Home News Vision The global flu epidemic of 1918-19 and how it affected Roswell

The global flu epidemic of 1918-19 and how it affected Roswell


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With the current virulent strain of flu going around this year, I thought it would be interesting to share an article about Roswell and the flu epidemic of 1918-19. First published in the Roswell Daily Record on April 7, 2000, the article was researched and written by local historian Elvis Fleming.

The flu epidemic of 1918-19

The annual flu season always seems to elicit discussions about the worldwide flu epidemic of 1918-19, in which deaths attributed to the disease are estimated at some 20 million.

More than 500,000 Americans died during the epidemic, which is more than the deaths in both world wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. The flu was no respecter of people. No matter what one’s station in life, place of residence, or any other factor, no one was assured of eluding the dreaded disease.

More than 1,000 New Mexicans perished in the flu epidemic, according to an article in the Valencia County News-Bulletin published on Nov. 25, 1998, by Richard Melzer and Oswald Baca. The writers observed, “Much of the epidemic remains a mystery to this very day. Not even its name, The Spanish Flu, is understood because the epidemic did not originate in Spain or any other Spanish community. Evidence points to its origin in March 1918 at an Army camp in Fort Riley, Kansas, from which it spread in two terrible waves around the world.”

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Some people felt sure the epidemic was caused by germ warfare launched by the Germans during the final stages of World War I, according to Melzer and Baca. The leading evangelist of the times, Billy Sunday, proclaimed that the epidemic was the wrath of God against a sinful generation.

Vital statistics for the city of Roswell show that 92 people died of influenza, influenza pneumonia and pneumonia between Oct. 12, 1918, and March 10, 1919. The deaths were spread out over the six-month period, with 52 coming in October, 15 in November, 16 in December, seven in January and only one each in February and March. These numbers show, as Professor Melzer puts it, that “… the epidemic hit with incredible force in the last days of the First World War, showing no mercy to a world already ravaged by four years of violence and death.”

Most of the Roswell deaths took place at home, but 36 percent of them were at St. Mary’s Hospital. Eight patients of Dr. C.M. Yater died at his sanitarium at 310 North Richardson Ave. Yater’s ad in the city directory stated: “Medical and Surgical; special facilities for the care of confinement cases, including a perfectly equipped confinement room. All on the ground floor.”

Strangely, the ad also claims, “No contagious diseases admitted.”

Thirteen other doctors also lost patients, the largest number being the 21 patients of Dr. W.C. Buchley. Dr. J.B. Keister lost 12; Dr. Eugene M. Fisher lost 10; and Dr. W.W. Phillips and Dr. Yater lost eight each. Dr. W.E. Goodsell and Dr. J.E. Crawford each had seven patient deaths; while Dr. David H. Galloway lost six; Dr. C.T. McClane lost four; Dr. W.T. Joyner lost three; and Dr. J.J. Walker lost two. Dr. C.L. Parsons, Dr. Charles F. Beeson and city physician and health officer Dr. R.L. Bradley each lost one patient.

The demographics of the victims show that 54 percent were male, two thirds were Anglo and one third were Mexican. No other ethnic groups are listed. None of the victims were more than 70 years old, and only five were between 57 and 70. All the others were under 50. Most of them were in their late 20s and early 30s. The age categories were as follows: 36-50, 11 deaths; 16-25, 17 deaths; 6-15, 10 deaths; 0-6, 11 deaths. Eight of those under six were infants. (Totals do not add up to 92 deaths because some of the information is not available on some of the victims.)

The place of birth of the victims, if known, shows that 16 were from Texas, 10 were native New Mexicans, five were from Alabama and two were from Missouri. Eight other states, mostly in the Midwest, were listed once, as were three other countries.

The occupations most frequently listed for the victims were housewife, 10; rancher, five; farmer, two; bookkeeper, two; New Mexico Military Institute cadets, five; and other students, two. Several other occupations were listed once, including a doctor and a teacher.

In an interview in February 1975, Colonel E.L. Lusk, one-time high school principal at New Mexico Military Institute, remembered that the commandant, Captain H.P. Saunders Jr., “took it” first. Lusk came down with it about three days later and was sick for a week. The hospital was full, so many of the cadets who were ill with the flu could not be admitted.

Some of the faculty took cadets into their homes to nurse them back to health. About the time Lusk got over his affliction, Capt. R.G. Breland, the English instructor, “took it.” Lusk brought Breland to his house where Mrs. Lusk attended him for about a week. Then Mrs. Lusk “took down” with it herself.

Sixty four of the influenza victims were buried in South Park Cemetery, while the rest were taken “back home” for burial. Local arrangements for 64 of the victims were handled by Clark D. Dilley, and Muller and Dabbs Co. took care of the rest. Interestingly, both of the funeral operators were also in the furniture business — a common practice left over from frontier days.

Thus, World War I ended in Roswell and the United States.

To paraphrase Melzer and Baca: “The epidemic took the lives of innocent people who lived thousands of miles from any battlefield of the war, but they had no protection from an enemy so minuscule that they could not see it — even with the most powerful microscope of the time.”

Cough medicine

The following is a recipe for cough medicine that will give relief when all others fail; 1/2 pint flax seed, two quarts water, juice of six lemons, one pound honey, 1/2 pound sugar, 1/2 pint good whiskey. Boil the water and the flaxseed together for a few minutes, strain and add lemon juice, honey and sugar. Boil this mixture a few minutes until well mixed. When it is cool add the whiskey, which is to preserve it. Half of this recipe makes two large bottles full.

Old time cures — hints in regard to health

It is plainly seen by an inquiring mind that, aside from the preparation of food, there are little things rising in the experience of every day life which are powerful agents in the formation of perfect health. A careful observance of these little occurrences lies within the province of every housekeeper. One should be cautious entering a sick room in the state of perspiration, as the moment you become cool your pores absorb.

Do not approach contagious diseases with an empty stomach, nor sit between the sick and the fire, because the heat attracts the sick vapor.

Sure cure for roup (characterized by mucous discharge from the eyes and nasal passages)

1 tablespoon full of lard, 1 teaspoon of coal oil, 10 drops of carbolic acid; melt lard; put all in a sewing machine oil can. In cold weather warm before using, insert in nostril, squirt a few drops in each nostril. Will cure any case.

Sure cure for pneumonia

This simple remedy was discovered 20 years ago and can be had at any drugstore for 30 cents.

The remedy is: saturate a ball of cotton 1 inch in diameter with spirits of grain alcohol, add three drops of chloroform to each ball of cotton, place it between the patient’s teeth (after first using Vaseline on the gums to prevent burning) and let the patient inhale the fumes and long deep breath for 15 minutes or more, inhale again and repeat the above for 20 times.

Change the cotton every seven minutes, else the saliva will dilute the alcohol.

The result is that the lungs will relax and expand to their normal condition. In 24 hours the patient is out of danger, in 48 hours the patient is cured, although weak.

Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or by email at jdunna@hotmail.com.