Tulsa’s Experience: The Influenza of 1918

A few days ago, Tulsa’s city council passed an ordinance that requires masks to be work at all times in public to help curb the spread of COVID-19. As is the case everywhere in this country right now, it was met with a mixture of support and anger. I’ve wondered how Tulsa dealt with the last pandemic, the 1918 influenza, so I did a little digging through what’s available of the Tulsa World newspaper archives online. I found it interesting and thought you might, too!

The first mention I found is June 17, 1918 from Berlin. “A serious outbreak of Influenza in Berlin is reported…the newspaper says the publication of the number of cases under treatment has been forbidden.” But it’s quiet until September 12th.

‘OFFICIALS FEAR SPANISH INFLUENZA SPREADS HERE’ the headline reads on Page 3 next to the horoscope. It’s described as, “…short-lived and of practically no permanent serious results, is a most distressing ailment which prostrates the sufferer for a few days during which he suffers the acme of discomfort.” Although it’s referred to as the Spanish Flu, the first recorded case came from Fort Riley, KS in March of 1918. Spain, however, was the most upfront about the disease and it became attributed to their country.

The first front-page mention is five days later.

Doctors admitted they were, “unable to state with accuracy to what extent it was spreading.” Over the next few weeks, stories of the illness become steady reports of it spreading in army camps and throughout New England. “The federal government has taken steps to co-operate with state and municipal authorities in combating the disease and medical and nursing units are being mobilized in communities where the epidemic has gained great headway,” the paper says on September 27.

October 6th is when the tone in Tulsa changes from treating it as a distant problem to an imminent danger to citizens.

“Women workers are urged to be at their post this morning at 9 o’clock for the purpose of making 5,000 masks, used in the treatment of influenza.” The story talks about the mobilization of the Red Cross and nurses on duty at schools to monitor for symptoms. There is still a bit of downplaying, though: “The number of cases is probably over estimated, though one physician yesterday said he had called on 75 patients during the day and had 12 more to see last night.” Dependents of soldiers and sailors got their medical aid for free. A hotel in West Tulsa was mentioned as a possible site for an emergency hospital.

The very next day, the first deaths are reported. The story moves to the top of the front page next to news of Germany’s peace offering.

“To cope with what seems to be an increasing epidemic, every public gathering will be prohibited in Tulsa until the disease is under control. Theaters, churches, picture shows, schools – public and private – are under the closing order.” Physicians are instructed to mark residences with influenza signs at every house where the disease is present. An emergency hospital is set up at First and Elgin at a building described as, “formerly the detention camp.” It is called The Ark by the Red Cross.

Formaldehyde fumigations become commonplace in pool halls and gathering places. Nurses and ambulance drivers are quickly overwhelmed. A number of fake calls for aid are chastised. As the days go by, cases and deaths increase. Residents are encouraged to report cases immediately. “By quick, prompt action and observance of the health regulations now in force, the epidemic will soon pass and the city will again assume its normal activities,” says the World on October 11.

Why a housekeeper?

A reminder goes out that public gatherings are prohibited on October 13th as deaths and cases continue to rise. An article on Page 6 tells readers the influenza goes, “as far back as history runs,” and it not an occasion to panic. The next day, an increase in requests for preachers and singers for public funerals is reported and questioned if those services count as prohibited public gatherings. Theaters ask to re-open. However, it becomes clear that this is not going to be a passing issue.

A “move on” ordinance is passed on October 15th – prohibiting people from stopping on public thoroughfares. Heavy fines for people that sneeze or cough without using a handkerchief. “The city will sprinkle and flush the streets twice each 24 hours to prevent disease-laden dust,” with some sort of formaldehyde solution. Courts are suspended. Every day is a yo-yo of optimism and pessimism about the situation, seemingly hinged entirely on the previous day’s death totals.

The story leaves the front page for a few days as the epidemic is, “on the wane” even though there are requests to commandeer taxis and other vehicles for nurse transport and some people are having to build coffins for their families.

On the 19th calls rise once again to return to business as usual…but the city says strict precautions are still necessary. Billiard rooms, soda fountains, and bowling alleys are closed the next day. All restaurants are ordered to close overnight and thoroughly fumigate. “Only one unpleasant feature of the whole affair has come to light: this is the case of a man on South Main street who, within five minutes after the notice was served on him, disobeyed the order. At present he is under $100 bond for appearance in police court.” The mayor advised that if the “flu” could not be contained, more businesses (including mercantile stores) would be closed. Some say travelers should have their clothing fumigated when they stop off any arriving train.

October 24, 1918

By the 25th, doctors admit they are, “helpless in combating the disease with the usual methods” and encourage isolation and quarantine. “Sneezing and coughing, according to physicians, contaminates the air around a person as far away as ten feet, and the disease is usually transmitted in that manner.”

October 26, 1918

In the latter part of October, daily stories about the epidemic slow down. They are relegated to the back pages and there are promises of a vaccine on the way. No deaths are reported on October 28th under the headline, “BACKBONE OF FLU EPIDEMIC BROKEN?” The quarantine remains in place though the newspaper records the pleas of the public for it to be lifted. By November 1, the paper reports, “From the angle of the county humane society, it is reported they have almost forgotten there is such a thing as influenza.”

On November 5th, there’s an announcement that the state-wide quarantine would be lifted on Saturday the 9th. Tulsa is proclaimed to have a much lower death rate due to our early quarantine, two weeks before other cities in Oklahoma. There is hope the city will soon lift the restriction on “thirst emporiums” and allow them to open.

November 9th, 1918

November 11th, the day Germany surrenders and World War I ends, there are four editions of the Tulsa World. Vicks VapoRub runs an advertisement to advise they have 18,000 back orders for their product but that demand is decreasing. The streets are flooded in celebration of the war’s end.

On the 13th, another advertisement mentions the flu is still spreading worldwide and hawks a medicine to prevent it. Police court in Tulsa resumes for the first time. It’s quiet here; Kansas City reports closing schools again on November 27th. Tulsa doctors report concern about a resurgence and encourage vigilance. A story out of Chicago on December 5th reports a doctor there claimed the disease spread by poison in the air instead of people coughing or sneezing. On the same day, Raymond Van Hoy of the Tulsa World editorial staff passes away from influenza.

A small story on Page 11 of the Tulsa World on December 12th warns the epidemic is not over and is spreading again nationally according to the Surgeon General. Five days later, a vaccine arrives in Tulsa. Although the daily reports are gone, an article on January 4, 1919 reports that influenza is still an issue.

On January 13th, Governor James Robertson was sworn in but his Lt. Governor could not participate due to his battle with the flu. Most of the other mentions in the following weeks come from advertisements for medicine and life insurance, though February 11th has this:

March 23rd’s paper warns that nationally INFLUENZA MAY LAST UNTIL SPRING and that a death toll of 400k may be reached if the death rate continues. Tulsa, however, never returned to the levels experience in October of 1918.

According to a recent Tulsa World summary of the epidemic, “In Oklahoma, 7,350 people died of influenza and related infections between Oct. 1, 1918, and April 1, 1919.” One of the women involved in the medical response, Dolly McNulty, founded Morningside Hospital which we know today as Hillcrest.

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