Although filled with hope and promise, New Year’s Day a hundred years ago more than suggests that the world is no better off today than it was in 1919.
Today we have unsettled politics, American troops fighting in faraway places, controversial drug laws, medical care issues, and immigration conflicts while — well, just like they did back then.
In 1919, on what is normally the cheeriest day of the year, the dust was barely settling from Armistice Day, a month and a half earlier. Soldiers from Utah were trickling home, scarred and broken from a global conflict that, according to some sources, claimed an estimated 16 million lives.
It was the worst war the world had ever known — to that point, anyway. Armistice Day set the stage for what would be the world’s worst war (again, to that point) 20 years later, killing about 85 million or roughly 3 percent of the earth’s population.
Health was also a major concern then — as it is now. Although winding down, the effects of the Spanish flu epidemic still raged in places. In 1919, nurses in Salt Lake City were in short supply and drawing unprecedented wages. The flu claimed 50 million to 100 million lives.
Speaking of hope for change, Salt Lake City’s first arrest of 1919 was made when police Capt. Henry Taggart and Patrolman Walter Griffin snatched up “on the hip man” J. Rust at the Hub Hotel.
Rust was in effect a walking bar, selling shots on the sly from a glass and two pints of whiskey concealed in an apparatus on his hip. It would be another 14 new years before Utah became the deciding vote to repeal Prohibition. Take note, Prop 2 opponents.
A hundred years ago, prisoners at the state penitentiary in Sugar House, including life termers, banged metal objects against the bars of their cells in celebration of another year in overcrowded confinement.
In 1919, as it does today, public idiocy contributed to the rising cost of public safety. On New Year’s Day 1919, the entire Salt Lake City Fire Department responded to its first call of the year, which turned out to be a false alarm triggered by a drunk who believed the light dancing on the outside of the glass windows of Longfellow School were actually flames inside the school.
Forgiveness was in equally short supply back then. The headline of the Salt Lake Telegram’s sports section on Jan. 1, 1919: “A Happy New Year to the Whole Bloomin’ World — Except the Huns.” Today, we have the benevolent nature of social media.
All I’m saying is that humanity has always celebrated another year in a horrible world. We can make some things better — usually by making other things worse — but we can’t change the nature of the world.
Today, we have a controversial president who some believe is controlled by outside influences (namely Russia). Lots of people hope 2019 will spell disaster for President Donald Trump.
In 1919, we had a somewhat similar situation. President Woodrow Wilson (on his second marriage) had gotten us into World War I. This and other decisions made him a lot of enemies who wished him ill. They got their wish. In October 1919, he had a stroke.
Many believe that Wilson’s second wife, who refused to allow outsiders to bother the stricken president with running the nation, took it upon herself to “relay” the president’s desires to his Cabinet. Historians believe that she was essentially the president until her husband’s term ended. How’s that for outside influence?
We’ll always inherit a messy, awful world. On New Year’s Day, the best we can hope for is to change ourselves and make our immediate surroundings better for those we love.