Poorly prepared New Mexico suffered greatly in 1918 pandemic

Spanish Flu Epidemic 1918-19. U.S. school gymnasium converted into an flu ward with patients' beds are separated by screens and masked health workers. An estimated 25% of the US population contracted the flu and over 500,000 died.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — “Keep away from the sick,” the newspaper advised, “avoid crowds, wash your hands frequently, cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.”

Sound measures for combating the coronavirus pandemic confronting us now. But those instructions appeared in the Oct. 24, 1918, edition of the Raton Range as part of that paper’s “Ten Commandments for the Control of Influenza.”

By that date, the dreaded Spanish flu was stampeding through New Mexico, and officials, slow to react to the threat, were desperately trying to turn it back.

“They closed down schools, churches, banks, everything. Just like now,” said Richard Melzer, who, until his recent retirement, had been a professor of history at University of New Mexico-Valencia campus for 40 years. “Taos required people to wear surgical masks.”

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This disease, however, was difficult to slow down, impossible, it seemed, to stop. By the time it had run its course in 1920, the Spanish flu had killed an estimated 17 million to 50 million, maybe even 100 million around the world.

It took the lives of 195,000 Americans in October 1918 alone, and by 1920, 675,000 people had died in the United States. Deaths attributed to the flu in New Mexico range from 1,000 to 5,000.

“The demand was so great they ran out of coffins in some places,” Melzer said.

That was then. Now, New Mexico has the infrastructure and the information to deal swiftly and aggressively with scourges such as the Spanish flu and COVID-19.

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Near the end of August 1918, two sailors on a Boston pier were reported ill with flu-like symptoms.

The next day, eight cases were reported, and the third day the count had climbed to 58.

By Sept. 8, the disease had galloped 40 miles to Camp Devens, Massachusetts, a military training installation, and two weeks after that, there were 10,500 cases in the camp and men were dying at an average of 100 a day.

The Spanish flu was a virus so vicious its like had never been seen before or since. Unlike most flus, which prey particularly on the very old and the very young, the Spanish flu savaged young adults as well. It killed fast and ugly.

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Victims developed mahogany spots on their cheeks within hours of contracting the disease, then their faces turned blue or purple from lack of oxygen in their blood, they bled from their ears and noses and finally suffocated, choking to death on their own blood and mucous.

But the terror that ravaged unchecked back east failed to penetrate to the heart of New Mexico, a state for just six years in 1918 and a mecca for people seeking a cure for tuberculosis in its sunny days, dry climate and clean air.

There was little chance, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported on Sept. 28, 1918, that the “epidemical malady” would inflict itself on the Southwest, because the region was so far from those eastern ports and the Southwest atmosphere so “salubrious.”

“We didn’t think we were going to get this thing,” said Nancy Owen Lewis, scholar in residence at Santa Fe’s School for Advanced Research. “We were unprepared. We had 70 tuberculosis sanitariums geared for out-of-staters, but very few hospitals to treat local people. We were the only state of the 48 that did not have a public health department.”

The disease had reached New Mexico even before the New Mexican issue dismissing its danger hit the streets. On Sept. 20, a soldier just arrived from the East Coast died of the illness at Fort Bayard in Grant County. A week later, the virus killed a 17-year-old boy in Deming.

Even then, the Albuquerque Journal advised on Oct. 8 that the biggest peril was panic. Labeling the disease nothing more or less than the grippe, the Journal warned its readers not to allow themselves to be frightened into their coffins.

Three days later, the virus claimed the life of its first Santa Fe victim, the wife of a dentist.

“By Oct. 28, there were 821 cases in Albuquerque and 98 deaths statewide,” said Lewis, author of “Chasing the Cure in New Mexico: Tuberculosis and the Quest for Health.” “The flu sweeps through the U.S. (tuberculosis) sanitarium at Fort Stanton. There were 149 cases of the flu among the 300 TB patients and 18% deaths.”

It probably didn’t start in Spain. It got tagged the Spanish flu because the press in that neutral country freely reported the disease’s progress while wartime censors, seeking to protect morale as much as possible, suppressed news of the flu in countries — including Germany, Great Britain, France and the United States — fighting in World War I.

As a result, the public perception was that the flu had hit Spain harder than other parts of the world.

It may have started at a British army base in France, in northern China or at Camp Funston, a U.S. Army training center on Fort Riley, southwest of Manhattan, Kansas.

Early in March 1918, a Camp Funston mess cook complained of flu-like symptoms, and five weeks later, 1,000 of the camp’s soldiers had been infected and 47 were dead.

“There were 29,000 soldiers and 10,000 mules and horses at Camp Funston,” said David Holtby, retired associate director and editor in chief of the University of New Mexico Press and author of “Lest We Forget: World War I and New Mexico.”

Holtby said that instead of shipping away the animals’ manure as other military installations did, Camp Funston burned it, creating what he suspects are the kind of noxious conditions ripe for viruses.

The Camp Funston outbreak subsided in the summer months, but the flu resurfaced with a vengeance on that Boston pier in August.

Massive movements of personnel across America, into Europe and back to the United States during World War I no doubt played a significant role in the spread of Spanish flu.

Holtby said 30,000 members of the military died of the flu at training and embarkation centers in the United States. In “Lest We Forget,” he notes that 128 soldiers, including nine New Mexicans, died at Camp Cody, a National Guard training center northwest of Deming, in the six weeks leading up to the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918.

The war played a part in the epidemic in other ways as well, especially in New Mexico.

