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Several outbreaks have struck San Diego – including one with roots here – but nothing topped 1918’s flu-borne devastation.
Wilfred Mugler, San Diego’s chipper 39-year-old harbormaster in 1918, had two loves – cats and the sea. He’d pilfered a feline from a liner visiting town from New York via the Panama Canal and named it Marlinspike after a tool used to tie marine knots. The cat, he told the San Diego Union, loved to jump on his adding machine at work. “Every time she lands,” he said, “she punches a million, which helps the tonnage totals wonderfully.”
When the influenza pandemic took Mugler’s life in October 1918, City Hall lowered its flag to half-mast. The newspaper took note of his sudden passing with an obituary that reported another flu death on the same page – that of the man who tended the rose garden at Balboa Park.
These men were in the deadly vanguard of the 1918 influenza pandemic. It would ultimately take the lives of one in every 200 San Diegans, flooding a city cemetery with bodies and spurring a bitter public debate that sounds eerily familiar. Should citizens be required to wear masks? Must businesses shut down? What price should we pay to protect ourselves from each other? San Diego, like many American cities, swerved around these questions, changing course multiple times and ignoring early warnings. Then we would endure the local effects of two more worldwide pandemics in the 20th century.
San Diego was still fairly small in 1918, with only about 70,000 residents – about half the population of Escondido today. Oakland was three times its size, and San Francisco seven times as large; we’re a lot bigger than both now. We’d still managed to punch above our weight, though, by holding the grand Panama-California Exposition from 1915-1917.
The fair, which created Balboa Park, celebrated our newfound status as a port of call for ships traveling up the West Coast from the Panama Canal. The harbormaster’s cat had made that voyage, presumably filling up on rats and fish along the way.
While inbound ships gave us a worldly flair, locals didn’t pay much attention to news of international influenza outbreaks in the spring of 1918. But the misnamed Spanish Flu – it may have sprung up in Kansas – struck San Diego in September 1918 as part of its tour of death across the planet.
First, soldiers in training for World War I at Camp Kearny got sick, and then a quarantine prevented naval trainees from leaving Balboa Park to wander around town. They couldn’t even stand around and spit, the Union reported: “The punishment is that the lad spitting on the street or the plaza must wear a cigar box swung about his neck, and this box is partially filled with sand and serves as a receptacle for the cigarette and cigar stubs of the victim’s shipmates.”
Warnings about the danger went unheeded, and the flu outbreak worsened. Residents developed ordinary flu symptoms (sore throat, fever, aches) then began to drown – as like today’s victims of coronavirus – as fluid overwhelmed their lungs. They could die in a matter of hours or days, their bodies turning blue as their oxygen levels dipped.
In October, San Diego finally decided to shut down – sort of. Schools were ordered closed, along with theaters, libraries, pool halls and churches, although saloons got to stay open in a city that was famous for its frolicking red-light district in downtown. Locals believed – perhaps a bit optimistically – that “men do not congregate in saloons in large numbers,” according to the Union.
The city even required citizens to wear masks, annoying the San Diego Union, which bemoaned not being able to see the “pretty faces” of young women, and declared that “only highwaymen, burglars, and hold-up men wear masks professionally.” (Superheroes weren’t invented yet.) The masks may have been useless, but San Diego cops stuck 40 people with $5 fines for not wearing them, and the names of the mask-averse showed up in the newspaper.
But the deaths kept coming. On Oct. 21, a headline in the San Diego Union noted that “Public Enjoys Sunday in Spite of the Influenza.” On the same page – next to ads for the Francis W. Parker School, Post Toasties cereal and a “certified lady embalmer” – were four extended obituaries, including those of the harbormaster, who was only 39, and the Balboa Park gardener, who was in his 60s. There were many more influenza deaths during the pandemic, including the son of a city councilman; an ear, nose and throat physician; and the wife of a man who became sick after going into San Diego for jury duty from Fallbrook.
