Spanish Influenza in Anacortes

Spanish Influenza in Anacortes

By Elaine Walker Disease still 1918

(Anacortes American - 1918)

With schools and businesses closed, nurses exhausted and many people caring for sick loved ones at home, it feels to us like the COVID-19 pandemic is historically unprecedented. However, Anacortes citizens faced an almost identical situation 100 years ago when the Spanish Influenza swept the world.

In an era without vaccines, antibiotics and ventilators, the Spanish flu (H1N1) killed about 50 million people worldwide in 1918-1919, including about 675,000 in the United States, according to the CDC. The virus was a vicious killer of the young and its spread was facilitated by World War I, as it hitched a ride with servicemen from boot camps to war zones around the globe. Of the Anacortes servicemen lost in the war, almost half died from the flu.

Like the coronavirus, the Spanish flu had probably been circulating in the country for some time before communities recognized it. The first known cluster of cases (more than 100) was reported at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas, in March, 1918. There is a strong likelihood that the virus originated in North America, but it was dubbed “Spanish Influenza” because of the ferocity with which it hit Spain.

If influenza was already circulating in Skagit County that March, the first Anacortes fatalities may have been Margaret Chitwood, age 3, and Levi Cummings, 75, who died March 4 and 14 respectively. Each succumbed to pneumonia that developed after an undisclosed illness. Several other cases of pneumonia were mentioned in the Anacortes American that spring, but the word “influenza” does not appear in the American until October.

The first two cases in Anacortes changed everything. On Oct. 8, the city’s acting health officer Dr. H. E. Frost, after consulting with the City Council, ordered the closure of schools, theaters, lodges, churches, pool halls, dance halls, and all other places of public gatherings, as mandated by the state Board of Health. Meanwhile, a group of 50 draftees in Anacortes and throughout the county had their call to report to Camp Lewis postponed due to the outbreaks at military installations.

“It is urged that while children are not in school they should be permitted to be outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine as much as possible, though they should be prohibited from gathering on the streets or wandering about town. If necessary special officers will be appointed to see that they do not loaf about town and congregate,” the American reported on Oct. 10.

While the hope was expressed that school would resume in a week, students did not return to classes in Anacortes until Nov. 18 – five weeks later. In fact, a second wave of influenza closed schools again for two weeks starting Jan. 24, 1919, and a third round nearly closed schools a year after that.

On Oct. 8, the American also passed on information from the State Board of Health telling people to assume that influenza was already circulating. The Board also issued a list of simple precautions, which should sound very familiar: 1. Cover your cough or sneeze; 2. Avoid public gatherings and crowded places; 3. If you have a cold, keep your face away from other people’s faces, and don’t kiss your family; and 4. If you have any symptoms whatever of grippe (aka the flu) stay at home. Do not visit others or permit others to visit you.

By following these voluntary precautions, it was hoped, the community could avoid mandatory quarantines and other stricter measures.

On Oct. 17, the American reported that Anacortes had 26 cases, and the State Board of Health ordered the closures to continue. Dr. Frost, still the acting health officer, recommended a “simple preventative” for the Spanish flu (perhaps not something we would consider prudent today): “Put a tablespoon full of spirits of turpentine in a pint of water and keep it the mixture boiling on the stove.” Skagit County had its first flu fatality that week: Carl Gustafson, a 33-year-old plumber, in Mount Vernon.

State health 1918

(Anacortes American - 1918)

Nearly 40 cases were recorded in Anacortes, although none yet fatal, the Anacortes American reported on Oct. 24. However, the bodies of two flu victims arrived home that day by train: Lieut. Leo S. Bruett, who died of Spanish influenza and pneumonia at Camp Johnston, Florida, Oct. 18; and Nathaniel Inman Hudson, who died Oct. 17 of pneumonia at the aviation camp on Long Island. Because of health restrictions, they could not receive full military honors.

The family of a third soldier, Allyn MacDougall, was notified that their son “S.R. McDougal” was dead. His mother requested verification and was told the notification was a mistake. Then she received another telegram telling of his death. After making all arrangements, she finally heard from him directly that he was alive and recovering from influenza at Camp Dodge, Iowa.

