Tacoma flu outbreak 'spread like wildfire' targeting the young and healthy
The Spanish flu pandemic a century ago lasted just over a year. That’s all the time it needed to kill 50 million to 100 million people across the globe.
Tacoma and Pierce County weren’t spared.
Newspaper accounts from the time portray the region in a panic with government officials at odds with the public and each other.
Questionable theories about health, sanitation and medicine were rampant.
The public, military and government officials were in denial.
Some bristled at restrictions. Others took advantage.
A NATION AT WAR
The Oct. 1, 1918, News Tribune was full of stories and ads that covered the breadth of the young city.
Silent film star Mary Pickford was starring in the romantic comedy “Johanna Enlists” at the Colonial theater. Lincoln High School’s seniors defeated the school’s freshmen, 64-0, in a football game. Bread was selling for 8 1/2 cents a loaf. A 10-room house on North Yakima was going for $6,000.
The paper’s front page was full of stories about the Great War in Europe, as it had been for months.
The war, later known as World War I, had depleted Tacoma of its young men, be they recent immigrants or students on the Puyallup Indian Reservation.
Nurses were in short supply as well. Young women were needed to fill the missing ranks.
One of those was 18-year-old Margaret Howell.
“When calls were sent out for young women to enter training schools for nurses . . . Miss Howell was among those who responded,” The News Tribune reported.
Howell, the daughter of a lumber company president, had graduated from Lincoln High in June with high marks in English, French, music, cooking and sewing.
She started nursing school Oct. 1. Her training would take three years.
THE FLU STRIKES
News of flu outbreaks, in the United States and overseas, had made its way to Tacoma during most of 1918. But it had seemed a distant problem for Tacomans.
That began to change in October.
At the bottom of The News Tribune’s front page on Oct. 5 a one-column story told of a “Flu Scare in Seattle” that forced churches and theaters to close.
Inside that same edition another headline read, “ ‘Fluenza Rumors Officially Denied,” on a story about Camp Lewis.
The army post, the predecessor of today’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord, wanted to quell the stories that soldiers were dying there.
“There is no Spanish influenza in Camp Lewis,” the story stated, quoting Maj. Irvy McGlasson.
Three days later, the flu seemed to be circling Tacoma. Reports of victims came from Seattle, Chehalis and other surrounding areas.
As a precaution, Tacoma Mayor C.M. Riddell closed theaters in the city.
“Do not get in a crowd," the mayor warned citizens Oct. 8. "Keep away from anyone who sneezes. Keep the feet dry.”
The flu arrived in Tacoma the next day. “12 Pneumonia Cases Under Suspicion,” the paper wrote Oct. 9.
Riddell considered closing churches, schools, theaters and moving picture houses.
Camp Lewis continued to deny Spanish flu was on base but acknowledged an uptick in cases of “ordinary” flu.
Students at the Cushman Indian Trades School still made the short walk or trolley ride to Tacoma, according to a history by Charles Roberts in “American Indian Quarterly.” Tacomans, in turn, still came to campus for athletic events.
FIRST OFFICAL REPORT OF DEATHS
On Oct. 10, Tacoma’s first two official flu deaths were reported to the health department: Joe Miller and Van Vageitch who both resided on South G Street.
But they were surely not the first.
Four people died from pneumonia the day before. Pneumonia is a complication of the flu and doctors seemed eager early in the pandemic to list it as the cause of death.
The Point Defiance natatorium, a large covered swimming pool, was closed Oct. 10. Public drinking fountains were turned off.
Camp Lewis was now admitting that the Spanish flu had struck, hitting 15 men. The cases of “ordinary” flu at the based jumped from 35 to 103 in one day.
On Oct. 11, The News Tribune published an explainer on the disease.
“The symptoms are an acute attack, often very sudden, with bodily weakness and pains in the head, eyes, back and elsewhere,” the paper wrote.
That same day Tacoma General Hospital and the Northern Pacific hospital at South 36thStreet and Pacific Avenue reported 13 cases total. Police asked for help when prisoners began showing symptoms.
There were disagreements in the medical community over whether the cases were Spanish or regular flu, also called the grippe.
“In either event the trouble, it is stated, is developing into pneumonia rapidly and causing serious trouble and death,” the paper reported.
Meanwhile, “The mayor says he is busy day and night denying citizens the right to hold meetings.”
A visit by a Danish prince to Camp Lewis was canceled. The base prepared 750 beds for ill soldiers.
County schools were closed.
Street cars were still allowed to run but only with their windows open.
At Cushman School, Celestine Pichette, a student from the Colville reservation, had run away to Seattle. It wasn’t unusual for students to flee the school, where they would be beaten if caught speaking their native languages.
Normally, Oct. 12 would have been a festive day, celebrating Columbus and Liberty days.
A celebration did occur at Camp Lewis, where Gov. Ernest Lister spoke and, “two thousand men sang a program of patriotic and marching songs in which they had been drilled,” The News Tribune reported later that day.
