School, business closures and masks: Sound familiar? These were also part of life during the Spanish flu pandemic

Cindy Mullet
Thursday, August 6, 2020
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Above is a map of Montana’s 1918-19 death rate from the Spanish flu depicting influenza deaths per 1,000 cases. Map was developed as part of the Montana Historical Society’s Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Summer 2018.

All saloons, pool halls and club rooms in Glendive were closed by order of the Glendive City Council on Oct. 7, 1918.

The closures came at the request of local doctor Melville Danskin who came to the city council meeting and reported 15 cases of the Spanish flu, one death and three or four serious cases, Victoria Zoll noted in a summary of her research into the history of the 1918 Spanish Influenza in Glendive and Dawson County.

At that meeting, Danskin also noted that the State Board of Health had ordered all schools closed and prohibited all public gatherings. After discussing the matter, the council agreed to “stand by the doctor in whatever action he took in this matter, and to cooperate in every way possible to prevent the further spread of the disease.”

“As elsewhere, the risks were downplayed at first,” Zoll writes. “Social distancing, lots of rest, nutritious foods and fresh air were advocated. Viruses were poorly understood then; antibiotics and effective vaccines were still in the future. There really wasn’t much anyone could do for a sufferer apart from providing ample fluids, cold compresses, and sponge baths.”

By Oct. 17, four deaths and about 50 cases of the flu had been reported by the Yellowstone Monitor which also noted that schools, picture shows and all churches were closed as a precautionary measure to prevent an epidemic in the city. “It seems possible, even likely, that there were considerable more cases than this would suggest,” Zoll notes, explaining, “there was an unusual, and growing, number of healthy young people dying after short bouts with pneumonia.”

Annie Rapp Johnson, 19 years old and married with a child, was one of these. She had been brought to a Glendive hospital from Bloomfield and died after a “short illness” of three days. Katherine P Virgil, a mother of four children, also died of pneumonia. Three of her four children were ill with influenza. On Nov. 7 the Lowe Brothers, Undertakers, reported seven deaths, all but one of them under the age of 40.

In her book, “Glendive: History of a Montana Town,” Marie MacDonald notes that the flu moved quickly once it came to Dawson County with seven, 10 and up to 12 and 13 deaths being reported each week.

In rural areas, families tried to help each other. Ed and Mary Lamphier who had homesteaded on Cabin Creek cooked and did chores for three families during one period. She would cook in her home, pack the food and dishes into separate tubs and then she and her oldest son would take a team and sled to deliver the tubs to the homes, collect them again and sterilize the dishes, Gladys Kauffman related in her book, “As I Remember: Stories of Eastern Montana Pioneers.”

The over-worked local doctors often went above and beyond to care for patients. Kauffman writes that when Joe and Mary Crisafulli were both hospitalized with the flu, Joe in the NP Hospital and then Mary in the county hospital as the NP was filled to capacity, the doctor found someone to take care of their baby, and each morning he would report Mary’s condition to Joe and then Joe’s condition to Mary.

The use of facial masks made by Red Cross volunteers was promoted across the state. The health officer for the Helena City Board of Health initially required police and transportation conductors to wear facial masks. After receiving complaints that the masks caused headaches and eyestrain, the order was rescinded and masks were made optional, Zoll noted.

On Oct. 28, the Glendive City Council held a special session to discuss an ordinance “prohibiting persons being on the Streets, Alleys or Public Places in the City of Glendive without wearing a gauze mask,” but after considerable discussion the ordinance proposal was rejected, and many more illnesses and death were reported in the following weeks.

“Charley M. Carter, Eva Sterhan and Jack Thompson left young families. Peter Rittinger’s death was ‘doubly sad,’ as the death of his wife occurred on the 23rd of Oct., of the same disease. They leave three little children to mourn their loss,” the Yellowstone Monitor reported.

The county hospital, the Northern Pacific Hospital and Grace Hospital were filled. The Red Cross set up an emergency hospital, probably in Lincoln School or Dawson County High School. Circle arranged to rent the Gladstone Hotel to be used as a hospital. A Dr. Baldwin of Kettle Falls, Wash. came to Glendive to help during the epidemic, Zoll noted.

In the midst of the worldwide epidemic, World War I came to an end with armistice declared on Nov. 11. The Yellowstone Monitor reported that “had it not been for the ‘flu lid’ being on in Glendive on Monday afternoon when the official news came ‘that the world war was ended’ there would have been the greatest celebration ever pulled off in Glendive.”

Even with the “flu lid” being on, an impromptu parade formed on Merrill Avenue. The parade featured an effigy of Kaiser Wilhelm on a stretcher, McDonald wrote, adding that an epic July 4 celebration of 1919 was in large part due to this flu lid.

In total, Dawson County saw 105 official deaths from Spanish Influenza, a rate of 6.2 per 1,000 population, midrange for Montana counties, Zoll noted in concluding her summary of the history, adding Montana fatalities totaled 4,187, United States deaths were at about 550,000 while worldwide deaths were believed to be approximately 50 million.

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