In the fall of 1918, a heated Senate campaign was underway in Idaho between Democrat John F. Nugent and Republican Frank Gooding. It came to a screeching halt when the Spanish flu reached Idaho. Not unlike our current environment with COVID-19, political rallies were no longer allowed. As the two camps traded barbs in the Pocatello Tribune, those stories appeared side by side with reports of influenza deaths. On Election Day, for their health and safety, voters had to enter their polling place one at a time. Nugent edged out Gooding with the votes of fewer people (970) than had died of influenza in Bannock County (1,000 plus).
As communities throughout Idaho now grapple with the spread of the coronavirus, similarities to Pocatello’s struggle with the 1918 influenza epidemic are striking. While many of the same measures as those in the early 20th century have been instituted to fight 21st century coronavirus, there are lessons to be learned from what Pocatello did during that earlier epidemic.
What continues to be referred to as ‘Spanish’ flu was a particularly deadly H1N1 influenza strain that circled the globe. This strain caused the immune system to overreact. It attacked healthy young adults at unprecedented rates. No longer were children and the elderly the most vulnerable.
This flu began its spread in military camps on American soil. It was transported around the world by soldiers fighting the Great War. Attribution to the Spanish is due to lack of censorship in Spain during World War I. Americans, both civilians and soldiers, were learning of the fast rise of cases in Spain, but not other countries. This changed in the fall of 1918 when, unlike cases that spring in military camps, the disease had mutated before being brought back home by American GIs.
The fall of 1918 brought isolated cases dotting Idaho’s landscape. Counties were mandated to report both flu and pneumonia cases as 10 to 15 percent of flu cases resulted in bronchial pneumonia. Newspapers reported “brevities” daily, sometimes matching reported numbers, sometimes not. Reporting could not keep up with deaths. By Oct. 8, there were 30 known cases of influenza in Idaho. Without a confirmed case in Bannock County and with reassurance from the city physician that the health condition of Pocatello was very good, the Pocatello Tribune called for the radical measure of closing public halls to prevent spread of the disease. Fear of an Idaho city experiencing the kind of outbreak big cities on the East Coast were experiencing forced the Idaho State Board of Health to comply with recommendations from the U.S. Surgeon General that included closing public halls, theaters, churches and other indoor gatherings. Like today, ill persons were advised to stay home, but no enforcement mechanism existed. Schools were not closed immediately. Many Pocatellans wanted quick action on public gatherings, but lacked concern for schools.
Responses to the board of health’s order varied. Some feared it didn’t go far enough, and others feared it encroached on the liberties of Idahoans. Disinformation abounded. Despite what other cities were learning, voices in Idaho contended that young, healthy individuals were safe and experienced only mild symptoms. The Tribune of Oct. 4 stated that, “in the strong and well-noarished (sic), the attack is mild as a rule, subsiding in three or foar (sic) days.” As preventative measures were discussed, many believed the “malady not dangerous unless neglected.” Opinion columns questioned whether it was the flu at all and some debated the origin of the disease. Tribune readers were presented the argument that the origin was not Spanish, but German. Like Towney and Chuck in Katherine Anne Porter’s novella “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” some believed the disease reached American shores by German submarine.
Objectors to quarantine were concerned with scheduled Liberty Bond meetings. Money was needed for the war effort. Additionally, objectors argued that while no epidemic existed in Idaho, the order had “jeopardized the livelihoods” of workers. The Tribune printed one such objection: “There is every disposition to comply but there does not appear to be necessity for the order, according to those in position to speak with authority on the subject.” Like today, medical authorities were unanimous in their support of quarantine. Residents of the city did not rush to follow this recommendation.
Between the initial order of Oct. 9 and an expanded order on Oct. 10 that closed schools, a protest of the order was held in Pocatello. Some continued to fight the order, but most could see the epidemic coming and complied. On Oct. 11, Bannock County had zero known cases. On Oct. 12, there were 25 suspected cases. Despite cases in the county, Pocatello announced that outdoor gatherings like a Liberty Bond event called the “Parade of the Italians” (to be held on Columbus Day) would go forward.
A parade in the midst of an epidemic is a catastrophe-in-the-making. Today we hear the governor of Louisiana state he did not know that it was not a good idea to go ahead with Mardi Gras. His state is now being ravaged by coronavirus. In 1918, the city of Philadelphia experienced an outbreak on a horrific scale. Despite high numbers of cases, the city went forward with a Liberty Bond parade on Sept. 28 — 200,000 Philadelphians gathered. City officials said that there was no cause for concern, the contagion was “well in hand.” Within 72 hours of the parade, the beds of the city’s 31 hospitals were filled. Within a week of the parade, 45,000 people were sick. Within six weeks, 12,000 were dead. The mortality rate was unmatched.
The day after Pocatello’s parade, reported cases increased — 100 new cases were reported. Following Columbus Day festivities in cities around the state, the Idaho Board of Health issued an order banning all indoor and outdoor gatherings. It is not possible to attribute exponential growth of flu cases and deaths to a single event due to unreliable reporting of the period.