Scattered reports of cases and deaths came in from Winlock, Toledo, South Bend, Portland and Seattle.
The army took a determined approach to keep the flu at bay. Moving picture machines were placed outdoors, canteens were set up in the open air.
“Cleanliness, sunshine and fresh air is the order of the day,” the base newspaper, Trench and Camp, reported.
On Oct. 14, The News Tribune reported carpenters were gathering at the mayor’s office, ready to build a temporary hospital in a city park.
CASES GROW BY THE HOUR
A week, it seemed, was about as long as citizens were willing to put up with the citywide shutdown of public spaces. They were already clamoring for theaters, dance halls and schools to reopen.
With 50 new cases Oct. 15 the health department shot down that idea.
Pichette, the Cushman runaway, was found in Seattle and returned to the school.
“He had slept out all night,” superintendent E. H. Hammond said. “And had contracted a most severe cold.”
Pichette was put in the school’s hospital.
On Oct. 16, Howell — the young nursing student — could no longer continue her training at Tacoma General. She took to her bed, ill with the flu.
The next day, the First Methodist Church at Fifth and K Streets was turned into a hospital.
The increasing number of deaths led to an increasing number of funerals. The mayor banned the ceremonies, stating they were “just as menacing as theater or general meeting crowds.”
The dead would have to be buried without ceremony.
That day, 116 new cases were reported.
Some of those were at the Cushman School. The institution was put on quarantine and Hammond placed guards at entrances.
On Oct. 18, the improvised Methodist hospital was opened with 200 beds.
Also on that day officials considered quarantining Tacoma from Seattle. But it was soon determined that most outside cases were coming from small towns.
Frustrated by isolation, people began socializing again, against the law.
A raid on the Blue Front coffee house, an apparent pool hall, was conducted “at the initiation of the health department,” according to The News Tribune.
Cases were growing by the hour, the newspaper reported in a story under the headline, “’Flu’ Situation in Tacoma is Worse.”
A vaccine was touted, and supplies were to be brought from Seattle.
Quarantine cards were placed outside homes with influenza cases.
A doctor, on his way to see an ill patient, mistakenly knocked on the wrong door. According to The News Tribune, he found “a woman who had just died of pneumonia after three days’ illness, three cases of influenza in the house and probably a half dozen people exposed. This had not been reported by the attending physician.”
Oct. 19 dawned with Camp Lewis under an armed quarantine.
The army estimated the 21,460 personnel who left the camp the previous weekend had come into contact with five people each. That was too many human contacts, the brass figured.
“Officers’ wives who reside in Tacoma Saturday were experiencing all the thrills of being ‘war widows’ without their husband actually being overseas,” the newspaper reported.
At Cushman School, Pichette became the school’s first flu fatality.
The boy had been so “thoroughly inoculated with the influenza germs . . . that it was impossible to save him,” Hammond said.
On Oct. 22, Dr. Robert Wilson, the city’s chief health officer, reported that some doctors were engaging in profiteering. They were charging $2 — twice the agreed upon rate — for vaccination.
In reality, the "vaccine" offered no protection against the influenza.
Thousands were sick, including Wilson and several other health officials.
“Hospital facilities were taxed to the limit,” The News Tribune reported Oct. 23.
However, deaths were down. Only seven people died that day. One was nursing student Margaret Howell.
“Epidemic Here is Near Its Crest” read a headline in The News Tribune that day.
The paper, like so many others, was engaging in wishful thinking.
The worst was yet to come.
THE GRAVEYARDS CAN BARELY KEEP UP
On Oct. 25, The News Tribune began to publish obituaries. Among them:
▪ Ole Larson, a boilermaker at Todd shipyards was 27 and left behind a wife and infant son.
▪ Myrtle Pierre, 23, died at Tacoma General. She lived with her husband on Wilkeson Street.
▪ Harry Matteson, 28, was employed by the Northern Pacific Hospital when he died. He was from Livingstone, Montana.
▪ Perry Keeney, a conductor on the city’s McKinley Park trolley car line, “stuck to his post of duty until Tuesday evening, died Friday of pneumonia at the age of 26 years.” His wife, daughter and parents survived him.
At Cushman School, two more students died. One was Frank Tom, a recent arrival from Alaska. His parents were too poor to ship his body back home. He was buried in the school’s cemetery.
No one seemed to notice something odd about the vast majority of flu deaths. It wasn’t killing the very young or the elderly. It was sending those in the prime of their lives — healthy adults — to early graves.
And the graveyards could barely keep up.
The names of the dead have always filled cemetery ledgers, but in October, the causes of death narrowed: pneumonia, influenza, grippe.
Oct. 28: “No letup Here in ‘Fluenza Epidemic,” The News Tribune wrote. “Deaths and New Cases Increase.”
Mayor Riddell closed a hotel and “Judge Hackett in police court was asked to eliminate the usual following of hangers-on who loiter about the court to hear the trials,” the newspaper said.