Ray Trafton, who left the previous week for Gettysburg, Pa. to take a course of training in the tank corps, was struck by influenza and taken from the train to a hospital at La Crosse, Wisc., where he recovered. The fourteen men from Anacortes, whose call to Fort Worden was postponed, left Mount Vernon with no fanfare. They were Robert E. Stone, James Willard Kackley, Louis H. Unzelman, Ernest W. Pender, Jesse Randolph Haddon, Peter Olson Weie, Cleve A. Erholm, George V. Fredenburg, Fred H. Snyder, Frank R. Norvell, Paulus David Witner, Ernest D. Sather, Ashley C. Mondhan, and Philip G. Walker. Two weeks later, Norvell, who was Anacortes’ City Attorney, died of influenza at the camp.

Dr. Frost said the Anacortes hospital was crowded with patients suffering from the influenza and put out a call for nurses. High School English teacher Miss Verna Andrews put her experience as a nurse to use by answering the call while the schools were closed.

The next week brought Anacortes’ first influenza fatality – 17-year-old Ellen Jason, who died Oct. 25, 1918. Also lost were Sgt. Nathaniel lnman Hudson, who died of pneumonia in Garden City, New York; and tugboat fireman Tom Miller. The tally was three dead and 200 sick. Two nurses, Mrs. H. W. Rowley, who was in charge of the Anacortes hospital, and Mrs. Louise Livesley had been ill with the influenza but were improving. News from outside the city was full of influenza losses.

Dr. Frost said the progress of the disease had been slowed, but that the situation was very serious, and required all the cooperation that the citizens could give in keeping it from becoming worse. Citizens were urged to wear masks, to keep them clean and disinfected, to refrain from spitting, and as much as possible to remain at home and avoid crowds. A week later, the Board of Health made the wearing of masks, constructed of six layers of medical gauze, mandatory in all public places.

“To make the wearing of masks effective, says Dr. Frost, they should be kept clean and disinfected. They should be boiled every night, and about every three hours a disinfectant should be put on the mask. It would be better not to wear masks than to neglect to keep them clean.”

The Nov. 7 issue of the American brought the news of City Attorney Norvell’s death at Camp Worden. Three other Anacortes deaths were reported: a 10-year-old girl, a 41-year-old mother of three and a 21-year-old gas boat operator. Dr. Frost obtained a supply of vaccine and arranged to have nurses at the Red Cross headquarters inoculate those who wished to take advantage of the opportunity. Dr. Frost said the new cases were more virulent than the first. “The epidemic seems to have come in a double wave, he says, and after what seemed to be a slackening there is present now a more dangerous form of the disease.”

Public Places Close 1918

(Anacortes American - 1918)

And then came peace. World War I ended with an Armistice that took effect the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Suddenly, Anacortes seemed to almost entirely forget influenza – or by mutual agreement to simply ignore it. Anacortes American editor J. M. Post wrote in a Nov. 14 editorial:

“No more interesting study in psychology, either in the laboratory or in life, can be found than that presented Monday upon the reception of the news of victory and peace. Anacortes’ people—and the same thing is true of the citizens of other cities—had been repressed emotionally and socially by the Spanish influenza regulations to the point of exhaustion. When the armistice news came the influenza restrictions were absolutely forgotten and the people threw themselves into the peace celebration with abandon. The interesting aspect of the whole situation is that they emerged from the celebration with an entirely new attitude towards the influenza. There was everywhere present an unexpressed but a perfectly obvious feeling that the mysterious power of the epidemic had been broken and that it was no longer to be feared.”

“Influenza lid is off and theaters start up—churches announce programs for Sunday—dance is on,” the American proclaimed. “While there have been deaths this week of the influenza the epidemic seems to have lost its hold.”

There was still some danger, and reasonable care should be exercised, physicians warned. Superintendent W. A. Jennings announced that schools and all regular work would resume Monday morning. Churches resumed their regular services, and the whole city took up its usual routine of activity.

The day the epidemic “lost its hold,” the American also reported the influenza deaths of Wilhelmina Hunich, 28, the mother of a 2-year-old; and Thomas Leach Dana, chief engineer at the Morrison Mill. On Nov. 28, it was Frances Claire Bellevue, 21, mother of three including a 2-day-old infant; and Mrs. George Merritt, 26. On Nov. 28 the influenza victims were George Neville, 27; and Harvey W. Curry, 40.

