The Sisters of St. Joseph helped fight the Spanish flu in Humboldt County from 1918-1920. | Photo courtesy of St. Joseph Health

Lessons from When the Spanish Flu Hit Humboldt in 1918

Looking to the past to learn about the present pandemic
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Looking to the past to learn about the present pandemic

There’s a saying that goes something like, “In order to prevent future mistakes, we should look to the past for guidance.” While this current pandemic may be new to all of us, humans have gone through this before. Some of the more recent pandemics include the SARS virus, the H1N1 virus, Ebola and HIV.

The term pandemic is defined as something “occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.” Obviously, the current COVID-19 virus fits into this category. While some of the aforementioned pandemics did not enact a devastating, history-altering toll on Humboldt County, another pandemic did.

From 1918 to 1920, the Spanish flu swept across America, resulting in an estimated 675,000 deaths according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The first official report of the Spanish flu in California was reported Sept. 27, 1918, just two weeks after an outbreak on the East Coast. By November 1918, the total cases throughout the state hit about 115,000—overwhelming doctors and government officials from north to south.

One of three doctors that helped Spanish flu patients in the Ferndale area.

Although Humboldt County sits in an isolated area protected by the “Redwood Curtain,” the area was soon amassed in its own troubles combatting the illness. Humboldt County had a population of about 37,000 people with Eureka holding around 12,000. The Spanish flu resulted in around 200 deaths (although it is thought to be much higher) and thousands grew ill.

In 2012, Humboldt State alumnus and McKinleyville native Jeff Benedetti-Coomber wrote a detailed history of the impact the Spanish flu had on Humboldt County. For it, he was awarded the Charles R. Barnum History Award by HSU’s history department. For his research he scoured through old newspaper clippings for primary source documentation. He read academic analysis on how the Spanish flu affected the entire nation and he cited Matina Kilkenny, a researcher and local author for the Humboldt Historical Society who also wrote about the impacts the Spanish flu had on Humboldt County.

What prompted Benedetti-Coomber to focus on the Spanish flu was its lack of local research. As his peers decided to look into European history, he decided to focus his attention on the effects locally.

“I was walking through the graveyard in Arcata and noticed a family of graves, not necessarily related to the [Spanish] influenza but it got me thinking about what effects the flu may have had because it was around the same time,” he told me over the phone from his place in Los Angeles. “Once I started researching it I saw how it did affect the county and I was pretty amazed.”

Benedetti-Coomber’s senior thesis, titled “Death In the Redwoods: The Effects of the Spanish Influenza on Humboldt County,” spans 30 pages and breaks down how each town dealt with the outbreak. He highlights what preventative measures seem to have worked and where officials, the public and the media went wrong and what they got right.

“It’s just like today when you tell people to do something and they kind of resist. A lot of people had that with the Spanish influenza and it was a reason a lot of people died, because they didn’t take it seriously.”

Jeff Benedetti-Coomber

Some of the highlights from his research that still stand out to him are how Eureka initially closed all schools, which flooded the streets with children. They soon changed their minds and brought the kids back into the school to try to quarantine the children. Another nugget of research that sticks out in his mind has to do with masks and the public’s initial reluctance to wear them.

“It’s just like today,” Benedetti-Coomber said, “when you tell people to do something and they kind of resist. A lot of people had that with the Spanish influenza and it was a reason a lot of people died, because they didn’t take it seriously.”

When the Spanish flu hit Humboldt, the United States was in the middle of World War I and young men from Humboldt were signing up to join the war effort. There were war rallies and large gatherings of people throughout the towns in Humboldt in the fall of 1918 as the Spanish flu began to creep in.

“Although the Great War was still the main focus in Humboldt County, more and more citizens were beginning to take notice of the spreading pandemic,” Benedetti-Coomber wrote.

Some of the newspapers in Humboldt at that time seem to have downplayed the seriousness of the Spanish flu. Benedetti-Coomber points to an ad that was in the Humboldt Standard by Vicks VapoRub that was “disguised as an article… and it assured readers that the [Spanish flu] was ‘Nothing new simply the Old Grippe and la Grippe that was the epidemic in 1889-90.’”

Benedetti-Coomber wrote that it is believed the Spanish flu was brought to Humboldt County by locals traveling to other parts of the state to help care for sick family members and then returning before symptoms started to show. By mid-October 1918, reports of the Spanish flu were starting to pop up in the local newspapers.

“The Humboldt Times also reported that there were roughly 150 cases in Eureka by [Oct. 22] and hospitals were short staffed. Doctors were so busy they did not have the time to report new cases or treat the majority of their patients.”

Jeff Benedetti-Coomber

“The Humboldt Times and Humboldt Standard newspapers offered daily accounts of what was happening,” he said, adding that they also seemed to not care about the Spanish flu at first.

On Oct. 12, 1918, four cases were reported in the Humboldt Times and those infected were quarantined in a “‘safe house’” on 8th Street where they could be quarantined and cared for,” Benedetti-Coomber wrote.

At first, the mayor of Eureka downplayed the danger to the public, but two days later, five more people were infected. By Oct. 22, 1918 there would be more than 150 cases and one death.

