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In the Grip of the Devil
The flu terrorized Santa Cruz exactly 100 years ago in 1918
History’s Biggest Killer
Over the years 1918-1919 there was an influenza pandemic that killed over 50,000,000 people world-wide. Some historians say that the more likely number is as high as 10,000,000. However many million you pick, it represents the largest loss of human life in recorded history. Not even the plague, World War II, not even the Mongols were responsible for those kinds of numbers.
Blaming the Spanish
Epidemiologists have retroactively classified the culprit as the H1N1 virus, (the 2017-2018 flu is H3N2) but the common name in 1918 was “The Spanish Flu.” That name was a misnomer because the flu neither originated in Spain nor was particularly virulent there. It was just that the original reporting about the epidemic came from Spain as the other European counties, all embroiled in World War I censored reporting on the flu as it might be bad for morale. So, the Spanish messengers took the blame and have for 100 years.
History Dude Aside: It seems that public health officials have always messed with reporting on disease outbreaks in attempts to prevent public hysteria. Even here in 2018 it was not until several weeks along that they began reporting those who died over the age of 65. Probably because anyone age 80 who dies could have been killed by any number of things. Like oldness. I’m sensitive to this not-counting-old-people situation because I am one, and I’d sure hate to be killed by the flu and not at least have it count for SOMETHING.
But, I digress.
The Grip of the Devil
I believe that the most appropriate name for influenza was the one used around here (and worldwide) in the 1800s – La Grippe del Diablo – the grip of the devil, or grippe for short. No blame such as Hong Kong, Asian, the Spanish, birds, or pigs. A wonderfully descriptive name because one feels if they are being strangled. It’s not the flu that usually kills but death resulting from subsequent pneumonia; your lungs fill with fluid and you strangle. As if you are in the grip of the Devil.
A Sometimes Terrible Death
The 1918-1919 flu didn’t pick off the stragglers of the human herd - the very young and the very old (my demographic) but targeted, for reasons still unclear, young and middle-aged adults. And, it was capable of smacking a person down and dead in a matter of hours, or if they did linger, the victim often would hemorrhage, bleeding from the ears, nose, and lungs before dying. Good reason to invoke the Devil.
The 1918-1919 Flu in Santa Cruz County
No place on the earth was immune. It killed people everywhere - in the Arctic and on remote Pacific Islands. With World War raging and groups of soldier clustering in barracks hospitals and troop ships, it was a playground for the Devil. The first recorded and now officially-accepted victim of the flu in the US was Private Albert Gitchell who died on March 11, 1918 at Fort Riley Kansas.
Seven months later the flu claimed its first Santa Cruz victim on October 15, when a 31 year old healthy, active woman named Loula Jones died at her sister’s home on Pacheco Avenue. Two days later, when they buried Loula, Dr. Nittler, Santa Cruz’s public health office announced that he had identified 13 active cases, and within a week of Loula’s death he had counted 72. The flu had arrived.
Preventing the flu with Ordinances
It was widely accepted that the flu was spread from person to person through coughing, sneezing and contact, so the advice from the United States Public Health Service was if a person became ill, they should “go home at once and go to bed.” Dr. Nittler advised that large public gathering places should be avoided, and over the weeks and months, movie theaters, churches and the public library shut their doors and schools closed. Saloons felt the pressure and eventually closed – a rehearsal for Prohibition that was looming on the legislative horizon.
A Mobilized Populace
All of these measure happened with few meetings or discussions. The World War had already mobilized the population that observed Meatless Tuesdays and Wheatless Wednesdays and an unending parade of Liberty Loan Drives. Dissent in every imaginable form had already been driven from the American landscape and locals had tarred and feathered suspected German sympathizers on Pacific Avenue and turned in any neighbors whom they suspected of being Axis sympathizers. Government officials were to be obeyed without question. The flu arrived to a tense, intolerant and fearful populace. When their elected officials told them what to do in the face of this horrible disease, by criminy they would do it.
The Prophylactic of Choice – the gauze mask. The most long-lasting visible symbols of the 1918-1919 flu epidemic is the strata of gravestones in local cemeteries of folks who died during that period, and the photographs of people wearing the flu badges – the white gauze mask.
By modern standards, these were industrial-strength masks. Three layers of gauze tied around the head, covering the mouth and nose. Local residents that I interviewed over the years who lived through the flu never forgot the fear of it and watching relatives and friends die. And how uncomfortable the masks were. The gauze was coarse and itched, but even worse was that the breath and moisture that the wearer exhaled built up in the mask over time creating a gooey, heavy mass that caused the entire thing to sag and necessitate re-typing over and over.
Local cities and eventually the County passed ordinances requiring that the mask be worn whenever one went out in public. The punishment was a $10 fine or a night in jail. (Putting a lot of folks in a crowded jail seems to run counter to the efforts, but, again, I digress.)
Meanwhile, despite the ordinances, people died, as did health workers who ministered to the sick. As did gravediggers, and the bodies stacked up in make-shift morgues throughout Santa aCruz. In some U.S. cities they used steam shovels to dig mass graves, though I have no evidence of mass graves in this region.
The 1918-19 flu came in three distinct waves worldwide, making it even more difficult to figure out what prophylactics worked. But, by the time it finally ended in 1919 the American public was certain that it came from Spain (though it hadn’t), and was a FOREIGN disease, symbolic of all things that were wrong with foreigners. The flu helped fuel an already strong strain of nativism that resulted in major U.S. immigration restrictions being passed in 1924 and the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan.
How many died locally?
It’s hard to come up with a number. Certainly hundreds, but beyond that general number, it will take some enterprising researcher some time to go through the County death records, and newspaper death notices to get a number. And even then, in remote places, people sometimes died and were buried out in a family cemetery uncounted.
Santa Cruz City’s Historic Population Decline – 1910-1920
In every decennial census since 1850, the population of the city of Santa Cruz has increased. Except from 1010 to 1920 where the population decline from 11,146 to 10,917. Admittedly that’s only 229, but it is the ONLY time in history that Santa Cruz City’s population went down. Watsonville’s population increased slightly over the same period and the over-all County population crept up a miserly 129. The cause of this leveling of the population probably was the flu, but we need more research to be certain.
Legacies of the 1918-1919 flu
By the spring of 1919 both locally and worldwide, the disease had run its course leaving behind a fearful and dispirited population. Certainly, they had won the War, but even then as you can see in the photograph, they had to wear their masks when they came down to the post office to celebrate. The flu and the war helped end, finally, the cozy, local halcyon days and usher in a new international world to a reluctant and angry population.
That was the climate that nurtured the growth of the KKK and the racism and xenophobia that dominated the 1920s. The flu didn’t cause all that, but it sure didn’t help.[link to KKK secret history]
Go get your flu shot because those poor souls a century ago didn’t have that luxury. And wash your hands.