For reasons that are still debated, the Spanish Flu tended to spare people who are usually most vulnerable to infectious disease – babies and the elderly – while killing those like young soldiers who were in the prime of their lives.
After a few weeks, the city reopened. Then the rich people who lived uptown started to get sick rather than the poorer ones near the waterfront. Talk of a shutdown returned, but movie theater owners angrily demanded to keep showing the era’s silent films: “The fact that the five weeks of closed amusements did not accomplish results spoke for itself,” they muttered in a statement. In other words: People didn’t quit dying, so why close doors and keep the people from the joys of watching Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Mary Pickford?
The City Council agreed with the theater owners and refused to close “public amusements,” infuriating Mayor Louis Wilde, who declared that “there is a class of people blind and indifferent to the death and sick rate, apparently unconcerned about everything else but nickel nursing and sight-seeing.” (Despite the name, “nickel nursers” don’t give take the vital signs of coins. It’s a term for penny-pinchers.)
The mayor huffed on: “If we cannot put life and health above dollars and pleasure for a few days, we had better abolish the Bible and the Constitution. I cannot see a particle of difference between the invasion of France by the heartless, lustful Huns and the invasion of our homes by some epidemic permitted by greed and politics.”
The invasion of France by “Huns” – Germans – was part of the then-ongoing World War I, which had helped spread the influenza across the globe.
In early December, a beleaguered City Council decided a shutdown would be a good idea after all and extended it widely in a way that we’re familiar with today: “The new, more inclusive quarantine only exempted businesses providing essential services from closure, such as banks, drug stores, grocery stores, meat markets, and the like,” wrote historian Richard H. Peterson in a 1989 journal article.
The Council’s quarantine law specifically shut down places of workshop (including synagogues and mosques), cardrooms, hotel lobbies, barber shops, and yes, saloons. Unlike now, restaurants could stay open and serve diners, but their staffs had to wear gauze masks. Some musicians had to wear masks too – violin players and drummers, but not trumpet and clarinet players.
By Christmas, the flu was on the wane, but hundreds continued to die in January 1919, sparking talk of quarantining San Diego from its bigger neighbor to the north. Then the Spanish Flu, at last, faded away.
Ultimately, 324 people in San Diego died of the flu – 0.5 percent, or one in every 200 residents – half of all deaths in the city during the outbreak. It killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the United States.
“When it was over,” writes medical journalist Gina Kolata, “humanity had been struck by a disease that killed more people in a few months’ time than any other illness in the history of the world.”
The best place to see the pandemic’s local legacy today is at the city-owned Mt. Hope Cemetery: Burials jumped to 101 in 1918, including the Balboa Park gardener, who lies in an unmarked grave. The following year, 1919, the number of burials at the Mt. Hope cemetery fell by half to 48 as the city returned to normal.
Three more worldwide pandemics would strike San Diego over the century after the Spanish Flu outbreak lifted in 1919. None would be as deadly, but took lives.
In 1957-1958, the Asian Flu struck the city and caused massive illness. Local high school football games were canceled because players became ill. The pandemic killed an estimated 1.1 million people worldwide and 116,000 in the United States.
The Hong Kong flu hit the planet in 1968 with a similar estimated death toll worldwide and in the United States. The “exotic virus,” as the Union called it, struck San Diegans in November and December 1968.
Hundreds of sailors aboard the Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier became ill. On land, local doctors were overwhelmed, tens of thousands of students stayed home sick, and a San Diego school board meeting was canceled because trustees became ill after attending a conference in Philadelphia. Several hospitals outlawed all visitors except immediate family.
Most recently, the H1N1 pandemic of 2009-2010 may have had American roots here. The first confirmed case of the disease in the nation was identified in a local 10-year-old boy in April 2009. An estimated 60 million people in the United States were infected, and 12,500 died. In San Diego County, the flu killed dozens and hospitalized hundreds.
The boy, the closest thing the U.S. has to a Patient Zero in the H1N1 pandemic, recovered after about a week. Now, many members of his generation – Generation Z, born roughly from 1995-2012 – are living through their second pandemic.