The Scythe:

'Spanish' Influenza in Northern Arizona, 1918, Part 1

by T. Stone

This Days Past article was first published September 13, 2008 by Sharlot Hall Museum. It has been lightly edited for style.

A hundred years ago, the world, in the final throes of the Great War (known today as World War I), was confronted with an influenza pandemic that ended up killing more than 50,000,000 people worldwide, at least twice the number of soldiers who died in battle during the war. Some called it plague, but most called the contagion the 'Spanish flu,' because it was first reported as a pandemic in Spain.

War hysteria initially laid the blame on the Germans for concocting this pestilence. But, as research has now shown, the Spanish influenza originated in the United States, unknowingly incubated on Kansas farms by Kansas poultry, passed on to nearby Army camps and spread worldwide by American soldiers scattered to all parts of the US and stepping off the boats in Europe. War always has unexpected consequences.

Annually in the United States today, approximately 36,000 people die from influenza while another 200,000 are hospitalized with complications. But the influenza of 1918 killed over 675,000 Americans, and millions were hospitalized.


Usually influenza victims are the very young or the elderly; middle-aged healthy people aren't frequent causalities. However, the 1918 flu was a unique strain of virus, because it had a penchant for killing otherwise healthy adults. Why so many relatively young adults died can be explained simply enough: the flu turned the victims' immune systems against themselves. Often, in infants and the elderly, the immune system is already weakened and has a difficult time fighting off infection, which explains why they succumb more readily to disease. But the 1918 flu was so virulent that it forced naturally healthy immune systems to overreact and kill the very bodies they were trying to protect from the virus. This immune overreaction is called a cytokine storm.


In Prescott's Citizens' Cemetery there is a lone marble headstone simply inscribed: "Will King, Pvt., 317 Sup. Tn. 92 Div., March 17, 1918." Those carved letters and numbers suggest a complex and fascinating story that the casual observer might not appreciate. "317 Sup. Tn. 92 Div." says that Will King was a soldier in the US Army's 317th Supply Train for the 92nd Division, an 'all colored' division that was training in a segregated portion of the Camp Funston cantonment at Fort Riley, Kansas.


Then there's the date: March 17, 1918. That coincides precisely with the beginning of the influenza epidemic that started its spread among the dirty tents and barracks of Camp Funston. The Prescott newspaper said that Will King died of pneumonia while training for war. At first, doctors did not understand that pneumonia was a symptom this new and deadly disease. Private King may well have been one of the very first to die in what was to become one of the largest pandemics in history.


Colonel Carl Holmberg was the newly appointed commandant of Fort Whipple at the time. He took over the post in May 1918 and went about organizing the hospital there, as well as involving himself with Prescott society. The Prescott Journal-Miner reported, "Colonel Holmberg found time to freely mingle with the local populace, attended the meetings of the Chamber of Commerce, and was willing and happy at all times to extend any courtesy or furnish any aid to the Prescott people." A young Army officer and physician, Holmberg, 38, undoubtedly saw his new command as a positive step in his military career.


The flu rode into Arizona along the silver rails of the Santa Fe Railroad. What had flared up among soldiers in the Midwest was now racing across the broad shoulders of Arizona. Holbrook, Winslow, Flagstaff, Williams, Ash Fork and Seligman fell one after another to the virus. From Ash Fork, the trains brought it to Prescott and Jerome. Newspaper accounts report that flu showed up in Arizona in the first days of October 1918 and spread statewide in less than a week. In Prescott it arrived on Wednesday, October 2, in the lungs of soldiers transported from Camp Dodge, Iowa. Eight of those soldiers fell ill when they got to Fort Whipple.


Col. Holmberg initially wondered if these first cases warranted placing Fort Whipple under quarantine. He posted sentries at the doors to keep people from entering the hospital. The next day, October 3, five more soldiers showed flu symptoms. On October 4 twelve new cases broke out among the soldiery, and Col. Holmberg decided the barracks must be quarantined. The Prescott Journal-Miner reported, "It is understood that there are a number of cases of 'flu' among the local civilian population, and closing the post was ordered partially as a protective measure for the benefit of the soldiers, the officers fearing that some of the boys might become infected while on a visit (to Prescott)." It is interesting to note that the blame for the contagion first went to the civilians! Also disturbing was that "all of the officers" from Whipple were exempt from the quarantine, and traveled without restriction to town.

Prescott Journal-Miner, Dec. 11, 1918

Like most social catastrophes unfit for political propaganda, influenza arrived in Prescott heralded by soft words and denial. For the first week, even as the city closed down public entertainments such as the theatre, saloons and pool halls, the newspaper was careful to suggest that there should be no panic because this Prescott influenza appeared to be less dangerous than the one decimating the eastern seaboard. In fact, after warning its readers for over two weeks with front-page columns that the flu was on the way, the Journal-Miner only managed to mention the pandemic's Prescott arrival on page three.


Across Arizona the influenza raged. People no longer loitered in crowds. Gauze masks were de rigueur for those who could get them. Schools, churches and pool halls closed down for two months. Besides the standard admonitions discouraging public gatherings, the Arizona State Board of Health requested that posters be placed in conspicuous places to warn citizens against the dangers of coughing, sneezing, spitting, handshaking and kissing.


Winslow and Flagstaff were hit especially hard by the epidemic. Bisbee, Globe, Jerome and the other copper towns, where many impoverished miners lived in crowded rooms, suffered severely.


The influenza was unpredictable in the way it infected communities. On some days several people would come down with fever, on others, no one got sick. The spread of infection rose and fell like a scythe cutting ripe wheat. Hence the newspaper reference to the Scythe.


Look for Part 2 next month.


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

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