Coronavirus vs. 1918 Influenza

Claudine Burnett

“Council Should Act on 700 Citizens’ Request for Mask Ordinance.” “Individual Quarantine Should be Made Permanent in Fighting Influenza.” “New Flu Law Enacted for Quarantine Emergency: Guards to be placed if ordinance is disregarded.” “Deaths by Influenza Top War Casualties.”

Such were the headlines in the Los Angeles Herald from the fall of 1918 to the spring of 1919. There were many similarities to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) we are now experiencing. Read for yourself what was happening during the epidemic that struck the world more than 100 years ago and make your own comparisons with what is transpiring today.

In the fall of 1918, a deadly disease began to sweep across the United States – influenza. In October, the epidemic reached Long Beach. Years later it was determined that it probably started on a pig farm in Iowa. After the annual Iowa Cedar Rapids Swine Show in September 1917, a mysterious ailment gripped its pigs. Millions of hogs fell ill and thousands died.

At the same time the pigs got sick, Canadian hunters found moose and elk with flu. The pig virus also hit bison and sheep and eventually humans. Doctors didn’t recognize the epidemic potential until American troops had already introduced the flu to war-weary Europe. Coughing Germans called it the “Blitz Kartarrh” while feverish English soldiers named it “Flanders Grippe.” American troops added to the confusion by calling it the “Spanish Flu” or “Spanish Lady.”

In September 1918 the flu overwhelmed Camp Devens outside of Boston. The overcrowded military camp housed 45,000 men, where only 35,000 were intended. The first case appeared on the first of September and by the 18th had multiplied to 6,674 cases. Many of the soldiers, men in the prime of health, turned blue, bled from the nose and died in 48 hours, struggling for air.

In the book the Fourth Horseman by Andrew Nikiforuk, one physician called it the most vicious type of pneumonia he had ever seen, and reported that “mahogany spots” spread over the face “until it was hard to distinguish the colored man from the white.” In one day, 90 men died.

Having had no previous experience with the 1918 swine flu strain, the adult immune system overreacted. All of the inflammation and water in the body allowed wandering bacteria to deliver lung dissolving infections. Crowded barracks, fetid trenches and sealed troop ships guaranteed that there was no shortage of meningitis of staphylococci to stalk soldiers. By the end of October, one in five U.S. servicemen had the flu.

The Southern California epidemic started with the arrival of an infected ship in the San Pedro harbor. On Oct. 11, following the lead of Los Angeles County health officials, Long Beach city commissioners ordered all schools, churches, theaters, dance halls, bathhouses and fraternal lodge houses closed. Public meetings were forbidden.

Other ways were tried to stop the spread of the virus. One small town in Arizona made it a criminal offense to shake hands. Every morning the army forced its recruits to gargle with salt and water, the men then drilled twenty yards apart. In many places, people seized upon the imagined flu-fighting properties of vegetables; some tied cucumbers to their ankles while others put a potato in each pocket. One Oregon mother even buried her four-year-old daughter neck-high in onions. The more scientific-minded added sulfur to the soles of their shoes.

Perhaps the most popular protection against the flu was a white cotton mask. In San Francisco, public health officials started a cotton craze by passing an ordinance that forbids people from appearing in public places without a mask over their nose and mouth. The only place people didn’t have to wear masks was at home or in a restaurant while eating. At the beginning of the epidemic, the mask had such appeal that even frightened newlyweds wore gauze when they made love.

Despite all the precautions, the influenza spread. In the first two weeks of October between 400 and 500 cases of influenza had been reported in Long Beach and five deaths had occurred.

The disease itself resembled a very contagious kind of cold. It was accompanied by a fever, pains in the head, eyes, ears, back or other parts of the body. In most cases the symptoms disappeared after three or four days; some patients, however, developed pneumonia or meningitis and died.

Nurses and others were warned to guard against breathing in the germs by wearing a fold of gauze or mask while near a patient. Some, such as Doctor William J. Cook, a physician at Seaside Hospital, caught the disease despite taking all the necessary precautions. Doctor Cook died of influenza on Oct. 26, 1918.

Tragic stories were everyday reading in the obituary section of the local newspapers. On Oct. 16, 1918, death invaded the Harry Poor home for the second time in two weeks. First Poor, a mining engineer, passed away from influenza. Two weeks later his son, Allen, 3, was buried at Sunnyside Cemetery. Twenty-year-old Pearl Phillips pleaded that her husband George not be buried until she recovered from the flu. Instead she joined her husband in the same grave when she died a few weeks later – both victims of influenza.

Second Lieutenant Edward Stout survived the war, only to become a victim of the flu. One month after his arrival home, his death notice appeared in the Feb. 2, 1919, Daily Telegram. His son had just been born five days earlier.

On Nov. 23, 1918, the ban on public gatherings in Long Beach was lifted. On Dec. 9, schools reopened. However, a second influenza epidemic hit the city in January 1919. Schools, theaters and other places where the public gathered were again closed for ten days, but not before Detective E. V. Denney of the Long Beach police force had a curse put on him.

Denney was in the process of arresting a young Gypsy fortune teller who was plying her trade on the Pike without a license when she told him he was under “a spell of death.” According to the comely fortune teller, Denney would soon be attacked by influenza. Only by wearing a coffee strainer over his face, and thereby appearing ridiculous, could death be avoided. Denney didn’t believe a word of it!

A total of 2,437 Long Beach men and women had gone to war; 50 of them did not return. In comparison, 9,000 cases of influenza were reported in Long Beach between Oct. 1, 1918 and Feb. 1, 1919; 148 Long Beach residents died.

The flu buried more than 50 million people throughout the world in 18 months. The death rate stunned physicians. It took the battlefields of France four years to kill 15 million men, but the flu did the same work in much less time. In the United States alone more people died of the flu (550,000 adults) in 1918 than the U.S. military lost to combat in both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam.

In Alaska, whole Indian villages disappeared while India lost more than 12 million people. Adults with flu finished a poker game or army drill one minute, only to drop dead the next. Although the epidemic initiated the biggest plague die-off in world history, it is remembered, when it is remembered at all, as no more than a bad outbreak of “the flu.”

Claudine Burnett is a retired Long Beach Public Library librarian who compiled the library’s Long Beach History Index. In her research, she found many forgotten, interesting stories about Long Beach and Southern California which she has published in 11 books as well as in monthly blogs. You can access information about her books and read her blogs at



Thank you for the excellent look back to our future!

Very informative

I have my mother's 1918 and 1919 Long Beach High School year books. It is interesting that the 1919 yearbook lists only the school closure dates. No personal notes from her friends or other information in the book discusses the pandemic. However there is much information in the book regarding the war and loss of young men in Long Beach. I am surprised that the students and faculty were able to publish the year book at all although it is only about half as thick as the 1918 yearbook.

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