Watching the pandemic play out in Las Vegas–a century ago

pandemic play out in Las Vegas

Las Vegas Age, October 5, 1918

A sudden increase in illness cases around Las Vegas–and worse. A significant death rate. Closed schools. Instructions to stay apart and wear masks. Inadequate medical staffing levels. Months of fear.

Oh, I’m not describing the ongoing coronovirus pandemic in Las Vegas (and the world). Rather, what I’m writing about are events hereabouts concerning the famous “Spanish flu” influenza pandemic from 1918 to 1920, as reported in the pages of the leading local newspaper of the day, the Las Vegas Age.

But maybe some things don’t change much.

The worldwide 1918 influenza epidemic (the word pandemic was known but not widely used at the time) was a serious problem in the Las Vegas area for about three months during the fall of 1918, then apparently came back in a lesser way a year later in early 1920. All told, it appears there officially were about 40 deaths in Clark County, where Las Vegas is, attributed to the influenza epidemic. However, that likely was a significant undercount.

Still, Las Vegas and Clark County back then were backwaters with a total population of only about 7,000. So that worked out to one death for every 175 persons. This roughly tracked the estimated national mortality rate–675,000 deaths in a population of 107 million--of one death for every 160 persons.

There are now 2 million people in Clark County. Thus, that 1918 rate would produce more than 11,000 deaths. But so far, there have only been 100 deaths attributed to coronavirus, or one death for every 20,000 persons. While the pandemic is far from over, the death rate is not even 1% of what was experienced in 1918. Right now the U.S. death rate is significantly higher than Clark County’s–one for every 14,700 residents.

Researchers think the Spanish flu–a particularly virulent strain of influenza–started infecting humans in 1917 or even earlier. Where and how are elements still not completely understood, although the leading theory is that the underlying virus jumped from birds and circulated undetected for months or even years. Soldiers returning from World War I, which was still raging in Europe, probably helped spread it.

Media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic today is extensive and robust in Las Vegas. In addition to access to the national media, Las Vegas has two daily newspapers, nine TV stations and 48 radio stations, not to mention the Internet.

But back in 1918, there was no electronic media, and Las Vegas had just two newspapers, both weeklies. There was a sort of wartime censorship going on of material that might hurt morale. Obviously, big coverage of a disease that would kill more than a half-million Americans might hurt morale. I’m guessing that a lot of this news in those days traveled by word-of-mouth.

I am relying for much of this account on the journalism of the Age. A four-page Republican-leaning paper published on Saturdays owned and edited by businessman C.P. Squires, also known as Pop Squires, the Age was known for its boosterish coverage but also its status as the authoritative paper of record. In these days of stay-at-home orders I was able to look at digital copies from the comfort of the New to Las Vegas world headquarters thanks to the UNLV Digital Collections section of the UNLV library system. As was the custom at the time, none of the articles carried by-lines.

There was a first wave of Spanish flu cases in early 1918, but it petered out rather quickly.That and the censorship ensured no coverage that I can see by the Age. But then a second deadlier wave, possibly a mutated strain, started sweeping around the world in the fall of 1918. It quickly found its way to Las Vegas, and couldn’t be ignored.

The first account in the Age appeared on September 28, 1918. The headline: “Influenza Epidemic Prevalent In Vegas.” The story began, “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 article was only three paragraphs long, and actually listed the names of about a dozen persons “severely” ill.

A week later, things had gotten a lot worse. “Influenza Epidemic Assumes More Serious Proportions In Las Vegas,” a top-of-the-front-page headline in the Age proclaimed on October 5 over a much-longer story. The account said that “approximately 80 cases” have been reported in the Las Vegas area, “and the number of new cases is increasing daily.” In addition, there were “six cases of pneumonia resulting from the influenza.” Schools, theaters and “all places where people congregate” were closed on orders of the Nevada State Board of Health. There was no mention of local deaths.

Wrote the Age:

The first symptoms of the disease are headache, backache and severe general depression, accompanied by a rapid rise of temperature. Unlike the former “grippe” [an epidemic in 1889], the present cases show but comparatively slight nasal discharge. The first symptoms are soon followed by a bronchitis–an inflammation of the bronchial tubes–manifested by a dry cough.

