Living History: During World War I, the Spanish flu claimed 3,000 Utah lives

By pat bagley

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: January 26, 2013 04:49PM
Updated: May 5, 2013 11:33PM
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Pat Bagley, Tribune editorial cartoonist

The 1918 Spanish influenza hit people just as flus do today. There would be fever and aches, accompanied by a cough.

But the Spanish flu was no ordinary seasonal malady. Things often took a turn for the worse; fevers would spike to 104 degrees and breathing would become labored, sometimes accompanied by explosive nosebleeds.

Starting at the ears, the face would turn blue as infected lungs strained and failed to oxygenate blood. The end was near when the sufferer began hacking up a pink froth.

It probably should have been called the Kansas flu, or the Chinese flu, places where it likely originated. The Spanish flu didn’t start in Spain, but the millions who died in Iberia alarmed the world and gave the pandemic a name. In any case, worldwide, 50 million people would die before it ran its course.

In 1918, armies were slugging out World War I across Europe. The concentration of troops, along with increased transatlantic traffic, provided an ideal incubator for a global killer.

The disease was almost certainly brought to Utah by a soldier. Outbreaks were first reported in early October in both Salt Lake’s Fort Douglas and Ogden, a central railroad hub for transporting troops.

The flu spread rapidly. A soldier on leave to visit family in Ogden infected 17 people in a matter of days, including everyone in the barber shop where he’d stopped for a haircut.

As had been done elsewhere as the pandemic surged across the globe, Utah cities and towns declared themselves off-limits. It had worked elsewhere. American Samoa didn’t suffer a single death, whereas Western Samoa, which had been late to blockade contact, lost a horrifying 20 percent of its population.

Some Utah burgs were successful at hermetically sealing themselves off and escaped unscathed. However, some towns, like Tremonton and Brigham City, were especially hard-hit. Ogden pointlessly tried to shut off traffic from Salt Lake; the virus was already on the loose in Utah’s major cities.

The stories were harrowing, especially among Utah’s native populations. Marie Lehi, a Paiute Indian, later recounted that she entered a village and found only a single baby still alive.

Somewhat salaciously, The Salt Lake Tribune reported a white woman was found dead of the flu in the city’s notorious opium dens, leaving behind an infant. The police ran into a man on the scene, Chinese, who was obviously implicated in the woman’s ruin. The Tribune failed to give his story, noting only that he couldn’t speak English.

Hastily passed ordinances prohibited congregating in public and mandated the wearing of gauze masks. Schools, churches and theaters were closed. People shut themselves up in their homes, but a sniffle could result in further banishment to a sick room, quarantined from the rest of the family.

For the first time in its 88-year history, the LDS Church canceled its semiannual conference. Some weeks later, an ailing Joseph F. Smith, president of the church, would die of causes unrelated to the flu. There would be no public funeral.

Unlike ordinary flus, which tend to be deadly only to the very old or the very young, this one struck down healthy young adults. The reason for this wasn’t clear until scientists in 2005 managed to recreate the 1918 strain. They found it provokes an outsized immune response in healthy individuals. The Spanish flu incites the body’s defenses into overkill: The healthier the immune system, the more effective, and deadly, the body’s scorched-earth policy.

Utah was in the top three states when it came to the flu’s lethality. Before the disease ran its course in January 1919, 3,000 Utahns would die, which comes to about 1 in 25 who contracted the disease. The same numbers in Utah today would mean 30,000 dead.

Which is why the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta jumps every time it hears a new hack or cough it can’t account for. Understanding of flu is making tremendous progress, but the treatment remains pretty much what it was in 1918: bed rest and plenty of fluids.

Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune.