Editor’s Note: These notes were assembled by longtime Nevada journalist and historian Bob Stoldal, who now serves as chairman of the board of The Nevada Independent. As the coronavirus pandemic plays out in Nevada and the nation, these windows into the last worldwide contagion nearly a century ago are eerily familiar.
Dr. S. L. Lee, who was in charge of the Nevada Board of Health in 1918, reported to the Legislature:
“It is difficult to determine the date of the appearance of the first case” of Spanish influenza, but “it spread rapidly throughout the State until there was scarcely a village or hamlet that did not pay toll to it in human life.”
Lee went on to say that while Spanish influenza was not one of the diseases that doctors were required to report to the state, “it is quite safe to say that there were from four to five thousand” cases in Nevada. He added, “In uncomplicated cases, the fatalities were few, but in those where pneumonia was contributory, the death rate was very high.”
The official report on the influenza pandemic in Clark County — which lasted from mid-September, 1918, to mid-January, 1919 — stated that there were 235 cases and only one related death, along with 42 cases of pneumonia, which resulted in 42 deaths.
The estimated population of Las Vegas in late 1918 was close to 2,200 people.
World War I raged on, and was on the mind of every American. When the first Spanish influenza case was reported in Southern Nevada, the end of the war was six weeks away. A statewide election for the governor’s office was also a primary topic of discussion, as was a ballot question to prohibit the sale of alcohol.
In the middle of the 1918 pandemic, Las Vegas voters, along with those in the rest of the state, approved the ban on the sale of liquor.
The true death toll in Southern Nevada will never be known. There were those, such as Las Vegas community leader W.R. Thomas, who never recovered from his bout with “the flu” and died two years later.
Spanish influenza hit Las Vegas the week of Sep. 23, 1918. The first public reporting appeared five days later, on Saturday, Sept. 28, in the Las Vegas Age, one of two local weekly newspapers.
Late in September, the Clark County Health Department reported that more than 10 people were identified as “suffering from an epidemic of influenza,” or “pneumonia.”
Included in the health department’s list of those who contracted the flu first was the family of Dr. Roy Martin, Clark County’s Chief Health Officer. Also overcome with the flu was the wife of Clark County Sheriff J. W. Woodard, who also was a member of the Board of Health.
On Sept. 28, the Las Vegas Age page one story was titled “influenza Epidemic Prevalent in Vegas.” It stated that a “number of Vegas people have been suffering from an epidemic of influenza, whether of the notorious “Spanish” type or not being as yet not definitely determined.”
The story went on to list some of the victims.
“Mr. Hull and Mr. Davison also have been seriously ill with pneumonia, and Mrs. J. W. Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. A. W. Ham, Miss Stella Crowe, Mrs. Stone, Jack Price and the Dr. Roy Martin family have suffered severely.”
By Oct. 5, 80 cases of influenza had been reported in Las Vegas alone, along with six cases of pneumonia associated with it.
A lack of initial understanding by the small Las Vegas medical community led to confusion in the community’s two weekly newspapers.
The Clark County Review, while reporting several cases of pneumonia, questioned on Oct. 5 whether the Spanish influenza epidemic had hit Las Vegas. In a page four story, the Review printed, “An epidemic of Grippe, with more serious complications has been in process here during the past two weeks…. current reports had the epidemic as Spanish influenza, but local doctors say there are no cases of the ‘flu’ in Las Vegas at present.”
Meanwhile, acting on an order from the Board of Health, schools, the Majestic movie theatre, and “all places of public assemblage” were closed.
The city’s two newspapers were still not on the same page.
On Oct. 12, a week after its denial of the existence of Spanish influenza in Las Vegas, the Clark County Review reported that there were “about 80 cases” of the flu.
On Oct. 19, the Las Vegas Age reported on page one, “Influenza epidemic on the decline.”
The headline was more optimistic than factual.
According to the Age, Las Vegas was hit with “approximately 140 cases of influenza” in less than four weeks. The newspaper added, “There are now only about five new cases a day and the attacks seem generally less severe than the first cases.”
The newspaper also stated that there had been several cases of pneumonia reported and two deaths.
With no known cure, the newspaper closed out the story by saying, “It is hoped that the epidemic will soon wear itself out.”
But that hope was in vain. “Flu epidemic halts rally,” said a front page Review headline on Oct. 26, after an event held on Oct. 21 for U.S. Senator Charles Henderson and Gov. Emmet D. Boyle.
Days later, a mandatory meeting at the Clark County Courthouse was called by the federal draft board for all eligible men. However, in the middle of roll call, Dr. Martin broke up the meeting, saying it was not advisable to have that many people in a crowded room. Most of those in attendance, many who had complained of poor air circulation, were pleased with Dr. Martin’s action, including one man who let out a loud “A-men.”
On Saturday, Nov. 2, the Clark County Review reported that Dr. Martin had been “called to Goodsprings on account of several cases of influenza there and at the Yellow Pine Mine. So far there have been but a few cases in the camp, none of which has been of a serious nature.”
