Sunday, Oct. 13, 1918: Flu outbreak closes churches, schools, theaters

Posted on November 6th, 2005 – 6:45 PM
By Ben Welter

Carried around the globe by massive troop movements at the end of World War I, “Spanish influenza” infected nearly half the world’s population and killed more than 20 million people. In October 1918, word of the flu’s growing presence in Minnesota began appearing on the front page of the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, below the news from the battlefields of Europe:

“Influenza Spread Held Slight Here” — Oct. 2
“Epidemic in City Shows Slight Gain” — Oct. 3
“Influenza Halts ‘U’ Opening …” — Oct. 5
“8 Deaths From Influenza Here” — Oct. 8
“Influenza Gains Slowly in City” — Oct. 10
“Doctors Propose Drastic Lid Be Clamped on City” — Oct. 11

By Oct. 12, hundreds of new cases and a dozen or so deaths were being reported in Minneapolis each day. The city’s health commissioner ordered all churches, schools, dance halls and theaters closed, beginning Sunday, Oct. 13.

In the end, the flu killed 650,000 Americans, more than 10,000 in Minnesota. And as if war and pestilence weren’t enough for Minnesotans to bear, fires smoldering near Bemidji and Brainerd were about to explode and race east, making October perhaps the ugliest month in state history.

Influenza Lid
Clamped Tight
All Over City

No Church Services to
Be Held Today,
Decision

Schools Will Remain
Closed, Also Places
of Amusement

The influenza lid went on in Minneapolis at midnight last night.

The basic tools of reporting haven’t changed much since this Minneapolis Journal reporter was photographed in 1918: telephone, pen, notebook.

Not a single service will be held in any Minneapolis church today. The schools will not open tomorrow morning. Theaters, dance halls, pool halls and other meeting places closed at midnight to remain closed until the health department revokes its order, made as an emergency measure to stop the spread of Spanish influenza.

Downtown theaters were packed last night with patrons who took advantage of their last chance to see a performance until the ban is lifted. Long lines of men and women waited in front of the motion picture and vaudeville theaters during the early hours of the evening.

Churches to Close.

Pastors last night said the health department’s order closing the churches would be obeyed to the letter. No mass will be said in the Catholic churches today. Many of the Protestant congregations will spend the hour usually devoted to church services at home in thanksgiving worship for the recent Allied victories.

Four hundred and twelve new cases of influenza were reported to the health department yesterday. The number is incomplete, Dr. Guilford, city health commissioner, said last night, because many physicians do not report their Saturday afternoon cases until Monday. Four deaths occurred yesterday. Idol Olson of New Rockford, N.D.; Alfred Griswold, St. James hotel, and Ernest Whefsel, 1500 Stevens avenue, died at the City hospital. Private Clinton Rice of Columbia, Mo., a member of the Twenty-ninth battalion, United States guards, stationed at Fort Snelling, died at the fort yesterday afternoon.

Fort Snelling mess hall
Soldiers shared a meal at Fort Snelling’s mess hall in this photo taken about 1918. In October 1918, Minneapolis health officials advised against gatherings in enclosed spaces such as this, where the contagion could easily move from person to person. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)

Twelve civilians suffering with influenza were admitted to the City hospital yesterday. Twelve nurses at the hospital were taken ill with the epidemic and were quarantined. The university hospital is to be used only for influenza cases, civilians included, according to action taken by the board of regents yesterday. Sixteen new cases were admitted to the military hospital at Fort Snelling where the total now is 390. Seventy men were released. One new case was reported in the Dunwoody naval training detachment yesterday, Lieut. Colby Dodge said last night.

“U” Opening Postponed.

Pierce Butler

The board of regents of the University yesterday again postponed the opening of the university to civilian students, save to those in the colleges of medicine, dentistry and pharmacy, provided they live under regulations imposed by the health service. A committee, consisting of Pierce Butler, president of the board of regents, President Burton and Dr. J.C. Sundwall, director of the university health service, was appointed and given authority to decide when the university will be opened to civilian students. Their decision will depend upon the abatement of the epidemic. The university high school has been closed until further notice.

While expressing surprise that the schools were included in the health department’s influenza closing order, the board of education yesterday formally approved the order and directed that the schools be closed indefinitely.

Health officials pointed out last night that the order has only to do with places of public assemblage and has no bearing on business houses, as it is not felt there is the same likelihood of infection in commercial institutions.

Dr. Richard O. Beard, assistant dean of the university medical school, in approving last night the preventative measures of the health department, emphasized one factor which he felt Dr. Guilford had not emphasized strongly enough – that of fresh air.

Fort Snelling nurses, 1918
Fort Snelling’s nurse corps lined up for this group shot, taken about 1918. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)

Fresh Air Antidote.

“The micro-organisms of disease,” Dr. Beard said, “distributed by mouth or nose-spray from the air passages of one person to those of another, are diluted and their dose is, as it were, diminished by an abundance of fresh air. The crowd in the street car, the school, the church or the theater, is a menace because infected individuals concentrate in a limited air space the germs of the disease.

“Let the people learn these large lessons of prevention: Work in a cool, constantly ventilated department. Walk rather ran ride. Ride, if you must, in an open air conveyance. Button up wraps and overcoats and open wide the windows of the street car however cold it may be. Sleep as nearly as possible out of doors. Under these precautions, the chances of influenza infection will be materially lessened.”

Fifty vaudeville actors, who will arrive in Minneapolis today for a week’s run in local theaters, are due for an unsolicited vacation. All actors booked to play at the Orpheum, Grand and Pantages theaters have been ordered to come to Minneapolis regardless of the order and to remain here until the ban is lifted, when they will begin playing at their respective theaters. The Metropolitan, Gayety and Palace theaters will not be affected in this respect, as their acts come here from St. Paul. St. Paul managers will be responsible for booking the acts that were to have appeared here this week.

J.L. Murphy, grand knight of the Hennepin-Minneapolis council, Knights of Columbus, has called off a meeting to have been held at the club house tonight in observance of Columbus Day and the regular council meeting tomorrow night.

Arcadia Palace
Dance halls such as the Arcadia Palace on Fifth Street were ordered closed until further notice in Minneapolis. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)

Red Cross Meeting Off.

The annual meeting of the Minneapolis chapter of the Red Cross, to have been held on October 23, has been postponed indefinitely because of the epidemic. Dr. T.S. Roberts has replaced Dr. Arthur C. Strachauer as chairman of the influenza committee of the Minneapolis chapter. The committee now consists of Dr. Roberts, Miss Minnie Paterson, Mrs. E.L. Carpenter, Paul Benjamin and C.P. Crangle.

The Minneapolis Athletic club last night canceled its boxing program, its scheduled dancing and all preparations for a Halloween party.

The police were ordered yesterday to prohibit crowds from gathering in the saloons. No loitering will be permitted.

Mail carriers will co-operate with the health organizations in stopping the spread of influenza, the Anti-tuberculosis committee announced yesterday. The carriers will distribute special literature at every house and office at which they leave mail tomorrow. Boy Scouts are being mobilized and will be put into action tomorrow distributing placards and literature to all stores, offices and factories in the downtown district.

Less than 30 new cases were reported in St. Paul yesterday. There were no deaths.

Fort Snelling hospital
The outbreak of Spanish flu hit soldiers stationed at Fort Snelling before spreading to civilians. This photo, taken about 1918, shows a surgical ward at the base hospital. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)

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