The first personal threat Pocatellans felt was on Oct. 12 when it was reported that Miss Effie Gittins, a city water employee, and Judge Frank Dietrich of the U.S. District Court for Idaho had become ill. Both were well known. Previously some knew of soldiers who had become ill or died while stationed elsewhere, but now a common connection existed. This is not unlike when Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive for coronavirus — opinion changed. Additional restrictions were issued to stop dry sweeping; to require hotels, restaurants, eating houses, dining rooms and soda fountains to sterilize their establishments; to ban cups and towels for common use; and new railway rules.
New railway rules impacted railroad towns like Pocatello disproportionately. Train cars had to have open and adequate ventilation and had to maintain a consistent temperature. Like city streets, dry sweeping was prohibited (i.e. everything had to be sprayed down first, an obstacle for any railroad that didn’t have easy access to water). No public spitting was allowed; the communal spittoon was removed. Riders were not allowed to place their feet on seats.
As the epidemic took hold in East Idaho, many communities did not allow passengers to disembark if they were non-residents or had traveled to hot spots. Stations from Driggs to Idaho Falls were closed. Neighboring Jackson Hole, Wyoming, closed itself to those from “infected territories.” This included Idaho. In Gooding, passengers were had their movements monitored much akin to the way China is tracking its citizens. Boise required travelers be quarantined. In Challis, armed guards blocked entry into town. The esteemed historian Leonard J. Arrington called this the “Quarantine War.” The situation in Challis ended with the Idaho attorney general determining the statewide quarantine order legally justified by the extraordinary epidemic. History repeats itself.
The location of the Oregon Short Line impacted the city in ways far more dangerous than a transient or traveler bringing the disease into town. Many railroad workers lived in packed, close-quarter company housing. To the east of the rail yard sat what is referred to as the Triangle, a neighborhood consisting of minority groups living in close proximity. The railroad employed most men of the Triangle. This diverse group often lived in multi-generational homes and in 1918 couldn’t institute necessary hygiene and sanitation to slow the spread of disease. As the map of influenza deaths shows, the Triangle was hit hard. The mortality rate among minority groups, similar to coronavirus today, was higher than in other populations. Idaho had a mortality rate of 11.5 percent among Native Americans. For a population of 4,208, there were 650 cases and 75 deaths. Names like DeFilippis, Bertasso, Valbaena, Yoshida, Orepe and Kotigos are among the names of Pocatellans who succumbed to the flu. Much of the Triangle no longer remains, but the contribution of its citizens can be seen all over town. Their story is one of great loss.
The first death in Pocatello was a 10-month-old boy named Eldon Beebe Myler. His death was reported on Sept. 16, 1918. Exactly one month later his grandfather, Charles C. Myler, died. The Mylers were only one of many families to lose multiple members. Mr. and Mrs. Luigi DeFilippis died a week apart. They had five small children, one of whom, an infant, also died. The Orgill family of McCammon had their family tragedy play out one entry in the Tribune at a time. Brothers Thomas and Samuel Orgill each lost children to the illness. Their two families combined lost five children. Mrs. Kokan Yoshida died, leaving behind a husband and three children, all of whom were ill. Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Riley died with their infant twin daughters. There was no shortage of tragedy in Pocatello. Unfortunately, this was a familiar pattern. No age, nationality, ethnicity or class was spared.
On Oct. 12, the Tribune reported 211,000 cases and 7,432 casualties nationally. Unfortunately, they believed it would soon peak. The epidemic was hardly confined to 1918. The U.S. saw its last outbreak in late spring 1920. Pocatello’s last cluster of deaths came in summer 1919. Despite attempts at vaccination, several vaccines failed, herd immunity from one-third of the world’s population being infected likely ended the spread of the disease.
What can we learn from Pocatello’s experience with the Spanish flu? First, self-distancing measures largely work. Once quarantine measures are strictly adhered to, cases slow. Pocatello benefitted more from isolation than the gauze masks of the time. Where quarantine backfired was in highly dense areas like the Triangle. As shocking numbers of African-Americans die from coronavirus, we can look to 1918’s largely poor minorities with less access to health care to see they died at higher rates. The creation of home health care was Idaho’s response to rural residents and minorities needing nurses. Recruitment by the Red Cross of retired and graduate nurses was essential to maintain care for the afflicted. Idaho is doing this type of recruitment successfully today.
The two great lessons to be learned from 1918 come from two histories of the epidemic. The first, from historian John M. Barry says, when describing a Philadelphia military camp being disinfected and quarantined after an outbreak, that no matter the mitigation efforts “the virus has already escaped.” In Idaho, our stay-at-home order came two weeks after the first confirmed coronavirus case. We must believe that the virus was already spreading among us.
When this work began in 2011, myself and the late Karen Kearns, director of special collections at Idaho State University, hoped to determine the exact numbers of infected and dead. Our research in the Tribune and Idaho death certificates found no such numbers. This reflects what the oral history of the American Catholic Historical Society said in 1919: “Facts unrecorded are quickly lost in the new interests of changing time. … We have little left now, beyond material statistics, and vague impressions drawn from ‘paper accounts’ of the epidemic.” Let us hope that for posterity our current pandemic records will better reflect what it cost our communities.