A look at how east Idahoans handled a pandemic a little over a century ago
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IDAHO FALLS — It was December 1918 when a heartbreaking obituary was posted in The Teton Peak Chronicle about two young mothers who had contracted a lethal disease.
Pearl Willard, 26, and Myrtle Foster, 24, lay on their death beds in separate homes in St. Anthony, but their last thoughts were of each other.
“A peculiar incident occurred just before the death of these two sisters who lived about two blocks from each other,” the newspaper article stated. “Just before she died, Mrs. Myrtle Foster said: ‘Come on, Pearl, and go with me.'”
According to those who were at the other bedside, Pearl replied, “Yes, Myrtle, I’m coming.”
Myrtle died at 12:15 a.m., and Pearl followed at 1:10 a.m.
Former Brigham Young University-Idaho student Diana Victoria Lucier, wrote a 2008 Spanish flu report, and said the deaths of these two women left a total of seven children motherless, and both women left behind 2-month-old babies.
Today, the world faces its own pandemic from COVID-19, but it’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time the world, or eastern Idaho itself has weathered a severe or global illness.
A little over a century ago, eastern Idahoans were dealing with a major health crisis of their own.
The origins of Spanish flu
It was near the end of World War I when a killer flu strain began to infect people in different parts of the world. In the United States, the virus — also known as the 1918 influenza pandemic or “Spanish flu” – was first identified in military personnel in spring 1918.
It’s not clear where the Spanish flu originated, but the damage it left behind was devastating enough the CDC says it “was the most severe pandemic in recent history.”
The virus infected around 500 million people worldwide which was about 26 percent of the globe’s population, according to the CDC. The virus claimed the lives of millions of victims. The death toll is estimated to be between 20 million to 50 million people worldwide — more than all of the soldiers and civilians killed during World War I. Due to a lack of medical record-keeping, other estimates run the death toll as high as 100 million.
About 675,000 Americans died, and overall, nearly half of the influenza-related deaths during the pandemic were in young and healthy adults ages 20 to 40 years old.
On a local level, 55 people died in Fremont County, 52 died in Jefferson County, and Madison County tallied 58 deaths, Lucier said. She added that the average age at death in the three counties was 26 and a half years old. Local historians are unsure how many deaths occurred in the other heavily populated counties, such as Bonneville or Bannock.
“The mortality rate of the flu was incredibly high, and if you walk through any cemetery and collect some data on death dates, you’ll see an uptick in mortality rate at the time of the Spanish flu,” Chloe Doucette, Senior Director of Programs and Engagement at the Museum of Idaho, told EastIdahoNews.com. “Rose Hill Cemetery in Idaho Falls is no exception.”
Lucier said at the time, the death rate from influenza made it “almost impossible to secure caskets.”
“We did very little embalming then. Most of the time the bodies were laid out on slabs of ice with cloths for the viewing and then buried in wooden boxes,” said Bill M. Hansen, who worked for undertaker William Yager in Fremont County during the pandemic, according to Lucier’s report. “I didn’t like the business much, and I dreaded to go to a home to pick up a body.”
The Spanish flu symptoms were similar to those of the typical flu, such as fever, aches and tiredness, but many people developed pneumonia as well. Dark spots would appear on victims’ cheeks before their faces would turn blue from lack of oxygen in their blood, and they’d suffocate as their lungs filled with fluid, according to the History Television Network.
Many Idahoans caught the Spanish flu, and although the total number of how many died is unclear, Doucette said because the flu was so deadly and cities in Idaho were still pretty small in 1918 to 1920, most people were personally affected by the death of someone due to the virus. Along with infections and deaths, the pandemic caused social and economic issues in communities.
Spanish flu hits Idaho
It was late September 1918 when the Spanish flu arrived in the Gem State, according to HannaLore Hein, the state historian with the Idaho State Historical Society. Hein said few records exist from that period that discuss what the state did and what the counties attempted to do. Based on the available records, she said that around the time the virus appeared in Idaho, the United States surgeon general issued a plea.
“The U.S. Surgeon General was starting to really ask states to pay attention to what was going on and to start collecting information about the case numbers, the transmission rates, where cases were originating and things like that,” she said.
Within the first couple of weeks, after Idaho reported its first influenza cases in Canyon County, Hein said the State Board of Health, which makes policy decisions for Idaho, met about the issue.
“By mid-October… they came down with some pretty clear mandates as to what needed to happen to try to curb the spread of this disease,” Hein said.
Because there was no vaccine to protect against influenza and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections associated with influenza infections, control efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions, the CDC said.
Those interventions included isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants and limitations of public gatherings, which the CDC noted: “were applied unevenly,” across the country.
Mandates put in place to slow the spread
“It is foolish for any locality to dally along until the community is infested and several deaths occur.”
To slow the spread of the disease in Idaho, the State Board of Health put several mandates in place, according to Hein. She said the board asked people to avoid things like dry sweeping train cars, train stations and public buildings because health officials thought that would stir the dust and get people sick. They also banned the public from drinking out of the same cup, which was sometimes done at restaurants or train stations.
In early October 1918, Idaho’s State Board of Health issued a statewide order banning all public assemblies in the hope of containing the virus, Doucette said. She said there was a resurgence of the disease towards the end of 1918, which was due, largely in part, to public celebrations of the end of the war. She said celebrations like this took place in Idaho, as well as across the nation, and more people got sick because of them.
On Oct. 11, 1918, the Pocatello Tribune said, “Edict of the State Board of Health closing all places of public assemblage should not unduly alarm the people. It is a measure of precaution rather than one of necessity.”
