A Short History of Another Horrific Flu in Santa Barbara

The Spanish Flu That Wasn’t Spanish Shut Down Everything, Including Thanksgiving

Spanish flu in 1918, Police officers in masks, Seattle Police Department. | Credit: Wikkimedia

Public health authorities find themselves forced to walk the razor’s edge between inducing panic and informing the public as they grapple with a pandemic that even the best-case scenarios suggest could kill 100,000-240,000 people across the globe in the weeks ahead. To prevent the former, it frequently feels like they’re holding back on the latter at their daily COVID-19 media briefings. However, there’s been no shortage of good advice dispensed: “Call your mother,” declared Gregg Hart, the new chair of the county board of supervisors now charged with extracting straight talk out government functionaries not accustomed to dealing with the media. “Laugh,” admonished Dr. Henning Ansorg, the county’s new public health czar, a man whose fate saw fit to toss him into the deep end of a bottomless pool.

The latest to throw down with such advice was Dr. Jason Prystowsky, one of Santa Barbara’s many philosopher-king superheroes, who also happens to be one of Cottage Hospital’s best-known ER docs. Over the years, Prystowsky has made it his habit to be omnipresent, if not omniscient, especially when it comes to medical care afforded to homeless people. Earlier this week, Prystowsky delivered his second city-wide webinar on the virus. Beyond the cumuli nimbus cloud of medical statistics, Prystowsky recommended the following: “Smile,” “Be kind,” and “Don’t be a racist.”

The latter, I presumed, alluded to efforts by the Commander in Grief — whose diuretic ramblings on the pandemic express every conceivable opinion and its exact opposite. Our dear leader insists on describing COVID-19 as the “Chinese Flu,” or occasionally the “Wuhan Flu.” Others in his administration have embraced the “Kung Flu” instead. 

This is hardly the first time Americans have played the blame game in a pandemic. Back in 1918, the United States somehow managed to win naming rights for the flu pandemic that killed 50-100 million people — kind of a big margin of error — tagging it the “Spanish Flu.” The theory was that the occupants of a German military submarine that popped up off the coast of Spain during the height of World War I somehow got the disease up and rolling. Spain was a handy scapegoat at the time, the United States having only just stolen the island nation of Cuba and all of the Philippines from Spain in a war that proved far more protracted and bloodier than popular recollection—Remember the Maine!—would suggest. 

I would come to learn from Betsy J. Green —a local historian of note (and columnist for this paper) and perhaps the world’ most pre-eminent Mesa-ologist — that the so-called Spanish Flu had, in fact, originated right here in the United States. It spread throughout Europe, she reminded me, by the infusion of American Doughboys deployed to finish what would come to be known as “The Great War,” which, we are told, killed anywhere from 20-40 million people — another vast margin of error. A month before that bloody paroxysm concluded in November 1918, Santa Barbara headlines were already screaming about another invasion, the flu. By October, 50 articles had been written in the local newspaper about the attack of the “grippe,” another term for the flu. “Fifty Cases, Five Serious Ones, Already Reported in City,” read one headline. Green writes all about it in her book Way Back When: Santa Barbara in 1918 (and 1919, too).

What’s striking is the similarity between Santa Barbara’s reaction then and now. By October 14, Green discovered, Santa Barbara schools had been completely shut down, the movie theater closed, and Sunday Mass at the Mission canceled for the first time in 132 years. Naturally, there were not enough face masks to go around, so the local Red Cross jumped in to sew 1,400. Private individuals did the same, sewing together multiple layers of cheese cloth and gauze, dabbing the finished product with several drops of bichloride of mercury or kerosene, toxic compounds then believed to sterilize the finished product. 

Because lemons were seen as a remedy, local lemon growers did well, as buyers across the United States beat a path to Santa Barbara’s door. Business boomed for the Veronica Medicinal Springs Water Company, as well. Anything that tasted so bad — some have likened the water’s flavor to basement mildew — had to be good for you. 

Santa Barbara quarantined anything and everything. Halloween was canceled. Flying “A” Studios—our version of Hollywood—was likewise shut down after one of its leading men took ill in New York City and never got better. Even Thanksgiving was sacrificed as newspapers bore such headlines as “Flu Epidemic Unabated, Report.” ‘Flu Situation Worse,” and “Grippe Malady Proves Plague.” 

The libraries shut down. Pool halls went silent, bowling alleys black. Barbers had to wear face masks. Cops, too, just to set a proper example. “Wear Your Mask or Cops Will Get You,” one headline warned. Homebound families struck with terminal cabin fever got some relief, courtesy of local record shops. Record shop workers delivered records “on approval,” meaning they could be listened to for a day and then returned. Netflix, anybody? 

In hindsight, this probably did more harm than good. Shortly after Christmas, 50 new cases were reported in one day, 191 in just four days. Christmas was blamed, thus predating the so-called war on Christmas. Teachers mailed out assignments; students who failed to finish made a point not to use enough stamps in mailing them back. It became a thing. For all this, reports from the time do not include fatality counts. Reporters proved uncharacteristically squeamish when it came to such details.

On February 11, the quarantine ended. “No longer will State Street look like the aftermath of a Quaker meeting,” read one account.

That was five weeks after it started. We’re now entering week three of an onslaught that’s only just getting warmed up. Already, many of us are having a hard time. 

So, by all means laugh. Don’t be a racist. And definitely call your mother. 


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