As precautions against the disease, people should avoid crowed places and groups of people, as the infection seems to be spread by those in the first stage of the disease. Houses should be well ventilated day and night.

If attacked, the sufferer should stop work at once and go to bed and call a physician. Castor oil, hot drinks and Dover’s powder [which contains opium] are found to be efficacious in bringing relief. By all means the patient should remain in bed and under treatment until well past the danger mark, as the only cases which has developed into the more serious pneumonia stage here, have been those where the patient attempted to carry on his work or usual pursuits.

Ominously, the paper said “no serum or other remedy for the disease is known” and that “the treatment consists in careful nursing and the administration of such remedies as will assist the patient in overcoming and throwing off the effects of the disease.”

The next week’s issue on October 12 had no specific story about the epidemic. But there was an obituary for Harry Edward Davidson, “aged 30 years, nine months and 28 days,” a machinist foreman who died on October 7 after “suffering from pneumonia following an attack of influenza,” often the language of the era for the Spanish flu. After a funeral service at his home on Fourth Street, his body was shipped by train to Los Angeles for burial.

In the edition of October 19, the headline was “Influenza Epidemic On The Decline.” The story said there had been two deaths and a total of 140 cases, but only about five new cases a day on average. The coverage made no mention of Davidson as the first fatality, but said the second was Mrs. J. H. Nichols, who died on October 13.

“It is hoped,” the paper wrote, “that the epidemic will soon wear itself out, especially if people will be careful about exposing themselves to the inflection and those who have it are careful not to endanger others by their carelessness.

The next two weekly issues of the Age had no local influenza coverage, with most of the space devoted to the upcoming local elections. But the paper on October 26 did publish a cartoon, possibly an ad, furnished by Akron, Ohio-based Goodrich Rubber Co. The drawing showed factory workers chasing a demon marked “sickness” from the plant while waving signs with inscriptions like “Don’t allow a man to cough or sneeze in your face,” and “Sleep in plenty of fresh air, but don’t sleep in a draft.”

However, the Age made up for it on November 8 under the headline “Influenza Situation Becomes More Serious.” The paper said there were 125 cases in the city, 12 persons had died in the past week alone, and “three cases are reported in a critical condition this morning.”

There was such a shortage of caskets, the Age reported, that improvised ones had to be made out of common lumber. “The physicians are overworked, the hospitals are full and C.B. Faust, the undertaker, is confined to his bed,” the paper said. “The Board of City Commissioners has made an order requiring all to wear ‘flu’ masks and the order is being very faithfully obeyed by the people.” The story listed–by name–55 persons suffering from influenza, but, oddly, none of the dead.

People are urged to be faithful in following the requirements of the city and the health department. The only means known to alloy the epidemic
is for people to protect themselves against the contagion. It is important that masks be worn, but this precaution is worse than useless unless the masks are sterilized frequently and kept clean. Throughout the west and especially in the larger cities, the conditions are very serious and every effort is being made by the health authorities to stamp out the disease.

The city is considering various suggestions as to arranging temporary hospital facilities so that the small number of physicians and nurses may be able to better supervise the care of those who are sick. It is also suggested that by removing the patients to a place where they may be under constant observation, the spread of the disease may be to some extent prevented. Should conditions seem to require, it is probable that the high school building will be utilized for that purpose.

The following week’s news was also grim. “Influenza Continues Taking Death Toll,” read the headline over the lead story on November 15. The article said there had been another 12 deaths in the past week in the Las Vegas area, but new cases had dropped from 10 a day earlier in the week to five. “The wearing of gauze mask has probably been of considerable assistance in reducing the number of cases,” the Age said. In comparison with other cities similarly situated, Las Vegas seems to have been rather fortunate than otherwise, the number of deaths here being below the average.” A separate story said the situation was also bad in Goodsprings, a tiny Clark County mining town about 35 miles southwest of Las Vegas.

