The year 1918 was one marked by death and destruction on a scale never recorded before in human history. World War I—the “war to end all wars,” as it was tragically dubbed—wrought havoc across Europe and left a ghostly wasteland of roughly 40 million soldiers and civilians in its wake. Probably twice that many were wounded or deformed. The fighting in the trenches of France, Belgium and Germany was particularly gruesome, leaving an entire generation scarred and haunted by its terrors.
On the heels of this apocalyptic bloodshed came an even more deadly and invisible executioner in the form of an influenza pandemic—which today is known incorrectly as the “Spanish flu”—that was to claim more than 100 million lives during a trio of outbreaks that circled the far corners of the globe over a period of roughly two years.
The first wave of the global influenza pandemic hit the United States in March of 1918, when soldiers stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, broke out with flu-like symptoms before being sent to Europe to fight in the war. It is now believed that the disease mutated in Europe, turning deadly, and soon there was a massive outbreak among troops and civilians alike living in the mud, blood and grime. It returned to Boston in April, then back to Kansas in mid-summer, traveling along transportation corridors, until by Sept. 24, headlines in the Santa Cruz News declared: “SPANISH INFLUENZA STRIKES DOWN MANY IN EASTERN CAMPS.”
Three days later, it hit California. State newspapers noted there were more than 6,000 new cases of influenza being reported in U.S. military installations across the country, and that the first cases in California had been reported in Camp Kearny in San Diego County, 10 miles inland from La Jolla. The virus, following highways and rail lines, quickly spread northward—Los Angeles, San Pedro, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco, Sacramento. By mid-October, there were 6,092 cases reported in the state.
Santa Cruz’s first encounter with the pandemic came indirectly. On Oct. 7, 22-year-old Evan Marlin, a graduate of Soquel Elementary School and a private in the U.S. Army, died of pneumonia at Camp Grant, then a military base in Rockford, Illinois. His obituary in the Evening News did not mention the pandemic, but the newspaper in his family’s hometown of Newman, California, noted that his illness came “very probably following the Spanish influenza.”
His mother, living in Capitola, received a curt telegram from the Army: “What disposition do you desire made of the remains[?]”
Less than a week later, local papers reported the death of Santa Cruz teacher Grace Baldwin, the daughter of prominent local bank president Frederick D. Baldwin, who was visiting with family in North Abington, Massachusetts, just south of Boston. This time, the influenza was identified as the cause.
“Miss Grace Baldwin was one of the most truly popular women in Santa Cruz,” the Evening News reported. “As a teacher at the Mission Hill school, she was eminently successful and well-liked and in her social life carried sunshine and happiness wherever she went.” She was only a few weeks shy of her 44th birthday.
Then the pandemic really hit home.
On Oct. 15, in what was described as “the first death in Santa Cruz directly traceable to the Spanish influenza,” Loula Jones, another “popular young woman” in Santa Cruz, lost her battle with the virus at her Eastside home on Pacheco Avenue. She had been working earlier that summer at a pair of downtown establishments. “Her death,” the Evening News declared, “has cast a pall of sadness over Santa Cruz, where she numbered her friends by the score.”
That same day, funeral services were held locally for Carleton Canfield, the 17-year-old son of local insurance impresario Charles E. Canfield, who died while attending Harvard military prep school in Los Angeles. His obituary noted that he was “the victim of Spanish influenza.” James “Jimmy” Leask, from another prominent family that owned the Seaside Store (later to become Leask’s department store downtown), also contracted the flu while studying at Harvard in Los Angeles, but he survived and returned home in late October.
Within a week, the number of cases being reported in California had grown tenfold—up to more than 60,000. New cases in Santa Cruz and the rest of the county were reported daily. In Soquel, then a small agricultural community, the elementary school was shut down due to an outbreak there. In Watsonville, where the fall harvest was concluding, the Japanese and Croatian communities were hit particularly hard.
Santa Cruzans followed the plight of “Miss Elsie King,” a well-known Santa Cruz High teacher, then working during the war for the federal government in Washington, D.C., and who, it was reported, had “been very ill with Spanish influenza and pneumonia.” A week later, she was said to be “improving and believed to be out of danger at this time.” She survived and eventually returned to teaching Latin and mathematics at the high school.
Almost instantaneously, the numbers and statistics appearing in the local newspapers were replaced by deadly accounts involving family, friends, neighbors and community figures. That which was previously abstract was replaced by real flesh and blood. The distance between life and death was eliminated.
Sometime during the late 1970s, my mother, born in Santa Cruz in 1915, contracted a severe case of influenza and had a temperature approaching 103°F, along with tremendous body aches and pain. I remember being frightened, as I cared for her, by the seeming virulence of the illness.
“Don’t worry,” she assured me. “I survived the Spanish flu when I was a girl, and I will survive this.”
