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From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Susanville and the Spanish Flu

Thursday, October 22nd, 2020

From the Lassen Advocate

By Susan Couso

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the deadliest in history, infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide, about one-third of the planet’s population, and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million victims, including some 675,000 Americans. Many more probably died from this pandemic.

In many places the deceased were simply buried, without ever seeing a doctor. Some estimates put the count as 100 million deaths, or one third of the earth’s population. The true count will never be known.

The Spanish Flu did not even originate in Spain. No one knows for sure where it first surfaced, but some educated suggestions include France, England, China or the United States, where the first reported case was in Haskell County, Kansas in January of 1918.

The flu was first reported on Spanish news in May of 1918. Allied countries and the Central Powers had wartime censors who covered up news of the flu in an effort to keep morale high.

Because Spain was a neutral country, they reported the flu, first calling it the “French Flu”. Long before the news spread throughout the world, soldiers had been dispersed, and the pandemic was beginning in full force.

By the Fall of 1918, the virus was spreading rapidly. Many soldiers, like Westwood’s Ginsepe Ellena, never made it out of Boot Camp. Ellena, sent to Camp Fremont for basic training, died there on August 26, 1919. In all, more WWI soldiers died from the Spanish Flu than they did in battle.

In Lassen County the flu was slower to begin, but by the more severe ‘second wave’ in the Fall of 1918, local citizens were fully aware of the devastating effects. This wave was thought to have been more severe because troop movements throughout the world caused a more deadly mutation in the virus. And the close-quarters required of the troops helped the virus spread ‘like wildfire’.

Some ‘experts’ said that the flu would not survive weather lower than sixty degrees, but Lassen citizens proved that to be incorrect. There were no vaccines, antivirals or antibiotics. The first licensed flu vaccine was not available until the 1940’s. To make matters worse, there was a shortage of doctors and other medical personnel, due to WWI.

Susanville schools closed from the Fall of 1918 until February 1919.

The Susanville Branch Library closed from July, 1918 until December, 1918, and then asked people to select books quickly and leave.

The New Year’s Dance at the Orpheum Theater was canceled, and the Ladies Relief Society Masquerade Ball, a major fundraiser for the community, was postponed indefinitely, due to restrictions.

By the end of January, the Masquerade Ball was finally allowed to continue with the idea that you could buy a ticket and not attend. They advertised that, “you can mask from head to toe.” Even with the threat of spreading the virus, it was a well-attended affair.

Very few New Year’s dinners were held as locals began to get really concerned. Invitations were, “few and far between,” according to the Lassen Advocate.

The Standish area was hit hard, and those like the Harry Holmes family suffered the loss of Harry, age 44, and little daughter, Ardis, who was 8 years old. In Milford, 16-year-old Will McDermott succumbed to the disease.

Many churches suspended services. The Methodist Church closed Sunday School, but advertised, “Good Ventilated Churches Enables Members of the Public to Go to Church,” and, “there is not as much danger in going to our church services as there is in going to the post office.” Rev. Rowe of the Baptist Church said, “…flu or no flu, each and everyone should be eager to prepare for the coming of the Lord.”

The world responded in different ways. In Reno, by October 1918, churches and some schools were closed and public meetings were banned. People were ordered to cover their faces and stay home.

In Grass Valley masks were mandatory, and by October 1918, California Governor Stephens requested that all citizens wear masks.

In November, 1918, people were clamoring for a vaccine to stop the virus. Officials responded that there was no vaccine, and even if there was, it would not be 100% effective. They ordered everyone to continue all precautions; The face masks were responsible for the abatement of the disease.

Advertisements were in the newspapers, looking for women to operate ‘power machines’ to make the masks, and suggestions abounded on how to prevent glasses from steaming up while wearing a face covering. The ladies of the Red Cross made masks to donate.

And, of course, there were remedies advertised in almost every form of media. Americans still had that urge to ‘make a buck.’ There was an all-out practical effort to eradicate the virus. People were advised to stop shaking hands and stay indoors. Spitting was banned. By early spring, 1919, the Spanish flu began to ease its grip in the local area, but small areas still suffered greatly.

In April of 1919, Westwood had 100 new patients hospitalized in one week, and put out a plea for nurses to help.

By the middle of 1919, our county had somehow come out of the worst of the Spanish Flu. It raged on in many areas, well into 1920, but it is said that those infected with the Spanish Flu either eventually became immune to it or died. And, once again, Lassen County settled into a ‘normal’ routine. The memory of the Spanish Flu has lived on in History, but most people never gave it a thought until recently.

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