A week later, on November 23, the Age had good news-bad news coverage, as reflected in the headline: “Influenza Epidemic Is On The Wane, But Several Cases Of Smallpox Have Developed In Las Vegas.” Regarding influenza, the story said, “There have been no deaths for several days, and for the first time in recent weeks the morgue contained no dead.”  As for smallpox, those affected were quarantined in their homes, with stay-away notices affixed to the exteriors.

In the November 30 edition, the Age reported four deaths from what was called “influenza pneumonia” but also a huge drop in new cases. The Clark County Health Board was removing the ban on public assembly effective December 2. “The chairs will be permitted to be placed in hotel lobbies, pool halls, etc. and the Majestic Theatre will open for business,” the story said. But schools would remained close for at least another week.

In a new policy touching on what today might be called social distancing, the Age reported, the health board said recovering patients must stay in quarantine for four days after they were ambulatory: “The fact that those having the malady have been permitted to mingle freely with an unsuspecting public and spread disease promiscuously  has probably been the cause of many cases. There seems to be a decided disinclination on the part of many of those who have partially recovered to take reasonable precautions against passing on the disease to others. For a period of several days following recovery from influenza, the germs continue to be given off by the convalescent. There can be no question but that some lives have been taken and much sickness has been caused through carelessness of convalescents.”

On December 7, the headline was “Health Conditions Somewhat Improved.” The Age said there were “comparatively few new cases of influenza,” no deaths and even the smallpox cases were going away. Schools would reopen on December 9.

The December 14 issue contained a story saying the Red Cross finally had enough nurses to send to Nevada because “there recently has been a marked general decrease in the epidemic.” Separately, there was a long obituary about the death on December 9 of Goodsprings businessman, investor and county commissioner George Fayle, “age 37 years, 10 months and six days,” who died a week after he fell ill of influenza that turned into pneumonia. Knowing he was terminal, the paper reported, Fayle “carefully made the plans for the future of his affairs. Then with the consciousness of a life well spent he closed his eyes upon worldly things and entered upon his reward of immortality.” He left behind a wife and three children.

Still, caution remained the watchword. On December 21, the Age reported that the county health board voted to ban all dances: “While the present situation is most satisfactory of any time during the past month, the danger is by no means past. Dances are a particularly dangerous form of amusement at the 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.”

The last issue of the year, on December 28, also had good news and bad news. One story said there were few new cases of influenza in Las Vegas. But another said there had been  an outbreak of “considerable fury” in the rural Moapa Valley, 45 miles northeast of Las Vegas, with 36 cases in the small towns of St. Thomas, Littleton and Moapa. But as the Age reported in its next issue, January 4, 1919, the Moapa Valley cases ran their course with no deaths. The situation was also described as good in Las Vegas, with the few new cases that were reported “light in character.”

And that was pretty much the extent of influenza epidemic coverage for 1919, as new cases failed to appear. However, that didn’t stop the White Cross Drug Co. in March from advertising a stomach tonic called Tanlac, “especially indicated in general debility following influenza.”

But as it turned out, the epidemic may not have been quite over around Las Vegas.

Although historians say that worldwide the third less deadly wave of the Spanish flu came and went by the summer of 1919, the Las Vegas area experienced a huge influenza outbreak the following year.

On January 31, 1920, the Age said there were 50 influenza cases in Las Vegas and a “considerable number” in Bunkerville, another tiny Clark County town 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas. “Most of these are mild in character compared to the epidemic of a year ago,” the paper said. “The fact that the disease this year seems to lack the deadly character of that of a year ago is to a considerable extent reassuring.” But the Age reported there was a epidemic in California and across the country, with “hundreds of new cases reported each day and many deaths.”

However, after that, except for an occasional obituary reporting the death of someone from influenza, the dreaded disease disappeared from the Age.

And eventually, so did the Age itself, which later briefly became a daily. In 1943, owner/editor Squires, who had become a Republican power-broker credited with mustering the needed political support to build the nearby Hoover Dam, sold the paper to the rival owner of what had become the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The Age was killed in 1947.

But its journalism lives on, as do epidemics affecting Las Vegas.

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