That was the first time I had ever heard about it. The distance between history and the present had vanished.
My mother casually mentioned surviving the “Spanish flu” from time to time after that, and several years ago, while doing research in the archives of local newspapers, I came across a page-three account in the Santa Cruz Evening News from the autumn of 1918.
“The influenza is very prevalent among the fishermen, where in several cases, the entire families are ill,” the newspaper reported. “Nearly all of the patients reside on Lighthouse Avenue, Laguna and Gharkey streets.”
At the time, that section of Westside Santa Cruz was called the Barranca, then a neighborhood of claptrap homes filled with multi-generational families from Liguria, in Northern Italy, who had immigrated to Santa Cruz and had formed an extensive fishing community on the city’s Westside.
The article went into specifics and, suddenly, the influenza of 1918 became very personal to me. “Cottardo Stagnaro [my grandfather] of the Stagnaro fishing company, his wife [my grandmother] and four children [my mother, my aunts and an uncle] are all ill, five members of the Olivieri family, two children of Steve Stagnaro, a son in the Bassano family, Mrs. Clara Ghio, Mrs. Catharina Castagnola and others.”
They were all cousins or married into each other’s families, one way or the other, and I knew and loved them all in my youth.
My mother showed me a picture in her scrapbook of her aunt, Clara Loero Ghio (my great aunt), in a mask that my mother told me she was required to wear in Santa Cruz during the 1918-1919 pandemic.
It was a stunning, memorable image. The photograph, clearly taken in a studio in which the photographer had placed her next to a table with a flower arrangement of some sort and a strange stuffed animal at her feet. My aunt is wearing a stylish dress and in her hat is a chrysanthemum. Her strong rough hands reveal a life of working in canneries, tending to her garden and mending fishing nets. And her eyes, highlighted by the mask, stare directly into the moment and the catastrophe at hand.
My great aunt Clara was a sweetheart, but she was tough. Clara was a survivor, too.
As those of us living in the 21st century are painfully aware, there are no rules or regulations in place when a pandemic hits. It’s a time of full-catastrophe living at its best. Existential anarchy prevails.
If the times were dire in 1918, some of the journalism at the time was equally odd, and, of course, downright sexist. “Masks are Now in Style” one Evening News headline proclaimed. “This influenza epidemic has caused the vanity of women to take a great big slide,” the newspaper declared, “as none could possibly say these masks are becoming …. Of course the young girls don’t mind wearing them right now, for what difference does it make if they are not very becoming, as all of the young men are at war, and there really isn’t any reason why the girls need look particularly fetching.” Such was the state of sexism in our community on the eve of Congress ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment, which provided women with the right to vote.
Proposed remedies for the 1918 influenza were many and often byzantine. Everything from placing an onion on the bedpost to sprinkling Indian tobacco on a victim’s chest to pointing the left index finger at the moon were promoted as providing a cure. Eucalyptus oil, whisky, camphor, castor oil, quinine, cayenne pepper (followed by a liberal dose of laxative), ad infinitum were advanced as elixirs. One reporter condemned the remedies as being based on “home treatment, witchcraft and voodism”—although no one, it should be noted, had gone so far as to suggest the injection of Lysol.
Fortunately, a trio of public health officials began to assert their will over the pandemic, albeit some more effectively than others: Dr. Adolph Nittler, chief health officer for the City of Santa Cruz; Dr. William H. Keck, the County Physician; and Dr. Aaron Bixby, health officer for the City of Watsonville. Unlike today, when the County (under the direction of Public Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel) has taken the lead in shaping the local response to the pandemic, officials in the county’s two municipalities took the reins in 1918.
Nittler, for several years the chief physician at the Portland Cement Company in Davenport, had assumed the chief medical post in Santa Cruz a year earlier. On Oct. 14, 1918, Nittler noted that while there was yet “no epidemic of Spanish influenza in the city,” he proclaimed that “if each and every family will take ordinary precautions, cases that might start here could be easily controlled and the number minimized.”
Shortly thereafter, as the number of cases in the city climbed exponentially to 128, Nittler closed down theaters and public meeting halls and declared that churches would only be allowed to hold “open air” services provided that “members of the congregations wear masks.”
He called for the Santa Cruz City Council to hold a special session, during which they adopted an ordinance, going “into effect immediately,” requiring every person appearing in the street or anywhere else in public “to wear a gauze mask.” All but two physicians in the city supported the ordinance.