On Dec. 5, Mayor A. B. Cook announced that there had not been a case of flu in the city in 12 days. Perhaps he meant new cases, as the previous week’s obituaries clearly contradict his statement. Schools were still closed in Mount Vernon and scattered other communities due to influenza. That week the Anacortes Elks Lodge had a memorial service with a large crowd to honor members who perished in 1918 – most of whom died of influenza.

Holiday celebrations and other activities returned to normal. At the start of the new year, in honor of the incoming city administration, Retiring Mayor Dr. A. B. Cook and Mrs. Cook entertained incoming Mayor E. E. Haugen, city officials and their wives at a banquet in the Mount Baker cafe following the opening session of the new council. During the session the ladies attended the theater.

Life did appear normal again. But on Jan. 16, 1919, influenza began creeping back into the news, in the form of three local young women who were all recovering from the virus. On Jan. 23, schools had to be shut down again, along with many public activities.

“The spread of influenza in Anacortes in the last week, especially among the children, has become alarming,” said Dr. Frost. “The cooperation of all is needed. Anacortes had a lower influenza death rate than any other city on the Sound during the epidemic, and this, it is believed by local health officials, was due to the prompt closing down of public meetings when the epidemic first started.”

Schools were closed a little more than two weeks this time. On Feb. 6, the reopening was planned for the following Monday. In that same newspaper, two influenza deaths were reported: Frank Earthfield, 33; and George Merritt, 26. The Rev. A. I. Ferch, who had been critically ill with pneumonia following influenza, was reported slightly better, as were other members of his family who had fallen ill.

On Feb. 13, the American reported the loss of Miss Irene Elizabeth La Thorpe, 16; and Mrs. Rachel Fulk, mother of three, age 26. On Feb. 20, it was Edwin Percival Weaver, 12, whose Sunday School teacher conducted his funeral. On Feb. 27 the flu had taken shipyard worker Carl Arthur Olson, 26.

On March 6, School Superintendent W. A. Jennings issued an appeal to parents to cooperate with teachers in helping pupils make up missed work. “This,” he said, “in many respects is an opportunity for parents. Parents are too often apt to say ‘Let the teacher do it,’ and leave the whole responsibility of the development of the child’s mind to the teacher, because ‘that’s what the teacher is paid for.’” He said parents could instill good habits while working with the child, while avoiding doing the work for the child. “Such assistance from the parent also encourages the parent to become acquainted with the teacher and to cooperate more closely with her in dealing with the pupil. When parent and teacher meet with the proper attitude and understanding both may learn something of advantage to the pupil.”

Lime Juice ad 1918

(Anacortes American - 1918)

The last reported influenza death of 1919 was a delayed one. On May 1 the American reported the death of Ernest Oliver Robinson, 44, who was left with a weak heart as the result of an attack of the influenza and who died of heart failure suddenly in the garden at his home on the Whistle Lake Road.

The most dramatic – and tragic – tale of the Spanish Influenza was included in the Alaska Packers annual report for 1919, which was printed in the American on Jan. 29, 1920. Its Alaska operations were ravaged by flu. Alaska Packers maintained six medical stations in Alaska where all employees and Natives were given free treatment and free medicine. At the three Bristol Bay stations, it was reported, almost the entire adult Native population was wiped out. Care of the sick and the orphans, feeding of entire villages, burial of the dead, cleaning and disinfecting Native habitations was done by the company’s superintendents, medical officers, nurses and all employees who could in any way assist, said the report.

Influenza was not quite finished with Anacortes. On Jan. 29, 1920, the American reported that 29 cases of flu had been reported in Anacortes, in addition to cases previously under the physicians’ care. At this point the cases were relatively mild. There was one last surge in cases, resulting in three more deaths in February and a final one in April. A Valentine’s Day dance was canceled and health officials were able to contain the outbreak by quarantining affected families.

Anacortes’ last flu-related death was a tragic case, with circumstances that echo concerns voiced in 2020 by those who anticipate mental health repercussions from the COVID-19 outbreak. The final Spanish influenza victim was Verna (Wetzel) Allen, a 26-year-old mother with two babies. She was stricken with the virus while her husband was working in Alaska. After a few days the malady rendered her infirm and, according to doctors, “mentally deranged.” She was committed to the Northern State Hospital in Sedro-Woolley, where she died on April 29, 1920.