Spanish Influenza Epidemic: Week 1

In our collections, we have a minute book from the Silver Bow County Board of Health dating from 1903 to 1923. Prior to 1918, the minutes are sporadic—some meetings were held monthly and at other times the Board of Health might not meet for 6 months.

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Butte Miner, October 10, 1918

However, beginning October 9, 1918, there is an abrupt shift in the meeting minutes where the Board of Health was meeting on a daily basis. The reason for this? The outbreak of Spanish Influenza across the Nation.

In 1918, the first cases of pneumonia in Butte were attributed to normal respiratory issues, however, by October 9, 1918, the County Board of Health in Butte had declared a state of emergency regarding the outbreak of influenza.

Over the course of the next 9 months, nearly 1,000 Butte lives would be lost to Spanish Influenza. Using the County Board of Health minutes in the coming weeks, we will remember the devastation that occurred in our City 100 years ago and examine the rules and regulations put in place to try and combat the illness.

Week 1
October 9 – October 12, 1918

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Butte Miner, October 11, 1918
Butte Miner, October 9, 1918

Wednesday, October 9, 1918

The first order of business is in regard to regulations established by the State of Montana Department of Public Health to try and combat the spread of Spanish Influenza. The regulations are as follows:

  1. Spanish influenza is hereby declared to be infectious, contagious, and communicable and dangerous to public health.
  2. All patients suffering from influenza must be reported to the local or county health officer as soon as the diagnosis is made. Local and county health officers shall make a written statement to the State Health Department Saturday night of each week of cases reported to them during the week. They shall report by wire any unusual outbreak of the disease.
  3. When Spanish influenza appears in epidemic form in any community the health officer having jurisdiction shall close the schools and prohibit all public gatherings.
  4. Patients suffering from Spanish influenza shall be isolated as completely as possible until recovery. They shall be prohibited from any public gatherings and from traveling on any common carrier.
  5. When treated in hospital ward patients suffering from Spanish influenza should be screened from other patients.
  6. All discharges from the nose and mouth of patients should be disinfected at once.
  7. On recovery or death, room or rooms in which the patient lived while sick must be thoroughly cleaned and clothing and bedding used by the patient must be hung in the open air for at least two hours.

    Butte Miner, October 10, 1918

In response to these regulations and the fact the Board felt that an epidemic of Spanish Influenza throughout the city was imminent, the Board made the following order:

All schools, churches, theaters, moving picture shows, dance halls, parades, cabarets, and public dances will be closed to the public, and bargain and bargain sales in stores and all public gatherings will be prohibited, until further notice, on and after 12 o’clock midnight, the 10th day of October, 1918.

Friday, October 11, 1918

As of October 11, 1918, 50 cases of influenza had been reported to the City Health Office, not including an additional 21 cases reported just before the Friday meeting.

Not only was the Board of Health in attendance at this meeting, but also representatives from the school board, the Ministerial Association, the City Health Department, and the parochial schools. While all of these representatives agreed Spanish Influenza had reached epidemic proportions and all agreed to assist the Board to prevent the spread of the flu, there were concerns about the order made on October 9, closing all public places, specifically the schools.

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Butte Miner, October 12, 1918

Dr. Maginn, President of the School Board, stated, “in his opinion, it would be much better for the health of the community if children were allowed to attend school for the reason that sanitary conditions were much better in the schools than on the streets and in the dirty alleys.” Father McCormick and Father Leonard of the parochial schools also agreed with Dr. Maginn that children were safer in schools than on the streets.

Reverend C.F. Chapman of the Ministerial Association insisted “that the saloons should be closed as well as other business places. The schools and churches closed and in his opinion, and opinion of the Ministerial Association, the saloons should be closed. He stated that he addressed the board, not as a minister only, but as an American citizen. And on his rights as such, to ask equal rights to all, and special privileges to none.”

With the arguments against closing the schools heard, the Board adjourned for a few hours to discuss the matter. At 2 p.m. the Board reconvened and concluded for the best interest of the citizens and residents of Silver Bow County, that the order made by the board on the 9th day of October 1918, would remain in full force and effect until further notice.

The Board made an order to instruct the sheriff to use all means at his command to enforce the laws and to close all public places and public gatherings.

Saturday, October 12, 1918

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Butte Miner, October 13, 1918

As of October 12, 80 cases of influenza had been officially reported, but it was believed that double that number existed in the city at the time. One death had been reported with the cause as Spanish Influenza, but there had been numerous deaths up to this point with the cause listed as pneumonia.

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Butte Miner, October 13, 1918

Due to the severity of the outbreak, the Board even banned large funerals at funeral homes as well as gatherings within the home or church. These actions were to be met with the disapproval of the board and would be considered a violation of the health law.

Other public meetings were discussed including a meeting scheduled for the Red Cross Society to be held at the High School. Because the Society was deemed as engaging in war work, it was essential and necessary that the Society be permitted to carry on their work and a permit was issued by the Board. A Rotary Club banquet and a football game to be held at the Columbia Gardens were both denied permits.

The_Butte_Miner_Sun__Oct_13__1918_ (7)The_Butte_Miner_Sun__Oct_13__1918_ (5)The regulations put in place by the Board of Health also had a huge impact on local businesses. In an October 10, 1918, newspaper article it is said Butte’s theatres “signified their co-operation with the order of the county health authorities to close their houses during the epidemic…” However, the theatre managers also stated the closure was a huge loss to their businesses, of which none could afford. Other businesses such as drug stores and paint companies took advantage of the epidemic to sell their products to the public. Newbro Drug Company placed an advertisement in the Butte Miner promoting their “One Night Cold Cure Tablets” and “Newbro’s Pneumonia Remedy,” both claiming to relieve the flu. Riddell’s Paint Specialists placed an ad for their “High Standard Liquid Paint” claiming “germs will not live where the rooms are bright and the surface well painted.”

In this first week of the flu outbreak, there are rapid changes regarding how people can congregate in the streets and public spaces, such as schools and churches. There were arguments about what was safer for the children–to stay in school, or as Dr. Maginn put it, “in the streets and dirty alleys of Butte.” The closure of schools will not be the only controversial closure–later we will see the pushback to closing Butte’s saloons and bars.

Look forward to next week’s post!


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