On the morning of Nov. 4, the Las Vegas City Commission met in an emergency session and passed Ordinance 73. It stated that within the city limits everyone “Shall at all times and all places wear upon the face a mask.”
Immediately following passage of the ordinance, Clark County Red Cross workers were called in to make hundreds of masks. According to the Review, by nightfall “every person was supplied” with a mask.
The city called on every police officer to enforce the ordinance, which carried a fine of from $5 to $100 dollars.
On Friday Nov. 8, four men were taken into the courtroom of Judge Breeze for failure to wear a mask. Following a stern admonishment, the judge let them off without a fine.
By Nov. 9, the community’s two newspapers finally agreed the epidemic had reached a “serious” level. The Review reported, “The epidemic, according to local physicians, reached its peak here this week when there were several deaths with many cases of a serious nature prevailing.”
The Las Vegas Age headline “Influenza situation becomes more serious” sat atop a story reporting “Twelve deaths have occurred since last week’s report and three cases are reported in a critical condition this morning.”
Among those reported: “C.B. Faust, the undertaker, is confined to his bed.” The newspaper added, “There is difficulty in getting sufficient caskets for the dead and it has been necessary to have them made of boards.”
Not long after the citywide mask ordinance was in place, the Las Vegas Age reported that it was “being very faithfully obeyed by the people. As yet it is too early to determine whether or not the masking is effective as a preventative.” The newspaper also pointed out, “It is important that masks be worn, but this precaution is worse than useless unless the masks are sterilized frequently and kept clean.”
By then the city was considering using the high school building as a temporary hospital, “so that the small number of physicians and nurses may be able to better supervise the care of those who are sick.”
The Age also published Health Officer Dr. Roy Martin’s 13-point outline entitled, “What to do if you have the symptoms” of the flu.
The recommendations included, “go to bed at once, do not wait,” and “be quiet and don’t worry.” The keys, according to Dr. Martin, were to “protect others by keeping away from them” along with disinfecting and sterilizing “articles from the sick room.”
“We are in the midst of an influenza epidemic which has been sweeping the country for several weeks,” said Martin. “It must be controlled or a great loss of life will result. The public must co-operate and observe the regulations of the health department or little will be accomplished.”
“Fear only when you have not done your duty to yourself and fellow man,” Dr. Martin was also quoted as saying. His instructions for those who were not sick included:
· Assist in preventing gatherings and crowds.
· Do not stand close to or directly in front of one while talking.
· Insist on isolation of people with symptoms of influenza.
· Wear a mask as required by the order of the City Commissioners.
· Clean out, clean up and keep clean inside and out, personally and otherwise.
· Brush your teeth, gargle your throat and spray your nose with antiseptic solution.
· Beware of “sure cures.”
On the 11th hour of the 11 day of the 11th month of 1918, World War I came to an end.
Five days later, on the 16th of November, Las Vegas Age, page one:
“Influenza continues taking death toll”
The day prior, on Friday, Nov. 15, the Las Vegas City Commission met and decided to keep the wearing of the mask ordinance on the books, saying that it was, however, “unnecessary to continue to employ officers to enforce” the ordinance. The Las Vegas Age added, “It is hoped that people generally will continue this precaution. It is a protection both to yourself and to the other person.”
That weekend, the Age began running a column called, “The Toll of Death,” in which it listed those who had died in Clark County from either influenza, pneumonia or Bright’s disease. The ages of the victims ranged from 17 to 75 years.
As November was coming to a close, the Age reported, “Influenza epidemic is on the wane.”
The paper stated, “The influenza situation in Las Vegas has improved greatly during the past week. The number of cases now being reported daily has reduced to two or three and the cases which are now running their course are much milder in form than previously…. there have been no deaths for several days and for the first time in recent week the morgue contained no dead on Thursday morning.”
By the end of November 1918, the influenza epidemic had, according to published reports, “diminished noticeably” during the past week.
The Clark County Health Board met on the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 29, and voted to lift the ban that prohibited people from assembling.
Effective Monday, Dec. 2, it said “chairs will be permitted to be placed in hotel lobbies, pool halls, etc., and the Majestic Theatre will open for business Monday night.”
However, the County Health Board decided that the schools still would not open until “December 9 at the earliest.”
The Clark County Review also reported on page one of the Dec. 7, 1918 edition that “owing to the quarantine which has been in effect at the state prison, Sheriff Woodard has been forced to keep prisoners under sentence here until the ban is lifted.”
The Review reported in its Dec. 7 issue that the Clark County Health Board “last week” appointed “Quarantine Officer Sullivan” who “has been kept busy placing quarantine signs on houses this week. Though no new cases have been reported, signs were required where patients were convalescing.”
As public connections were relaxing, health officials were still concerned about a second wave.
During the week of Dec. 16, the Clark County Health Board issued an order “prohibiting all public dances until further order, on account of the influenza situation.”
The county board said, “Dances are a particularly dangerous form of amusement at this time. The overexertion, the violent exercise, heating the person and causing perspiration, the tendency to exposure, all contribute conditions which are most inviting to influenza and which might easily arouse the scourge again to full activity.”
