STEPPING BACK IN TIME

The Spread of a Disease – Part 2

The Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1918-19 moves to Grant County

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The flu finally descends on Silver City

The merciful women returned home to Grant County from the mining town of Mogollon, and the risks they had run soon became apparent.

Silver City recorded it first cases of the flu. By Nov. 5 there were 31 cases, but still no deaths – few days later, the first three deaths. It was the coldest fall and winter in anybody’s memory, forcing people indoors and incubating the virus. A county mandate to wear masks, not previously enforced, became common. The Hurley Red Cross sent 300 masks to Fort Bayard. The Fort Bayard Red Cross, not to be outdone, produced 1,800 masks in a few days. The wards at the Fort Bayard hospital now required masks. Nurses even wore them to bed at night. In Silver City, store clerks and others working in public places put on masks.

Silver City enforced a quarantine. Hurley banned all gatherings and closed its schools; five women teachers who had been working as nurses came down with the flu. In Santa Rita, the fancy new segregated clubhouse for Anglos, almost completed, became a hospital ward. The Silver City newspapers now routinely carried reports of flu deaths, almost entirely of Anglos and of young people.

  • Katie Tillman, 20 years old, leaving her husband and a baby three months old.
  • Ernest E. Smith, 34, a chemist for the Empire Zinc company at the Cleveland mine.
  • Lydia Donohue, 31, the wife of a pig farmer on the outskirts of town, leaving seven children, the youngest six months old.
  • Daniel Rodriguez, 16, a grocery clerk.
  • Lula A. Woods, age not given, a matron at the Ladies Hospital, leaving her husband and son. She had been nursing her neighbors and so had no medicine left for herself when she became ill.

In late November, local optimists thought they saw some encouraging signs. The virus seemed to be “practically eradicated” at Fort Bayard. Hurley citizens looked forward to attending dances and moving picture shows. The Santa Rita clubhouse was no longer needed as a hospital ward. Silver City lifted its ban on public gatherings.

But then mid-December brought a large and surprising turn for the worse in Santa Rita. Why this late reversal of recent trends?

Schoolgirls and the Spanish flu

This is just a guess; I have no proof. But this is what I think happened. John M. Sully, the man who had brought complete segregation to Grant County, was the general manager of the town and open-pit mine in Santa Rita and of the town and converter mill in Hurley.

As the absolute boss of those workplaces and company towns, he was the most powerful man in Grant County. Sully’s wife and children were prominent citizens of Santa Rita. His daughter Ruth Sully was attending the Marlborough School in Los Angeles, a posh secondary school for girls, along with her friend Helen Carrier, the daughter of a doctor at the Santa Rita hospital. In November their school closed because of a flu outbreak.

The girls, apparently carrying the virus, left their infected school and took the long train ride to Deming, then by automobile to Santa Rita. They arrived home on Nov. 21. Helen developed a mild case of the flu. It was soon the Christmas season; with many parties and hometown friends the girls had not seen for three months. One may imagine that, like many young people who are now flouting the rules of our current pandemic, they were heedless of health dangers and thought they were invulnerable.

Ruth and Helen returned to Los Angeles after about two weeks at home. Within a few days, 30 new cases of flu had descended on Santa Rita. They were caused, according to the Enterprise’s local correspondent, by too much careless visiting among households.

“The worst months are still ahead of us,” the correspondent predicted, and people needed to obey health officials.

The Santa Rita hospital was now crowded with flu patients. When a pregnant woman, Margaret Sheridan Fay, about to give birth, was admitted on the morning of Dec. 6, she was told that if she had come five minutes later, they would have had no place for her. Margaret was put in an unheated room. Most of the nurses were volunteer schoolteachers, willing but untrained in basic nursing procedures.

With all the rooms taken, flu victims were dying in the hallways. Margaret delivered a healthy baby girl. Two weeks later, her husband, Charles Fay, died of pneumonia and the flu. He was 29, the assistant superintendent of the Empire Zinc mine in Hanover. They had been married for almost two years.