“We were a poor state,” said Melzer, whose article, “A Dark and Terrible Moment: The Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918,” appeared in the New Mexico Historical Review in 1982. “We were dealing with the wounded and those with other problems coming back from the war. We had few doctors and nurses and those were depleted by the war.”

Holtby said that one flu victim was taken to a veterinarian in Tucumcari because no medical doctors were available.

“Prior to the war, Tucumcari had several doctors,” he said.

But Holtby said the war also generated some positive factors in the battle against the flu.

“People in 1918 had been conditioned by two years of forced compliance due to the war,” he said. “You eat meat just three times a week. So they were (receptive) to decrees – the closures, wearing masks in grocery stores – that were in effect throughout New Mexico by the middle of October because of the flu.”

Even though most people were willing to do their part to beat back the flu epidemic, some New Mexico citizens felt a little added encouragement was needed.

“There was vigilante activity, greeting committees with Winchesters who met the trains,” Holtby said during a phone interview from his Albuquerque home. “If you came from a community that was infected, you didn’t get off.”

Melzer said that in Belen, the town in which he makes his home, only people who were from Belen were allowed to leave trains during the height of the flu epidemic.

“As if people from Belen could not be infected themselves,” he said.

In fact, Melzer said about half of Belen’s population had the flu.

Albuquerque, however, a railroad town like Belen but much larger, suffered relatively few infections and deaths considering its size and density.

“Albuquerque, because of the actions it took, was more successful in fighting off the flu,” said Rick Hendricks, former state historian for New Mexico and now the state’s records administrator. “Albuquerque put notices on the doors of people who were ill and banned gatherings. Dawson, the mining camp (in Colfax County), had a much higher mortality rate.”

And that’s the way it was. Some locations in the state fared better than others.

In his New Mexico Historical Review article, Melzer writes that Albuquerque, Tucumcari and Raton were among the more fortunate places, while Gallup, Belen, Socorro, San Pedro in Santa Fe County and Baldy in Colfax County got slammed. According to Melzer, all 200 of Baldy’s residents were ill.

He told the Journal there was just one death per thousand people in Raton, compared to 13 deaths per thousand in Dawson, where Mexican nationals had been brought in to work the coal mines.

Unfortunately, the flu had run wild in northern Mexico, where an estimated half million people had died of flu or pneumonia and many were infected.

“Possibly the death toll would not have been so great in the isolated coal camp if germ carriers had not been haphazardly recruited from flu infected regions,” Melzer wrote in his Historical Review article.

New Mexico’s American Indian population was also pummeled by the Spanish flu.

“The death rate at San Ildefonso was unbelievable,” Hendricks said.

In an article that appeared recently in El Palacio, the magazine of the Museum of New Mexico, Hendricks writes that only 85 of the 140 residents at San Ildefonso Pueblo survived the epidemic.

In a phone interview from Santa Fe, he told the Journal those figures are based on census reports, because just one death was officially recorded at the pueblo between 1918 and 1920.

“Those are not ironclad figures, but what appears to have been happening is that people were dying at such a rate that no one was going into the pueblo,” he said. “(Catholic) priests were not going in for funerals, no deaths were recorded.”

Kim Martinez, a retired high school teacher living in Santa Fe, said the Pueblo of Pojoaque lost so many people to the flu that it had to search for people with Pojoaque blood just to continue to exist.

Martinez’s thesis, written for a master’s degree in history from Colorado’s Adams State University, is titled “Their Harrowing Experience: A Social History of the Spanish Influenza in New Mexico, 1918-1919.”

“What I was looking at was how people react (to the epidemic) when they had no direction from the outside,” she said during a phone interview.

What she discovered was that people responded to the disease in traditional, but ineffective, ways.

Navajos burned the hogans of people who had died, forcing survivors into the hogans of others. Navajos sought cures in sweat lodges, a particularly hazardous thing to do when faced with a respiratory disease such as the flu.

Pueblo medicine men filled the rooms of the sick with smoke, and Hispanic villagers crowded around the dying, saying the rosary and praying novenas.

Martinez said the Spanish flu may have killed 5% of the Navajo population. But how many people was that? No one knows for sure.

The flu may have taken the lives of 1,000 people in New Mexico, maybe 5,000, maybe more. There was no organized method of keeping track.

“Gov. (Washington) Lindsey was collecting, as best he could, numbers from the counties, but it was not scientific,” Hendricks said.

The epidemic in New Mexico waned in November and December of 1918. On Dec. 2 of that year, Albuquerque lifted its quarantine measures.

In “High and Dry in New Mexico: Tuberculosis and the Politics of Health,” a 2012 article that appeared in the New Mexico Historical Review,” Nancy Lewis writes about a 1914 assessment of public health commissioned by the American Medical Association.

According to Lewis, Charles V. Chapin, superintendent of health in Providence, Rhode Island, gave New Mexico a grade of zero out of a possible thousand points.

In a subsequent survey conducted in the flu year of 1918, Dr. John W. Kerr of the U.S. Public Health Service urged New Mexico to create a state department of health.

Embarrassed by the Chapin report and sobered by the horrors of the flu epidemic, the state Legislature did just that on March 15, 1919.

More than 100 years after the flu epidemic, New Mexico has an organization equipped to take on the coronavirus that plagues us now.

“Because we now have a statewide organization, when this (pandemic) has passed, we will have learned a great deal about what to do the next time it happens,” Hendricks said.

Lewis said we were better prepared this time.

“Thank God, we have a public health department,” she said. “Thank God we started doing social distancing before we had many cases. We have come a long way since 1919.”