Though things were seeming to look up, longtime Southern Nevada resident and two term outgoing Clark County Commissioner George A. Fayle of Goodsprings was reported in “extremely critical condition” with double pneumonia, and Las Vegas City Commissioner Elwell was reported to be ‘critically ill’ with pneumonia.”
Another prominent Las Vegan, W. R. Thomas, Clark County’s first district attorney, came down with the flu the first week in December. Thomas was unable to get outside for nearly two weeks.
George Arthur Fayle
On Monday, Dec. 9, 1918, a week after he was taken ill with influenza, George Arthur Fayle died at his home in Goodsprings at the age of 37.
A community that had been in continuous mourning for nearly two months was shocked by the death of one of its most well-liked community leaders. On Dec. 14, the Las Vegas Age devoted a large portion of that day’s paper to a tribute to Fayle.
“Death of George Fayle an irreparable loss. The passing of a noble man brings sadness to hearts of many.”
From the tribute:
“No event has brought to our community such deep and general sorrow as the death of our friend Geo. A. FAYLE. He was taken ill with influenza Sunday, December 2, 1918, and for several days seemed to be progressing safely. But on Friday before his death the dreaded scepter pneumonia began its work, and no human agency could avert the end.
Mindful that the end was approaching, the stricken man during the closing days of his life carefully made the plans for the future of his affairs. Then with the consciousness of a busy life well spent, he closed his eyes upon worldly things and entered upon his reward of immortality.”
After Fayle’s death, despite the positive reports, the fear of influenza continued to hold Las Vegas in its grip.
The Las Vegas Age reported that the flu “situation is the most satisfactory of any time during the past month, the danger is by no means past.”
Another notable figure died of influenza in December in Las Vegas: Florence Holmes, who had volunteered to help nurse those sick with the flu. Florence was the sister of internationally known silent film star Helen Holmes, who with her husband J. P. Mc Gowan recorded the first motion picture filmed in Las Vegas (1915).
Public meeting places including schools begin to open
With the disease mostly fading, though, it was decided to open all public schools on Monday, Dec. 9.
At the same time the Clark County Review reported that “with the lifting of the ban on all public meetings and places of amusement, which was ordered on Monday (December 4), Las Vegas again entered its regular routine of business after a month of restrictions.”
The Review further reported, “So effective did the order prove that, according to the health board, influenza cases have diminished to a negligible quantity, none of the cases reported being serious.”
With public meeting places and Sunday church schools opened, the Review reported “in both cases, with only a fraction of the usual attendance, due no doubt to the prevalence of new cases of influenza.”
However, the newspaper added, “The children may be afraid of the flu when it comes to going to school, but attendance at the Majestic, since its welcomed opening does not bear out the theory. Fatty Arbuckle started them all laughing as an opening and the house was a good one.”
The manager of the theater, Bill Pike, attributed this “to the fact that it was thoroughly fumigated”.
In its last edition of 1918, the Las Vegas Age reported on page one, “influenza health situation in Vegas much improved.”
Moapa Valley hit with epidemic
However, just before Christmas, the influenza epidemic hit Moapa Valley, with 20 cases reported in St. Thomas, four families in Overton and 14 cases in Moapa.
Dr. Martin, along with Sheriff Woodard, and Mrs. E. C. Bulette went to Moapa Valley in response to a telegram received on Christmas Eve from St. Thomas.
The telegram from Levi Syphus said the flu had hit the valley “immediately upon the return of one of our soldier boys, who, while in Moapa, was treated to a dance by his young friends. Practically all who attended said dance are now affected.”
Syphus, along with Nina Sullivan, Mrs. Ellen Gentry and Harry Gentry, who also signed the message, requested the “county board of health take proper action to immediately establish and enforce a quarantine of all homes affected.”
The four residents of St. Thomas added, “There are no peace officers here and possibly it might be necessary to appoint someone for the purpose of enforcing the quarantine. The former constable is seriously ill with the disease.”
As Christmas became a memory and the first week of 1919 ended, the residents of Clark County were taking comfort that the epidemic really was over.
The “influenza situation” was reported as “very satisfactory during the past week or two. There are very few cases being reported and most of those are light in character.”
The Las Vegas Age reported that in Moapa Valley, where the disease “broke out last week with considerable violence,” all were reported to be “doing well and no deaths have been reported.”
By February 15, 1919, the Age reported, “no influenza cases have been reported to the health officer” in Las Vegas “for several weeks.”
Optimistically, the Age added, and this time it was much closer to fact, “It is hoped by physicians that the epidemic has run its course here.”
The answers to the 1918 pandemic: quarantine those who are sick, wear a mask, practice social distancing, and close public meeting places.
Bob Stoldal is a Las Vegas journalist and historian who now serves as chairman of the board of The Nevada Independent. He also is chairman of the board for the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society and a member of the City of Las Vegas Historic Preservation Commission. He also sits on the board of Preserve Nevada.