A Silent Enemy: The Flu Epidemic of 1918 - by C.A. Gustafson

Desert Winds Magazine - November 1992

World War 1 was rounding out its fourth year. As the Allies launched their offensive in July, the initiative was swinging their way. By the end of September, Germany was resigned to defeat. The year was 1918.

With the enemy in full retreat in October, any jubilation on the part of the Allies was tempered by the emergency of another adversary, this one silent, invisible and far more deadly. It would become known and dreaded as Spanish Influenza.

As the name denotes, it originated in Spain in May of that year and involved 30 percent of the population within a short time. It spread across and through all the armies engaged in the bloody hostilities. The epidemic would probably be better described as a pandemic, since it eventually encompassed the entire globe. One report stated that half the human race became infected with the disease, leaving over 20 million dead in its wake.

One authority declared, "It killed more humans than any other disease in a period of similar duration in the history of the world."

Returning troops brought it to the United States, largely through the ports of New York and Boston. It invaded 26 states within 10 days; every state had been infected by October 26.

The Deming Graphic reported, "It is generally accepted that the epidemic has been spread by German agents, as it could hardly have traveled so swiftly by natural channels." More probable is that it needed little help to proliferate all society.

New Mexico was among the last of the states to be invaded, but neither its sparse population nor relative isolation would grant it immunity. Influenza came to Carlsbad when an out-of-state circus performed there October 8. In three days, nearly every family and business house had one or more members with fly symptoms. Taos and Dawson instructed every person to wear a gauze mask in public. Las Vegas citizens were subject to finds up to $25 for not obeying quarantine restrictions.

Influenza was a "crowd disease." The common rules to combat the spread were: keep away from the sick; avoid crowds; don't use cups, glasses or towels that anyone else has used; and wash hands frequently.

New Mexico, with a population of about 350,000, suffered approximately 5,000 dead from the epidemic. The state was the only one of the 48 without a department of health, an embarrassing situation corrected by legislation March 15, 1919. A serum had been developed at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, but the supply was short and especially scarce in New Mexico.

In Deming, schools and four movie theaters wee closed October 3. The Palace skating rink was also shut down and no church services or public gatherings were allowed. Dr. F. D. Vickers, city health officer, announced conditions were improving on Oct 11, but he was confined to his home a week later with the sickness. Dr. J. G. Moir was described as desperately ill about the same time. By October 18, deaths numbered 16 in the village, 13 being Mexicans. Mexican-Americans were more susceptible because of overcrowded living conditions, poor nourishment and lack of money for medical care. It was estimated that a half million died in northern Mexico from flu or pneumonia.

Influenza, unlike most diseases, was particularly dangerous for those between ages of 20 and 45. In that respect, it emulated the pattern of war - killing the young and robust.

"Bud" Hughes returned to Deming from the East late in October and said that people in the Southwest should consider themselves fortunate. In Cincinnati, one buying a drink in a saloon was required to take it outside to consume. He said the saloons had a fringe of customers sitting on the sidewalks drinking their bottled beer.

In neighboring Arizona, the state health officer, Dr. O. H. Brown revealed that he had been experimenting with whiskey as a cure for influenza. If his test proved successful, he planned to commandeer all the liquor that was presently held by state authorities. The state had been dry the past four years; law officials thus were harboring a cache of confiscated whiskey.

One report commented, "Should Dr. Brown announce an affirmative decision, we look for a marked and long continued increase in the number of influenza cases throughout Arizona." There was probably a multitude of volunteers among the thirsty sector to aid in this public cause.

Particularly vulnerable to the disease were the military camps spread around the country. In the first part of October, cases from all camps numbered around 100,000 with 2,148 deaths, nearly all from pneumonia. Although influenza draped the rope around the neck of the victim, it was usually pneumonia that sprung the trap door to become the executioner.

Camp Cody, on the northwest fringe of Deming, weathered the epidemic better than most installations in the U.S. In late September, Colonel Davis, commander of the base hospital, stated there were no cases at Cody among 3,000 men. The 34th Division had recently been shipped to Fort Dix, New Jersey. This brought the troop concentration down from around 30,000 to the level as reported by Colonel Davis. By October 4, the camp reported 500 flu cases and 125 pneumonia patients, but only 21 deaths. A quarantine was put in force. The 97th Division was in the process of being formed and better than 4,OOO draft recruits arrived the latter part of October. The flu cases then surged to 2,737 with 556 pneumonia patients and 128 total deaths.

Rumors were rampant that half the troops were down with the flu and hundreds were "dropping like flies." The new commander, Brigadier General James R. Llndsay, denounced the stories as vicious lies "deliberately started and kept in circulation by German propagandists.

Patty Israel, venerable authority on past Deming, remembers the epidemic. As a girl, she lived with her parents in their home on the northwest corner of Pine and Iron, present site of the Butterfield Motel.

Israel says. "Ill tell you what I remember so well. The soldiers and the band would come down Pine with caisson and casket in their funeral march to the railroad station to put the body on the train. Pine was a one-way street. They returned to the camp by way of Spruce. Some people were disturbed when the band would play a cheerful tune on the back. They considered it a sort of sacrilege."

News of the armistice reached Deming by wire November 11 at 1:30 A.M. John O'Leary roused the fire department unleash its fire whistle. Soon bedlam reigned in those sirens. Engines in the railroad yard joined the din, as did the few automobiles on the streets.

Sunrise brought the populace into the streets. They shouted, laughed, cried and waved flags. By noon's holiday had been declared and a jubilee parade prepared. Several young men confiscated the unhung bell at St. Ann's Mission, under construction on Ruby Street. The bell was placed on a truck and its resounding peals added to the pandemonium.

At the celebration that afternoon, Brigadier General James Lindsay was prophetic in address. He said, "This is not the last war nor will nations cease to make war as long as human passions endure. Until the end of time, when diplomacy fails, resort must be had to arms."

The soldiers at Camp Cody received temporary respite from the quarantine. They came into town by the hundreds the isolation period finally ended in mid - November and the streets of Deming were once again teeming with khaki-clad troops.

Columbus, 32 miles south of Deming, also hosted a military encampment, Camp Furlong . Though much smaller than Camp Cody, it to came under the flu attack. A quarantine was placed on Camp Furlong early in October, removed November 7, reinstated November 20 and not raised again until December 17. Dr. T. H, Dabney was the only civilian medic In Columbus. He worked day and night, handling 120 cases by November 1 and losing only one.

Remoteness offered no sanctuary for the epidemic. Hachita is located 45 miles west of Columbus in the southern tip of Grant County. One mile north of this town in 1918 was a cavalry post, Camp Shannon, of about 400 troops. Its main duties involved border patrol. Even this island of isolation was struck by the dreaded disease. The camp lacked the luxury of coffins: flu victims were placed near the railroad to be picked up by the next passing train. Guards were posted by the bodies to keep coyotes away.

By year's end, the Spanish Influenza epidemic had abated. It still persisted, however, on a declining scale into 1919. The silent enemy killed more than 10 times as many Americans as those who died on the battlefields of World War 1.

� Text is the copyright of Desert Winds Magazine & C.A. Gustafson.

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