taking an historical look at the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918.
While there is nothing in the county’s history quite like the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Spanish flu of 1918-20 provides some interesting parallels.
Scholars still debate where the Spanish flu first appeared, but many believe that it arose in Kansas in March of 1918 after passing to humans from a bird species.
Aided by the massive movement of troops during World War I, the virus quickly spread around the world, infecting an estimated one in three people. The pandemic killed an estimated 50-100 million people and between 3-5% of the world’s population.
It wasn’t just the high death toll that alarmed people at the time. While most influenza epidemics tend to kill the young and old, the Spanish flu more commonly killed those in the prime of life.
Today, experts believe that the high death rate among those aged between 16 and 40 was due to a massive response of the immune system that killed in an attempt to cure.
Those who perished in this manner died quickly, and sometimes with bizarre symptoms like turning blue and coughing up blood that led the public to fear that they were witnessing a return of the Black Death.
At the time, there were no effective treatments for influenza or the resulting pneumonia, which was usually the cause of death. Though certain viruses had been identified, the world’s leading scientists knew very little about them. Over the course of the pandemic, most members of the scientific community believed that a bacterium was responsible for the Spanish flu.
In North America, the pandemic hit in three major waves beginning in the spring of 1918, the fall of 1918 and the winter of 1918-19. The first wave was relatively mild, the second extremely virulent, and the third intermediate between the two.
The first wave of the Spanish flu in the United States was mostly limited to military facilities and nearby urban areas. But the second wave swept over the entire country, leaving almost no community untouched.
Even as the flu raged through U.S. cities and military camps in September of 1918, the county’s local newspaper, the Calaveras Prospect, was silent on the issue. However, this was not unusual. During the war, the belligerent countries feared that reporting on the pandemic would decrease morale and incite a panic.
Through government censorship or self-censorship, most newspapers in Europe and the U.S. reported little, if at all, on the outbreak at first. The pandemic became known as Spanish Flu because Spain was neutral during World War I and its newspapers extensively reported on the crisis in that country beginning with the first wave.
As the second wave of the virus spread, the silence of the press did more to stoke fear than to quell it, and newspapers increased their coverage.
The Prospect first reported on the second wave of the Spanish Flu in a short article on Oct. 5.
“The call for the entrainment of seven soldiers from Calaveras county on October 7th has been called off by the Adjutant General on account of the epidemic of influenza that is spreading throughout the training camps,” the article reads. “The army doctors have evidently found a remedy for the disease, and have it under control now.”
Missing from the article was the news that the entire round of the draft had been canceled across the country, and that the pandemic was not even close to being contained.
By Oct. 19, the optimism of this initial report had proven to be unwarranted.
“The nation-wide epidemic of Spanish influenza has hit this State and is now spreading over the interior towns,” a Prospect article reads. “In San Francisco and Stockton the health authorities have ordered all schools, churches, theatres and places of amusement closed. It is reported that the city of Sonora has placed itself in quarantine as there are several cases there. Reports come from Angels that there is one case there.”
The Stockton Daily Evening Record reported on the situation in Copperopolis on Oct. 24.
“School has been closed for the week on account of Spanish influenza,” an article reads. “There are several cases of the disease in town and precaution is being taken by Dr. Cooper, the mine physician, to prevent its spread.”
The next day, the Record carried news from Mokelumne Hill.
“Acting under orders from headquarters the postmistress and telephone girl in this place are now wearing ‘flu’ masks while attending to their office work,” an article reads. “The material has also been ordered for masks for all of the pupils of the public school. While there are cases of influenza all around us, so far this place has been immune, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
The following day, the Prospect printed an article titled “Wear Your Mask Now.”
“Have you got your ‘flu’ mask ready for immediate use?” it reads. “San Francisco has passed an ordinance making it a misdemeanor with a punishment of 10 days in jail or $100 fine for not wearing a mask. Governor Stephens has requested that everyone wear a mask. It is better to meet with the request now than have to wear one later on – one put on by the old boy with the big scythe that won’t come off. It should be universal. A strict quarantine and a careful living up to the rules and regulations of the health officials will do more to keep the epidemic down than any other measure.”
By Oct. 26, the school had been closed and no public gatherings were being held in Mountain Ranch.
“We miss the sound of the school bell,” a Prospect correspondent wrote. “No Flu, but no chances.”
Though few flu cases in the county were reported by the Prospect, by the end of October the situation had become sufficiently alarming that the City of Angels unanimously passed an ordinance requiring the wearing of face coverings while in public, and two days later, the county board of supervisors followed suit.
“Every person appearing within the townsite limits of any town, or in any public place where two or more persons are congregated except in homes, in the County of Calaveras and every person engaged in the sale, handling, or distribution of foodstuffs, liquors, refreshments or wearing apparel shall wear a mask or covering, except when partaking of meals or refreshments, over the nose and mouth,” the ordinance reads. “Every person who shall violate any of the provisions of this Ordinance shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be punished by a fine not to exceed Fifty Dollars, or by imprisonment in the County Jail of the County of Calaveras not to exceed Fifty days, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”
Sources: “Pale Rider” by Laura Spinney; “The Great Influenza” by John M. Barry