Red Cross Motor Squads in St. Louis drill for the influenza epidemic. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Also see table below: Influenza Epidemic Deaths & Death Rates - Los Angeles, 1918-1919
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is not the first time Los Angeles faced a serious and deadly contagious disease. The global influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, due to its reach and lethality, remains to this day, the “mother of all pandemics.” Although its origin continues to be debated (commonly believed to be Europe in late 1917), its first appearance in the United States was in January 1918 at a U.S. Army camp in Kansas. There, within days, hundreds of soldiers were incapacitated by this new strain of influenza. By that March, the influenza was in New York City. While it continued its march across the continental United States, it also simultaneously spread across the globe, leaving no continent untouched, even wiping out entire Inuit villages in remote Alaska. As many as 50 million people world-wide were estimated to have died as a result of the influenza. In the United States, an estimated 28 percent of the population was believed to have been infected, with a death toll as high as 675,000 (more than the entire population of the City of Los Angeles, at that time).
It was nicknamed the “Spanish Flu.” This was a misunderstanding in as much as there is no evidence that the influenza either originated in Spain or was nastier there than anywhere else. Spain was a neutral country during World War I and, as such, did not try to muzzle its press. When the epidemic hit in that country, its devastation was openly reported by Spanish newspapers. When American newspapers picked up the terrifying stories of sickness and fatalities in Spain and the U.S. government seemingly unconcerned about what was reported there, the influenza seemed, to American readers, particularly concentrated in Spain. Thus, “Spanish Flu.”
Downtown Los Angeles in the early 1900s. From the Los Angeles Almanac Postcard Collection.
Until September 1918, Angelenos only knew of the influenza from the newspapers. Reports were that the influenza was in San Francisco, but Southern California seemed in the clear. In mid-September, a U.S. Navy training vessel docked in San Pedro with sick crew aboard, but, those sailors who seemed unaffected were allowed to shore leave to Los Angeles.
Within about a week, the first cases of influenza appeared in Los Angeles, infecting, among others, 55 students at Los Angeles Polytechnic High School. Shortly thereafter, the Navy quarantined its Naval Reserve Station at Los Angeles Harbor.
By October 1, it was clear that the influenza was now in Los Angeles. Aware of how the disease had already been ravaging other parts of the country, Los Angeles health authorities moved quickly, obtaining authorization from the mayor and city council to require the closure of schools, churches, theatres, dance halls, gymnasiums and other public gathering places. Los Angeles was shut down. Their actions were not too early. By the end of the city’s first deadly week (ending October 12), 69 Angelenos had already died from the influenza or influenza-induced conditions (typically pneumonia). By October 15, the Los Angeles County Hospital (present-day L.A. County-USC) influenza ward had reached capacity and a special influenza isolation hospital was set up at what is presently the site of the Chinatown Central Plaza.
The city dug-in to face the new epidemic. Hollywood’s young movie industry decided stopped film production, closed their studios and stopped releasing new films. Taxpayers were told to stay away from the County Hall of Records and make tax payments only by mail. Telephone customers were told to use their phones only if necessary, due to many telephone operators being out sick. Pasadena banned social calling and made it mandatory to wear a mask in public (some cut holes in their mask for cigarettes, cigars and pipes). School children, thrilled by the closure of schools, learned that their “flu vacation” was not to last long and that they would have to continue their studies by correspondence. Local draft boards (keep in mind that America was still at war in World War I), prohibited from meeting indoors, held their meetings outdoors. Nevertheless, by the end of October, there had been an estimated 35,000 influenza cases in Los Angeles and almost 500 people died. The last week of October (ending November 2) was the single deadliest week for Los Angeles. That week, 329 died from the influenza.
Influenza humor in comics in the Los Angeles Times. From the Influenza Encyclopedia.
Also see table below: Influenza Epidemic Deaths & Death Rates - Los Angeles, 1918-1919
It was not long, however, for some Angelenos to become impatient with the ban on public gatherings. In November, several Christian Scientists, in defiance of the ban, attempted to hold a church service, only to be arrested (the arrests and ban were later appealed and ultimately overturned in court). Theater owners felt unfairly singled out by the ban. They began pressuring the Los Angeles City Council to expand closures to all but vital businesses (such as groceries or pharmacies). The Christmas season was also approaching and other Los Angeles business interests, backed by the pro-business Los Angeles Times, began arguing that November’s decreasing number of influenza cases was evidence that the epidemic was subsiding and all bans should be lifted.