In the county at large—which oversaw the unincorporated communities of the San Lorenzo Valley, the North Coast and Mid-County—Dr. Keck ordered the use of masks in public as well (including on street cars), along with the closing of saloons, pool halls, soda fountains and ice cream parlors—though take out orders were permitted. Restaurants were prevented from selling alcohol on Sundays
In Watsonville, Dr. Bixby had a rougher row to hoe, the metaphor being very much intended. The farming community in the Pajaro Valley and nearby foothills refused to support restrictions or enforcement of the mask ordinance. Bixby, who was born during the California Gold Rush and had once had his medical license revoked in the 1880s, originally opposed use of the masks, then changed his position.
It wasn’t until the first week of November that the Watsonville City Council adopted such ordinances and until mid-month that Watsonville Chief of Police Sylvester Whitsett asserted that “all people without the gauze masks on will be arrested.”
The cantankerous editor of the Watsonville Pajaronian, James J. Piratsky, and Bixby engaged in a very public feud, with Piratsky declaring that Bixby “should not object to our chewing the rag about it a little when we have to lungs full of lint.” Bixby dubbed Piratsky an “editorial autocrat,” while the latter responded that if Bixby truly supported the ordinance, “why doesn’t he obey it himself?”
While the Piratsky-Bixby skirmish may have sold newspapers, by the time public health restrictions were in place, influenza cases in Watsonville had soared to 840— reflecting more than 15% of its population of 5,000.
By the second week of November, it was clear that the War in Europe was nearly over and that Germany was preparing to surrender. But the war against the influenza continued. Advertisements appearing in local papers declared that District Attorney George W. Smith was prepared to prosecute those who failed to wear “the required influenza gauze masks.” Several arrests were made.
On Monday, Nov. 11, banner headlines trumpeted “HUNS QUIT!”, with sub-headlines declaring that “Germans Sign Armistice at 5 O’clock” and “Hostilities Cease at 11.”
Santa Cruz “went wild” over the end of the war, headlines in the Evening News proclaimed. “Horns and whistles shrieked,” the newspaper reported. “Bells were rung, the sleepy-eyed citizens left their warm beds, dressed and hurried downtown where they heard the news which virtually brings to an end the world’s most terrible war …. The strangest ceremony, the most emotional in its intensity, and the most enthusiastic in the city’s history took place at the post office steps at 3:30 this morning …. Miss Corinne Wood then stepped out of the crowd and led the singing of the national anthem, probably one of the most impressive choruses that has ever been rendered in the history of this county.”
Afterward, some youngsters ventured to the nearby Chinatown, where the influenza impact was reportedly mild, securing ”enough firecrackers to again set the echoes of freedom in Santa Cruz ringing.”
At some point, celebrated local photographer Ole Ranvos captured an image of the gathering at the downtown plaza. It records several hundred people in dark clothes assembled for the celebration. While social distancing certainly wasn’t in place, most in the crowd were wearing masks.
The battle against the influenza waged on. A third wave of the influenza hit the Central Coast in January of 1919, causing illness and more deaths until the end of February.
Five years ago, archivist Greg Gardner of the Museum of Art and History carefully assembled a list of all those who died in Santa Cruz County during the Great Pandemic. He calculated a total of 65 deaths—19 in Santa Cruz, six in the San Lorenzo Valley and 40 in Watsonville, nearly 1% of its entire population and representing nearly four times the mortality rate of Santa Cruz.
As I read through the papers of local newspapers from a century ago garnering this historical record, I was startled by how many names I recognized and how many people I actually knew while growing up as a kid in Santa Cruz many decades later. Jimmy Leask, for example, who was one of the first locals to contract influenza, was a buddy of mine and very active at the Yacht Harbor during my early sailing and fishing days there in the 1970s.
I hadn’t realized that my mom’s entire family—and so many in the Italian fishing community that had nourished me when I was young—had been stricken with the influenza. How my life would have been irrevocably altered had they died. My great aunt Clara was a special favorite of mine and I loved hanging out with her in her backyard wine cellar while she sorted through fava beans. She lived to be 68. Her husband, my great uncle Cottardo “Trub” Ghio, had fought in France during World War I and lived to be 92.
Life goes on, as we know. And then it doesn’t.
My mother, who would outlive the pandemic by nearly a century (she died at the age of 99 in 2014), had a survivor’s attitude for most of her life. She was sweet, usually, but always tough and feisty and determined until the end. The Great Pandemic of 1918 was simply her first hill to climb of many, and it gave her a sense of underlying confidence that she could survive others.
For marginalized poor and immigrant communities, that hill is steeper—they had much higher mortality rates then, as they do presently. A dear friend of mine—an 86-year-old immigrant from Trinidad—died from the coronavirus in the Bronx last week. It was a harsh reminder of that reality.
Nietzsche was right: That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Human communities have survived wave after wave of pandemics for millennia. History reminds us that life is a bit of a crapshoot. We will mostly get through this current challenge, but, unfortunately, not all of us. It was a sobering reality a century ago, just as it is today. Mortality is the nature of the beast.