“I HAD A little bird, and its name was Enza. I opened the window and in-flew-Enza.”
In the fall of 1918, this was not just a well-known nursery rhyme. The worldwide influenza pandemic was quite real — and lethal.
It blew into Washington state on a perfect storm. Percolating in the wet, filthy trenches of World War I, this mutated H1N1 strain infected weary soldiers, and in the war’s waning months, it circled the globe. At U.S. military bases, deaths from pneumonia multiplied, alarmingly within days, even hours, of the onset of symptoms. Unlike past flus, the most vulnerable were young and healthy.
In mid-September, Camp (now Fort) Lewis and Bremerton’s naval facilities reported their first cases of flu. So, on Oct. 5, Seattle’s mayor, Ole Hanson, and commissioner of health, Dr. J.S. McBride, ordered the immediate closure of schools, churches, theaters, dance halls and “every place of indoor public assemblage … to check the spread of disease.”
Frank Cooper, school superintendent, pronounced the closures “hysterical” and “senseless,” while children applauded the unexpected vacation. Outside City Hall, a young boy demanded of Hanson, “Are you the guy that closed the schools?” Hanson admitted that he was. “Well,” said the lad, “I’m for you!”
To many, the closures seemed draconian. Deprived of entertainment, recreation and indoor religion (although St. James Cathedral and First Presbyterian Church held open-air services throughout rainy October), Seattleites derided the closures. “An awful day for husbands and wives,” the Post-Intelligencer huffed. “Both had to either remain at home or walk the streets.”
Druggists peddled a plethora of snake-oil cures, from Coronoleum and Septol Spray to Bark-la’s Gargle and Gude’s Pepto-Mangan (“the Red Blood Builder”).
The Red Cross distributed 250,000 six-ply linen masks, and public transit became off-limits to the open-faced. (“Wear the mask, or walk,” proclaimed Hanson.) Taking advantage of the anonymity, a few masked crooks staged stickups and burglaries.
As contagion swelled, public complaints evaporated as newspapers listed sobering daily death tolls of men and women in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
On Nov. 11, 1918, Armistice Day, “perfectly sunny weather” was forecast. After five weeks of gloom and isolation, Seattle was primed for a celebration. “In [an] ecstasy of joy at ending the world’s worst war,” reported The Seattle Times, “it grew from nothing into cheering thousands.” Masks were shucked and, “instead of handkerchiefs … waved from windows and doorways by cheering spectators.”
The next day, the closures were revoked. “All places of public assembly” reopened, though masks were still de rigueur.
Before the virus ran its course in 1919, a third of the world’s population had been infected, resulting in 50 million to 100 million deaths, including nearly 5,000 Washingtonians. By springtime, it could be said, out flew Enza.