The 1918 Influenza Pandemic Strikes Santa Barbara

By Hattie Beresford   |   April 2, 2020
Red Cross volunteers deliver food and supplies to families stricken by the Spanish flu on the East Coast where a terrible winter added to the distress (Library of Congress)

Note to Readers: In 2007, when I wrote about the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic in Santa Barbara, I never thought its story would ever be timely and relevant to today. I am sorry to have been wrong. I offer it again for your curiosity, instruction, and hope. They got through it then, and we’ll get through it now. Stay patient; stay safe. ~ Offering the very best of wishes ~ Hattie.

With nearly one-third of the world’s population afflicted by the Spanish Influenza in 1918 and 1919, American children incorporated the epidemic into their jump rope games, singing, “I had a little bird, and its name was Enza. I opened up the window, and in-flu-enza.”

The horror of the pandemic was hardly cause for levity, however. Fever-racked victims experienced temperatures between 104 and 106 degrees, severe limb pain, prostration and respiratory ailments. In severe cases, hemorrhagic pneumonia developed, filling the lungs and leading to death.

Scientists today believe the 1918 virus was entirely new to humans, accounting for its terrible contagion and death rate. Normal flu epidemics have a death rate of 1 in 1,000. The 1918 pandemic had an average death rate of 25 in 1,000, with the death rate rising to 50 in 1,000 for those between the ages of 20 and 40, another anomaly of the 1918 epidemic. In one year, over 50 million people died worldwide, and some researchers put that number at 100 million. In comparison, total military and civilian deaths in WWI were 15-20 million.

Very few areas of the world escaped unscathed, and those that did, like American Samoa and the French Colony of New Caledonia, did so because of extremely rigid quarantines. Santa Barbara was not among these lucky few.

Santa Barbara and Montecito Get the Flu

Influenza officially invaded the Santa Barbara area on October 14. Health officials had been warning the public to take precautions for weeks, and buried beneath the headlines about war raging in Europe and Liberty Bond sales were articles out of Washington, D.C. reporting on the terrible numbers of cases in the military training camps. On October 11, the federal government reported a total of 236,083 cases of influenza and 7,432 deaths since the first documented outbreak at Fort Riley, Kansas in March.

Cottage Hospital with the Nurses’ Home (the original hospital) in the background was filled beyond capacity (Courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum)

Just the day before, word had been received of a local boy, Thomas Adland, who had died at Fort Meade. Parents now had a double worry; would their children die on the muddy battlefields of Europe or would they die at the training camps of influenza?

The Santa Barbara Board of Health started advertising the slogan, “Cover up each cough and sneeze; if you don’t, you’ll spread the disease.” They also arranged for public speakers and slides to be shown at the theaters in order to educate the public, they said, “into realizing a sense of the seriousness of the situation.” New York City did Santa Barbara one better and made it illegal to sneeze in a public place without covering one’s mouth and nose. The penalty? Five hundred dollars or one year in jail, or both!

On October 13, another local boy, William E. Hosmer, died at Camp Humphrey, Virginia. Several cases of colds and mild influenza were reported in town, but officials claimed there was no cause for panic.

On October 15, everything changed. The Santa Barbara Board of Health, under the direction of George H. Hicks, closed the schools, churches, and all public places and forbade all public gatherings. Houses where family members were ill with influenza were quarantined and placarded as such.

Boyland, Prynce Hopkin’s school for underprivileged boys, became a hospital ward (Courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum)

The number of cases built slowly, but soon Cottage Hospital, County General, and St. Francis were full. The demand for space became so severe that the not-yet-finished maternity ward was pulled into service as were the basement, new dispensary, and the parlor at the nurses’ home.

Prynce Hopkins was the pacifist founder of Boyland (later the Samarkand Hotel and today a retirement community), a boarding school for underprivileged boys. He had been fined $20,000 and jailed for his anti-war lectures. Public sentiment against Hopkins had closed his school by the spring of 1918, nevertheless, he offered the empty building as an emergency hospital for the duration of the epidemic. It opened on October 22.

Besides lack of space, qualified nurses were in short supply because many were serving overseas. Red Cross volunteers filled in where needed. Eventually, public school teachers were required to work for the war effort, the flu effort, or the schools in some capacity.

The Fight Against the Virus

On October 19, Santa Barbara experienced it first death from influenza, followed the next day by two more. On October 20, the number of cases in California stood at 15,363 reported cases with Santa Barbara reporting 152.

On October 23, the California State Board of Health ordered barbers and hotel room attendants to wear medicated gauze masks. Local banks initiated a voluntary mask plan as did several postal clerks. The Morning Press reported, “The appearance of the masks here was in many ways a severe jolt to the skeptical ones who have been laboring under the delusion that there was nothing at all to the Spanish influenza scare.”