The paper added that “while it will work a material hardship on many individuals and institutions, it perhaps is a wise plan to at least keep the situation well in hand, and determine the exact status of the so-called Spanish influenza in this community.”
A few days after that publication, the Idaho Statesman reported 90 cases of influenza on Oct. 13, 1918, in Idaho, and on Oct. 23, 1918, the number of statewide confirmed cases jumped to 1,711.
On Oct. 31, 1918, The Rexburg Standard printed a letter written by Dr. Joseph Walker — who the paper said was “well known in Rexburg” — where he explained the impact gatherings had on the virus spreading.
“As to its treatment: The best treatment is not to get it. To avoid it, one must avoid all chance of associating with people who might have it, as it is a crowd disease and is conveyed from one to the other by means of droplet transmission,” he wrote.
Not long after his piece ran in the paper, The Rexburg Standard said in a November 1918 issue that a state quarantine was going to be lifted Nov. 24, 1918. This would allow all churches and theaters to re-open that day, “unless county or city health officials forbid the reopening.”
As part of the state quarantine, The Rexburg Standard also noted that school would be back in session Nov. 25, 1918. It’s not clear how many times schools might have shut down and for how long because The Rigby Star and The Rexburg Standard said a month later that school would also resume Dec. 30.
“Every precaution possible in the school will be taken to prevent any exposure to the influenza,” The Rigby Star states. “Parents are asked to co-operate by not letting their children attend school on any day when they show symptoms of the ‘flu’ and teachers will promptly isolate from the school any suspected case.”
Along with those mandates already mentioned, Hein said the State Board of Health also put together a mask mandate, and stores began selling face coverings.
An article in The Rexburg Standard published Nov. 7, 1918, with the headline “Gas Masks Prevent Flu” explained that in Idaho Falls and St. Anthony, wearing a mask was “made compulsory by the city authorities.”
It’s documented that during an American Public Health Association meeting in Chicago, that they talked about how the value of a mask is a “mooted question” but the “weight of opinion seems to be in its favor.”
How did eastern Idahoans respond to the mandates?
How Idahoans responded to the mandates “varied across the state,” Hein said.
“In some locations, people were welcoming of these decisions,” she mentioned. “In fact, in some places, the idea to close schools, the counties made those decisions maybe even before the Board of Health required it.”
Lucier said The Teton Peak Chronicle in St. Anthony ran an article condemning Fremont County for not closing its schools as Rexburg leaders did.
“The Rexburg Council saw the wisdom of closing the schools,” the article states. “It is foolish for any locality to dally along until the community is infested and several deaths occur before any steps are taken to prevent the disease from spreading.”
Doucette has yet to find a first-person account addressing any sort of public outrage or demonstration concerning the restrictions, but she said it’s likely that there was some pushback.
“Early articles all say something to the effect of ‘don’t panic,’ and there is evidence that people were getting restless (and) having financial trouble because of business shutdowns,” she said.
During the fourth week of October, Lucier said Rexburg put up a 75-foot “Liberty Flag Pole.” Many people ignored the rule of public gatherings but wore their gauze face masks to watch the raising of the flag pole. Then on Nov. 11, Rexburg received word that the armistice had been signed. To celebrate, Lucier said, citizens built a large bonfire and danced around it while wearing their masks that night.
But on the other hand, there were people like those in Challis who were so fearful of getting the flu that Doucette said locals tried to keep the flu out by positioning armed guards at the city’s entrance to keep strangers and travelers out. The story goes that the postman eventually brought the disease in.
In east Idaho, many communities did not allow passengers to disembark if they were non-residents or had traveled to hot spots, according to an Idaho State Journal article, which also mentioned stations from Driggs to Idaho Falls were closed.
“I think that there is good evidence to suggest that because people saw the impact of the flu firsthand, they took complying with safety measures seriously for the most part,” Doucette stated.
In Rexburg, the local newspaper wrote that the “flu situation is very serious,” and despite precautions, the virus had “broken out again” in the city more seriously than ever before.
The Idaho Republican, the Blackfoot newspaper, was also feeling the virus’s effects. The paper published an article Dec. 6, 1918, that informed the community that more influenza cases were reported within city limits during that past week than at any previous time.
However, the paper hints that the city was following directions by health officials because later on, the newspaper article reads, “Thanksgiving Day was quiet here as everybody stayed at home most of the day.”
Esther Thomas, a home economics student at the University of Idaho in 1918, painted a picture in her journal that indicated being in quarantine was a lonely time.
“Still nothing doing. I am almost desperate. Make some sheets,” she wrote. Followed by an entry the next day that said, “Make some more sheets. Desperation increases. What will become of me?”
The virus needed to finish running its course — and how long that would take was unknown — before life would return to “normal.”
Life after the pandemic
With phrases such as “laid to last rest,” “death found its way in” and “it is painful for us to record so many deaths” scattered across local newspapers, other words such as “recovering nicely” and “in good health again” are also mentioned.
Doucette said because the Spanish flu was so contagious that many people became infected with the disease and then either died or developed an immunity to that particular strain of flu by about 1920. When the pandemic came to an end after roughly two years, one-third of the world’s population had caught the virus.
“That caused much of society to go back to normal, but ‘descendants’ of the Spanish flu virus (mutated strains of it) have continued to exist and affect our society,” Doucette said. “The flu pandemics that occurred in the ’50s, ’60s and in 2009 were all descendants of the novel 1918 virus.”
Even though it was a “horrendous experience,” Hein’s agrees that life eventually went back to normal because the virus mutated.
“(What happened back then) is very similar to what we’re watching happen right now,” Hein said. “It’s been quite interesting to see so much of history cycling through again.”