The Scythe: 'Spanish' Influenza in Northern Arizona, 1918, Part 2

by T. Stone

This Days Past article was first published September 20, 2008 by Sharlot Hall Museum.

In Part 1 we learned that the 1918 Spanish flu arrived in Prescott on October 2, 1918, and the spread of infection rose and fell like a scythe cutting ripe wheat. By October 8 Prescott was shut down, but not yet officially quarantined.

The newspaper warned that there should be "no public gatherings of any sort." In Jerome, approximately 20 cases of influenza were reported. In the predominately Mormon town of Snowflake, the only physician, Dr. Caldwell, became an early influenza fatality, causing the community of 900 people to put out a call for another doctor.

On October 9 The Prescott Journal-Miner reported only one new case at Whipple with an article head;lined "Spread of Flu is Halted at Fort Whipple." Two days later there were 18 new cases at the post.

By October 12 over 400 cases of flu were reported in Flagstaff, 300 cases in Williams, and Winslow suffered with 375 cases. In Winslow alone at least 17 people had already died. Fort Whipple had about 75 patients. As for sick Prescottonians, the local paper had little to say.

By October 14 125 people had the disease in Jerome, filling the rooms at the United Verde Hospital. Temporary hospital beds had to be placed in the public school's annex buildings. Prescott and Winslow also used their public schools as makeshift hospitals. As in the regular hospital facilities of that era, people of Mexican heritage and other nonwhites were kept segregated from the white patients.

By October 16 21 people in Jerome were dead from the disease. Armed guards were stationed on every road leading into Jerome to insure a strict quarantine. The Verde Copper News listed the dead, all between the ages of 25 and 32, including a young Mexican couple leaving two small children.

The Prescott papers were fairly tight-lipped about how the influenza was spreading among the civilian population. There was hardly any mention of the fact that the entire town was shut down and that people were requested to wear gauze facemasks in a vain attempt to filter out the virus.

Instead, the Journal-Miner printed benign features about the soldiers at Whipple:

"Because of the fact that most of the afflicted men have been placed on diet, it is necessary for the inspectors to go through all of the parcels which come to the boys each day in the mails, and take out all of the contraband food articles. Most of the soldiers have friends and relatives who keep them supplied with all sorts of delicacies, including candy, cake, chocolate, and many other dainties which are alright for a well man but not exactly the proper food for a man who is in bed with the flu. Consequently, each morning a large pile of pastry, candy, etc., accumulates in the postal department ... yesterday morning a big sack of these good eats was turned over to the nurses and to the soldiers who are not suffering from the influenza."

The Flagstaff, Winslow, and Jerome newspapers printed more straightforward accounts of the flu, while the Prescott paper downplayed it somewhat.

In Winslow, where at least 30 people were now dead, every public-school teacher volunteered to help the sick. Gallup, NM (on that fateful Santa Fe line) was claiming 100 dead. In Flagstaff there were 80 dead. In Prescott, so many people were sick that the newspaper asked for men to volunteer as nurses at the temporary hospital at Washington School.

The Journal-Miner on November 1 reported, "After having been dormant for nearly a week, the influenza epidemic flared up again at Fort Whipple and, as a result, more than 20 new cases were reported last night by Colonel Holmberg." At least to the press, Holmberg claimed that none of the new cases appeared to be serious.

On November 5 the Journal-Miner tried to explain why it believed the epidemic didn't seem as bad in Prescott as in other locales:

"Since the influenza made its appearance in Prescott, there are said to have been 125 cases reported with a total death list directly attributable to the disease of some 12, which is less than one percent of the number of cases reported. With the general use of masks and other preventive measures taken, together with the good expected to be accomplished in the expenditure of the funds voted yesterday by the supervisors, it is not believed that Prescott will suffer as greatly from the malady in proportion to population as other places of the state, owing to its comparative freedom from Mexican and foreign population, among which class of residents in other cities the toll has been heavy because of their disinclination to take precautionary measures."

One might point out that 12 dead of 125 cases is actually about a ten-percent death rate.

World War I ended on November 11, while the flu continued its advance. While some places such as Jerome and Clarkdale were lifting their quarantines, other towns were still in the grip of the fever. In mid-November Seligman, for instance, reported 150 cases of influenza with 15 deaths. The Coconino Sun reported on November 22 that the disease had been devastating to the Apache tribe. "So terrible has the influenza become on the San Carlos Indian Reservation that it is impossible to build coffins in which to bury the dead."

In Phoenix a rumor spread suggesting that dogs carried the flu virus, causing much of the canine population there to be indiscriminately killed by fearful citizens. The Phoenix Gazette worried that the city would "soon be dogless."

By December it seemed the rate of illness was truly in decline, at least in Prescott and Jerome. Although the schools and churches were still closed, the stricter quarantine policies were lifted and most people looked forward to the coming holidays.

Certainly Col. Holmberg had plenty to feel thankful for. The World War was over, the flu was all but gone, and the soldiers at his post were rapidly returning to good health. No more quarantine was necessary. The officers of Fort Whipple planned a formal ball to be held on December 21. The soldiers were allowed to accept Christmas dinner invitations in Prescott.

But the influenza again flared up along the Santa Fe line. "As in the early stages of the disease it is traveling westward from Albuquerque and practically every point on the Santa Fe is being attacked." The week before Christmas, Fort Whipple was once again placed under quarantine. The soldiers lost their town privileges and could no longer accept dinner invitations in Prescott homes. The officers, however, managed to have their ball before the quarantine went into effect.

On December 23 Holmberg fell ill with a fever of 106 degrees. From the Journal-Miner: "As several cases of flu are reported to have had their inception at the ball given by officers at Fort Whipple on Saturday night last, it is likely that this is where he (Holmberg) contracted the influenza." As usual, the newspaper suggested that this particular strain of flu was probably less virulent than previous cases.

Carl Edward Holmberg spent the last week of his life bedridden and attended by nurses. Eight months earlier he had moved to Arizona from New Mexico to manage the hospital facilities and soldiers of Fort Whipple. Now he was a hospital patient realizing that he would not get to celebrate the New Year. On Wednesday, January 1, 1919 at 11am, Holmberg died. The post flag was lowered to half-mast. His body was shipped back to his parents' home in Saginaw, Michigan for burial.

The 'Spanish' flu plagued Arizona until the spring of 1919, affecting every town and nearly every family. But like all viruses, this one eventually burned itself out. After almost six months, the residents of Arizona could get on with their lives without the fear of another Spanish flu outbreak. When spring arrived, the scythe was stilled.

Terrance L. Stone is the author of Grave History: a Guidebook to Citizens' Cemetery, Prescott, Arizona.

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