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Historically Speaking: The flu epidemic — we’ve been here before

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Clipping Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives Another doctor fighting the flu in Roswell. The photo's caption reads, "Dr. William E. Goodsell" — date unknown.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

I know by now everyone is getting weary of hearing the word pandemic. It is scary and yes, we are living in a time and place we have never navigated in our lifetimes, but historically, this is not that unusual. I have written about the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic a couple of years ago, but in doing research I found a bit more, which I would like to share here, just to prove that times do change in some ways, but in others they do not.

Let’s start with some Roswell Daily Record articles from the year 1918.

The first one is dated October 25, 1918

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“Notice To The Public

“Whereas the present epidemic of Spanish influenza requires rigid regulations to control and abate it.

“Therefore, be it resolved by the Board of Health of the City of Roswell.

“1. That all places of business in the City of Roswell, except drugstores, hotels and restaurants, and auto filling stations and garages, be closed during all hours of the day except from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM, except Saturdays, when they should close at 7:30 PM, and all persons are urged to stay off the streets except when attending to necessary business.

“2. Physicians must require patients with colds and running temperature, which in their opinion are incipient influenza cases, to remain at home as long as danger threatens.

“3. All persons suffering from this disease are required to remain at home for three days after they cease to run temperature.

“4. All physicians are required to report at the home of the City Physician during the morning hours for all additional cases of this disease.

“These orders to take effect Monday, October 21, 1918.

“Board of Health of the City of Roswell,

“By W.C. Buchly, secretary”

Another Roswell Daily Record article is dated October 25, 1918.

“Warning To The Public”

“All persons are hereby warned not to congregate upon the streets or in stores or other public places at any time. All people are forbidden to congregate at night upon the streets or in other places after six o’clock, and people having business to transact in stores or other places open to the public are hereby requested and directed to go into such places of business, immediately attend to the matter in hand, and at once return to their homes.

“By order of the Board of Health of the City of Roswell, this October 12, 1918.

“By W.C. Buchly, Secretary”

A proclamation was published in the Roswell Daily Record, Oct. 26, 1918 by Governor Washington Ellsworth Lindsey, who was the third governor of New Mexico after it became a state in 1912.

“A PROCLAMATION

“By The Governor Of The State Of New Mexico

“Notwithstanding the continued publication of precautionary advices touching the control of the epidemic of Spanish Influenza in the State of New Mexico, it is apparent daily increase, warrants the exercise of utmost diligence on the part of all our people in the observance of rules and regulations promulgated by competent health authorities designed to curb it’s progress.

“In the absence of an organized system for compulsory health conditions reports in the State, reliance as to such conditions must be had upon the news columns of the public press and other less effective media. The volume of information thus accumulated relative to the epidemic intensity, universal spread and high percentage of fatality of this disease should alarm every citizen to combative repressive action.

“While several municipalities in the State have published and are enforcing repressive regulations very effectively, not state wide suggestion has yet gone forth.

“NOW THEREFORE, I, W.E. LINDSEY, GOVERNOR OF THE STATE OF NEW MEXICO, in the interest of the public health welfare and the war work of the people of this state do urgently request the discontinuance of all pending court sessions in the State; the adjournment of the public schools, the isolation or quarantine of all collegiate Institutions; penal and charitable institutions; the discontinuance of all church and other public assembly; the avoidance of unnecessary burial attendance and services; the prevention of the group assemblage of children in homes.

“I further urgently request that all the people give strict observance to instructions relative to prevention of infection and the proper care and treatment of those attacked.

“I respectfully but urgently call upon on the police authorities of the state to actively aid in the enforcement of all health laws and regulations and to urge the observance of the requests enumerated in this proclamation as well as the observance of all other proper and necessary precautionary and remedial measures.

“IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Great Seal of the State of New Mexico to be affixed. I one at the City of Santa Fe, this the 17th day of October, 1918 A.D., 1918.

“W.E.LINDSEY,

ATTESTED: Antonio Lucero”

Following is a segment Dr. Elvis Fleming wrote on the epidemic:

“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.’

“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 patients 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.

A local doctor who was also mayor of Roswell at the time also succumbed to this flu. A note from his obituary dated October 14, 1918 reads as follows:

“‘Dr. C.F. Montgomery, the mayor of the city and also one of Roswell’s finest types of manhood passed away today. In his passing the city and the state loses one of it’s most capable and conscientious workers as well as a perfect gentleman.’

“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 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.

“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.’”

Following is a remedy of the day, I thought it would be fun to include. Don’t try this at home:

“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.”

Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.