Red Cross Motor Pool in front of the Recreation Center where volunteers switched from rolling bandages to making masks (Courtesy Photo)

The Red Cross made and distributed 1,400 flu masks. Once those were gone the Board of Health offered sterilized cheesecloth so the citizens could make their own. “This is a very simple matter,” they said. “Even a man can make them.” The State Board of Health ordered all people ill with the flu or a cold and their family members to wear masks as well as all medical staff and visitors to hospitals.

The mask requirements did not go unchallenged. In Santa Barbara, people simply ignored the ordinance; in San Francisco, they were vocal about it. Several wrote the papers and the mayor saying it was unconstitutional. One man, Erminio Chavez, Sr., asserted masks frightened people, encouraged municipal corruption, discouraged immigration, enabled married folks to deceive each other, and pleased the Kaiser.

By October 27, the emergency hospital at Boyland was filled, and 9 people had died. On that day, the Morning Press headline shouted, “BAN ON GHOSTS PROWLING AROUND,” and Halloween activities were cancelled. Merchants wrote, admonishing their customers to use the phone if they were sick and not “subject clerks and employees to the annoyance and possible danger of being forced to wait on customers with incipient cases of influenza.”

As activities of a social nature ceased, the society editor Jessie Mary Bryant wrote, “Just as long as this epidemic lasts, with incidental fall in activities of all kinds, I am afraid I shall have to administer an occasional dose of poetry.”

Throughout the nation, Red Cross volunteers made masks to protect people from the pandemic (Library of Congress)

On November 5, the Board of Health ordered all people riding streetcars, auto buses, taxicabs, or other forms of public transportation to wear a mask. The death toll accelerated. Four of 20 Santa Barbara boys who went to train for army auto school died of influenza. Peter Morales and Joseph Ross died at Boyland, and Jesus Maria was picked up on the street by the police. He was ill with pneumonia, weak and suffering from a temperature of 104 degrees. They took him to the emergency hospital.

Anti-flu serums developed in the Montecito laboratory of Dr. Potter and those developed elsewhere were offered to the public, but there were few takers. One self-styled epidemiologist said the quickest and easiest antidote to the flu was to splash about in the salty surf of the Pacific until the tides came in. Another claimed that kerosene could be used as a germicide. One drop on the tongue and a slight touch in the entrance of the nostrils four times a day would do the trick. One man tried it and said that other than being afraid to light a match, he was all right. Dr. K.F. Winchester claimed a sure cure was to use wintergreen, which would destroy bacteria.

Despite these bromides, on November 10, Police Chief Lester Desgrandchamp announced that the police would arrest those who disobeyed the face mask rules while riding public transport. A total of 225 new cases had been reported that past week.

Finally the number of new cases abated, and on December 4, the Morning Press reported, “The Last of the Flu Fences Knocked Down.” The epidemic, like the war, was over just in time for Christmas. In Santa Barbara and Montecito, crowds rejoiced and prepared to welcome home their soldier boys, women prepared to vote and serve on the grand jury, and everyone drank “one more for the road” before getting on the wagon of Prohibition.

A Merry Christmas and a Not-So-Happy New Year

After a very merry Christmas of mingling with friends and family and kissing under the mistletoe, the Board of Health greeted the New Year by closing the city again. The Morning Press of January 3 reported 35 new cases of influenza with an average of 33 new cases per day the entire previous week.

The Hadley House was donated to serve as a hospital (Courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum

With Boyland now closed, a new emergency hospital was opened by the Red Cross in the Hadley House at 633 East Sola Street. The house was donated by its artist owner, Louis Lombard. The Red Cross put out a call for Gray Ladies, volunteer nurses who had taken the home nursing course, and assumed all costs of running the hospital.

The death toll continued to rise. Ray Leslie of Montecito died January 3, three others on January 4 and deaths continued to average about three per day for the next few weeks.

Clarence Black’s daughter Ruth as a member of the Red Cross Motor Pool which extended its service beyond the Armistice (Courtesy Photo)

With school closed again, the Board of Education instituted a correspondence system for students. The St. Cecilia Club, which was helping fund several cases of influenza, canceled its annual fundraiser, the Valentine’s Day Tea and Fair, just when it needed it the most.

A flying squadron of quarantine cops joined the Red Cross Motor Pool in aiding the health board. They patrolled the city on motorcycles, putting up notices of influenza on quarantined houses, getting doctors and nurses for the sick, performing errands for quarantined families, and enforcing the quarantine.

By January 29, the Health Board decided the crisis had passed and cautiously phased in a partial opening of the city. First the schools were reopened, then the churches, and finally the theaters and pool halls. By February 11, the final flu bans were removed as the epidemic sputtered out.

To this day, scientists remain baffled by the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. They have not been able to determine its origin or pathology. They do know that its severity serves as a great lesson and warning as medical workers the world over struggle to plan for the next “Big One.”


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