Indeed, powerful interests prevailed over the concerns of the city’s health officers and, by the first week of December, the ban was lifted just in time for the holiday shopping season. Los Angeles schools were reopened on December 5. By Christmas, the weekly number of deaths from influenza was fewer than 100. It appeared that the crisis was over and people began resuming their public gatherings. Sadly, the crisis was not over.
Los Angeles of a century ago offers a sobering caution about trying to balance a dangerous pandemic and re-opening.
As Los Angeles entered 1919, the number of new influenza cases per week took a dramatic upswing, almost doubling. January quickly became another deadly month, forcing schools to once again close and the authorities to re-impose bans on public gatherings. By the end of the week, ending January 18, Los Angeles hit its second and final peak of about 7,000 new influenza cases and 161 deaths. January’s final influenza toll added an estimated 24,000 new cases and 605 deaths.
A trolley conductor in Seattle prohibits a passenger from boarding without wearing a mask. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
However, the epidemic seemed to burn itself out after January. By the middle of February, the weekly death toll dropped into the teens and continued falling from there. February 18, 1919, was celebrated as the first day, since October 1, that no new influenza cases or deaths were reported.
The influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 terrorized Los Angeles for about 20 weeks and then seemed to just disappear. More than 55,000 cases were officially reported over the duration of the epidemic, however, considering the number of deaths in Los Angeles against a national death rate of about 2.5 percent, we find that number rather small. It could be estimated that, as many as 130,000 Angelenos were infected by the influenza virus, with public health records showing from 2,725 to 3,355 people dying from it. These numbers were for the city of Los Angeles alone. The entire county, outside of the City of Los Angeles, encompassed almost an equal number of people. Los Angeles County, as a whole, may have suffered as many as a quarter million influenza cases. Los Angeles, for its part, however, did not suffer as badly as many other U.S. cities. San Francisco, then with about 100,000 fewer residents, lost from 3,262 to 3,847 people to influenza. Los Angeles was more aggressive about shutting down the city, in the face of the epidemic, and that aggressiveness apparently saved many lives.
In an effort to demonstrate how astonishingly horrific the 1918-1919 epidemic was for Los Angeles, though, consider that, at the time Los Angeles had an estimated 568,495 residents. If we were to apply the same impact of that epidemic of a century ago to Los Angeles County’s estimated population today (10,253,716 people in 2019), the influenza would have infected as many as 2.3 million people among today’s population and taken as many as 69,000 lives.
Nevertheless, Angelenos of a century ago, without the benefit of hand sanitizer, N95 masks, modern medicine, and toilet paper hoarding runs on Costco, faced the terror with the best that they had, kept their sense of humor and resolved to get through it.
Children sang a little ditty through the epidemic:
I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
Influenza patients are cared for by nurses in a make-shift hospital at Wilson High School in Pasadena in 1919. This is one of only a few photographs found of life in the Los Angeles area during that early 20th century pandemic.
Sources: Influenza Encyclopedia; "Flu Epidemic of 1918 Sent Chills Through State" - L.A. Times; "Gone Viral: The Flu Epidemic of 1918 in Greater Los Angeles" - Homestead Museum; "How L.A. handled the 1918 flu pandemic" - KPCC.
We recommend an excellent essay about L.A.'s experience with the influenza epidemic: "The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919 - Los Angeles."
Note: Numbers for the city of Los Angeles alone. Numbers for other Los Angeles County municipalities, or for the county as whole, were not available. Numbers of deaths included those having resulted from pneumonia. Pneumonia deaths were not necessarily influenza-related, however, most, if not all, were influenza-induced. The average number of influenza deaths per week in Los Angeles, during November through January, 1917-1918, was about 1 or 2.
Source: Case numbers reported in daily editions of the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Evening Herald. Death numbers are from the Week Health Index, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1918-1919, digital copies available through Influenza Encyclopedia.