“According to the Humboldt Times, Mrs. Garber Dahle was the first person in Humboldt County to die from the deadly virus,” Benedetti-Coomber wrote. “The Humboldt Times also reported that there were roughly 150 cases in Eureka by [Oct. 22] and hospitals were short staffed. Doctors were so busy they did not have the time to report new cases or treat the majority of their patients.”

Action to combat the Spanish flu across the county began to take root. Arcata was the first town to pass a requirement that all residents had to wear a mask while out in public, and by Nov. 7, 1918, the entire county was required to do so. Emergency hospitals were soon established across the county with some residents offering up their homes for the infected.

Arcata escaped the pandemic with only four deaths, but the same can’t be said for Eureka and especially for the logging camps in the remote areas of the county. The number of cases grew in the urban areas, and by Oct. 23, 1918, the logging camps were left to fend for themselves.

“Logging camps and small towns were informed by the newspapers and from local physicians that they would have to face the Spanish Influenza on their own as all of the county hospitals were completely full,” Benedetti-Coomber wrote while citing a Humboldt Times article titled “Influenza Increases Alarmingly in Two Days.”

Young women wearing masks in Humboldt County.

But one logging camp was able to escape the pandemic with no cases at all. In her article, “Missing Faces,” Matina Kilkenny reported how Carl Munther set up a quarantine system for his workers who decided to go into town. (Kilkenny’s article has a number of great photographs of life in Humboldt County during the Spanish flu.)

“Munther required every person returning to camp… to stay four days in a tent he’d pitched some distance from the workers’ cabin,” Kilkenny wrote, adding that the returning workers were also required to work and eat separately from their peers. “Thanks to their boss, very few men chose to leave the Barrel Company camp and not one case of influenza occurred there.”

Sisters of St. Joseph wearing masks during the Spanish flu. The sisters helped many patients in Humboldt from 1918-1920.

Throughout her research, Kilkenny was able to find where a number of hospitals were set up across Humboldt. There was a Red Cross Hospital in Korbel, Arcata, Blue Lake and Eureka. Kilkenny also came across an interview between a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange in Eureka and a man named Brad Geagly. Kilkenny wrote the following:

“[Mother Bernard] sent [the Sisters] out in twos, in cars provided by the Red Cross. She armed each Sister with a kit containing camphor and sweet oil, castor oil, and mustard plasters. Into the homes… the sisters came, arriving at seven o’clock and leaving at the end of a 12-hour shift, to be replaced by two other Sisters. They would attend first to the adults….They would bathe the delirious victims completely, rubbing their chests deeply with the camphorated oil. Mustard plasters would be applied, and then the sisters would wrap the sick tightly in whatever woolen material they could find; then they would tend the children. Once they had been bathed and medicated, the sisters turned to washing linens or cleaning house. They fed their charges warmed milk and broth prepared from the food furnished by the Red Cross.”

Kilkenny noted that, generally, it was the poor who were admitted into the hospitals, while the more well-off were cared for in their homes. Because of this the actual tally for those infected and the deaths attributed to the Spanish flu is unknown. Kilkenny also points out how the Native American tribes were hit hard by the Spanish Flu as well.

“Of the [11] Native Americans whose deaths are on record at the County Courthouse, five were from Table Bluff, two from Hoopa, one from Miranda, one from Orleans, one from Requa, and one was a laborer at Korbel,” Kilkenny wrote. She also noted evidence that many Native Americans often refused treatment by White settlers around this time period.

Kilkenny was also able to find county death records from that time and noted that between Sept. 1, 1918 and April 1919, 175 Humboldt residents died with 91 of them between the ages of 20 and 40.

And so what can we learn from this history?

There is evidence that social distancing works by the example set by Carl Munther at his logging camp and how travel throughout the state can spread the virus. We can see how hospitals were eventually inundated with those infected with the Spanish flu and how staff were stretched thin. We can also see how it is important to get ahead of a pandemic and try to prepare as much as possible.

Humboldt County seems to be doing just that. They have recently distributed around 30,000 pieces of personal protective equipment to first responders and medical staff across the county. Humboldt State chipped in and prepared 1,250 COVID-19 test kits. Also, as I’m sure you are aware, we are in a “shelter in place” order that was enacted to help stop the spread of the virus and to give medical staff the ability to fight the virus without being overwhelmed.

Towns across Humboldt are also doing their part to help prevent an outbreak. Trinidad passed a moratorium on all short-term rentals and added some pretty forceful consequences to anyone who breaks it.

“Over the course of the meeting, council members added some teeth to the resolution with language saying that a single violation may result in the City revoking a proprietor’s short-term rental license for up to a year,” the Lost Coast Outpost’s Ryan Burns recently reported, adding that the county may consider a similar measure.

A stained glass piece by Humboldt artist Colleen Clifford.

As this thing progresses, we are all going to have to make some sacrifices, but we’ll get through it. Help out the elderly and the immunocompromised if you can. Help out each other by not going out or attending pretty much any gathering of any number of people.

Let’s all work together — but at least six apart — to help “flatten the curve.”

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