Nurses were in such short supply that health officer Wilson ordered shipyards to have their female employees report to work at hospitals.
The mayor ordered barbers, waiters, elevator operators, cooks and City Hall employees to wear masks, The Tacoma Daily Ledger reported Oct. 28.
That same day the steamship Victoria left Nome, Alaska, on a trip to Puget Sound, with 709 passengers.
Parents of Cushman School students began writing the school over the concern of their children. One of those students was Ernest Crofoot.
“We are doing everything for Ernest and hope we will be able to pull him through safely,” Hammond wrote J. E. Crofoot of La Fleur when his son took ill.
Ernest died a few days later.
By Oct. 29, newspapers were publishing stories on how not to get the flu.
“Medical authorities agree that people who are weak and rundown are the earliest victims of the influenza epidemic,” the News Tribune wrote.
That might have been true but most still seemed oblivious to the fact that the graveyards were filling up with 20-somethings.
Howell was buried with a modest tombstone in Tacoma Cemetery off South Tacoma Way.
Nearby, in South Tacoma’s industrial shops, doors and windows were being kept open “to safeguard men.”
Newsboys wore masks as they sold papers at South 54th Street and Union Avenue.
Barely out of Nome’s harbor, the Victoria reported its first case of flu.
On Oct., 30, police officers fanned out in Tacoma to make sure all store clerks wore gauze masks. They were given one hour to comply.
“Any still refusing at the end of that time will be closed by special edict from the mayor’s office," the News Tribune reported.
The Victoria’s captain, John M. O’Brien, was told by officials with the Alaska Steamship Co. to skip ports of call and head at full speed to Seattle. It wouldn’t be easy.
“The third day out a terrific gale was encountered, during which the spread of the epidemic became rapid,” The News Tribune reported.
NOVEMBER BRINGS HOPE
November dawned with optimism.
“Influenza Cases Cut Down Daily,” read The News Tribune on Nov. 1. “Epidemic Diminishing in Tacoma and in County Districts.”
Still, the paper said, the “death list” had jumped from 102 in September to 197 in October.
On Nov. 3, the Victoria was off the coast of Cape Flattery, getting pounded by the storm. More than 150 passengers were down with the flu.
By Nov. 4, the big news was the lack of news.
“Day Develops No New Cases,” The News Tribune said. “Health Officers Cheered at the Letup of Influenza.”
On Nov. 5, the Victoria arrived in Seattle “after a veritable race with death,” The News Tribune reported. She was met by 17 ambulances.
On Nov. 6, Lyman Briggs was buried in Centralia with his two daughters, Elsie and Mattie — all three were flu victims.
On Nov. 7, the mayor of Puyallup refused to reopen the city’s schools.
On Nov. 8, The News Tribune reported that Mrs. Lyam Briggs had joined her husband and two daughters in death. “Two boys in the family are also seriously ill.”
The same day in Centralia E. F. Zeigler, 33, “a popular local railroad employee” died after a week with the flu. “He was apparently improved and got up to eat his dinner Tuesday, but collapsed at the table,” The News Tribune stated.
TWO WARS END
Nov. 11 was notable for two reasons.
A story headlined “May Lift ‘Flu’ Ban Wednesday” ran right above another story headlined, “Greatest War in History Ends.” In Tacoma, the lifting of orders to wear masks and ban on public gatherings was more important than the end of World War I.
The emergency hospital at the Methodist church was closed.
“The church got the most thorough fumigation ever given any place in Tacoma,” The News Tribune reported.
Schools, theaters and businesses reopened Nov. 14.
“Mayor Riddell declared some businessmen have told him that the ban would break them up in business unless it was soon removed,” The News Tribune said. Money was also a motivator in reopening the schools.
“The schools have now been closed a month and every day they are closed the city school system loses about $2,500 from the state,” according to The News Tribune.
On Nov. 18, the quarantine at Camp Lewis was lifted.
The health department estimated 2,000 people had contracted the flu during October in Tacoma with 100 deaths. One official estimated only half of those stricken called a doctor.
The Tacoma Daily Ledger put the city’s death toll at 326 — though more would die in the coming months.
The quarantine at the Cushman School would not be lifted until March 1919. The disease hit Indian populations especially hard. Because the government administered reservations and Indian boarding schools such as Cushman the epidemic was well documented.
A quarter of all U.S. Indians were hit by the flu between Oct. 1, 1918, and March 31, 1919, killing 9 percent of the population. That included 10 Cushman students.
The Indian Office investigated Hammond for his handling of the epidemic after anonymous complaints were filed. The investigator sided with the school's superintendent.
Following the flu, the low morale of students and staff members at Cushman worsened. Runaways increased dramatically.
Though other Indian schools continued to operate for decades, Cushman closed for good on July, 1, 1920.
Today, Margaret Howell’s tombstone still marks her short life. Her name, covered by lichen, is just barely legible.