The deathwatch in Grant County continues

  • James Clancy, 29, employed in the office of the Cottage Sanatorium, and known for “a ready wit and sunny disposition.”
  • L. A. Fitzpatrick, 35, owner of the Ritz Jewel Shop in Silver City, after apparently recovering from the flu; left his widow.
  • Lillian Parsons, 11, of Santa Rita, after being sick for a week; attended at the hospital by Dr. F. N. Carrier, the father of Helen Carrier, who perhaps helped bring the flu to Santa Rita.
  • Mrs. Henry Stewart, her first name and age not given, wife of a letter carrier; she had been nursing her three sick children at home and caught the flu from them.
  • Harry Bridges, 27, a deputy in the county assessor’s office, married for about a year to Sylvia Johnson, a schoolteacher.

The late outbreak in Santa Rita abated by mid-January. On Jan. 19 its two churches – Catholic church in “Mexican Town” and the Protestant Union church in white Santa Rita – held their first services in over three and a half months. A week later, both sections of town could attend the first picture show since the flu had arrived. Still the Spanish flu would not fully subside. In February it broke out again in Fierro, Hanover, and the Upper Gila River, with numerous cases and several deaths. In March a final spasm in Silver City kept many kids home from the recently re-opened schools.

How many died?

And then at last it ended, later that spring. The final reckoning of cases and deaths in Grant County is unknowable because New Mexico had no state department of health, no central agency to track and respond to the deadly epidemic’s course across the state. Making a reasonable guess about the final toll in Grant County is not simple. The two Silver City newspapers recorded about 31 flu deaths in Grant County in the six months from November through April. That statement must be vague because the papers would sometimes refer to “several” deaths, with no number given. I was conservative on this point and took “several” to mean two, though it perhaps meant more. Of those approximately 31 deaths, only five were identified as Hispanic – surely an absurd undercount of the actual toll on Chihuahua Hill and in the mines and camps of the county.

The Silver City Public Library has a card index file of local deaths in 1918 and 1919. The library is currently closed to the public, but Javier Marrufo of the library staff looked through the file for me. He transcribed the details of 64 deaths from the flu and from pneumonia during those six months. (Javier also sent me electronic files of the Enterprise; without his assistance I could not have written this article.)

Ten of the 64 deaths were soldiers who died at Fort Bayard in October; thereafter the county kept no record of deaths at the fort. Of 19 others identified as flu victims, nine were Hispanic: nine of 19, a much higher and likelier percentage than the five of 31 from the newspapers, and further evidence that the papers ignored many Hispanic deaths.

Of the 35 identified as pneumonia deaths, four were also listed in the newspapers as flu deaths. Probably many other supposed pneumonia victims actually died of the flu, but it’s impossible to say how many. So, my very rough guess is at least 50 deaths – but perhaps 60 or 70 or more – from the flu among Grant County residents. In addition, 83 people died of the flu at the Fort Bayard hospital during 1918. Thus, the total flu deaths at Fort Bayard and elsewhere in Grant County came to about 133: a fearsome toll for a small, isolated community.

Comparing the Spanish flu with our COVID-19, I am most impressed by the general respect for science and medical authorities in Grant County in 10 1918 and 1919. A well-disciplined response did not become a noisy political controversy. Without protests, citizens took responsibility and wore masks. It helped that the crisis here lasted only six months. The town and county imposed necessary measures and generally enforced them.

In the wake of the Spanish flu, the New Mexico legislature finally created a state health department. And yet 133 deaths, at least, plus all those probable Hispanic casualties that went unlisted and unmourned by the local newspapers, amounted to what is still the worst public health disaster in Grant County history.

A retired historian from Boston, Stephen Fox has lived in Silver City since 2008. For their help with the research for this article, he thanks Javier Marrufo of the Silver City Public Library, Ashley Smith of the Silver City Museum, Susan Berry and the Grant County Clerk’s office.