Despite advice in a November 1918 edition of The New Mexican — to “avoid coughs, crowds and cowards, but fear neither germs nor Germans!” — the worldwide Spanish influenza outbreak hit New Mexico hard.
“It was so bad in New Mexico, they ran out of coffins. Carpenters couldn’t make them fast enough. It was just terrible,” said Richard Melzer, a former history professor at the University of New Mexico.
While the world deals with the deadly coronavirus, some 100 years ago, Spanish influenza killed at least 1,500 people in New Mexico. But some estimates put the death toll at more than 5,000, with some dying of pneumonia after contracting the virus. In 1920, the state’s population was 363,000, according to census records.
The flu devastated local communities, said Melzer, who wrote the article “A dark and terrible moment: the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 in New Mexico,” for the 1982 edition of New Mexico Historical Review. From mining towns to pueblos, most people in the state knew someone who contracted it or died from it.
The virus was one of the deadliest in history, killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide. In World War I, which was fought around the same time, an estimated 21 million people were killed.
Though it was called Spanish flu, historians aren’t sure where it originated. There’s some evidence it started at a military base in Kansas, while other evidence points to Asia.
Nancy Bristow, who is chairwoman of the history department at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., said attitudes today are similar to opinions about the flu during the pandemic.
While the flu killed thousands every season — as it continues to do — it was seen as a “domesticated” illness. Everyone gets it but wouldn’t die from it unless they were old or young, she said.
“At first, the officials said, ‘Don’t worry. It’s only the flu. Don’t be too afraid.’ But it’s clearly not a regular flu. It’s several times more deadly,” Bristow said.
Then people in their 20s and 30s began dying, many just days or even hours after showing symptoms.
Bristow said public health agencies and politicians downplayed the outbreak at first, not wanting to spark a panic.
“They both want to calm the public and keep them from panicking, but they also want people to [understand] that this is a really serious illness,” she said. “Finding that balance is very difficult, and I think they failed in 1918.”
She said those same challenges are facing health officials today.
Shannon Withycombe, a women’s medicine historian at UNM, said it’s important to study how epidemics are used as political and economic tools.
She said there was a nationalist bent in the way the 1918 influenza outbreak was discussed, something she still sees.
“Certainly many epidemics that make the news, sparking potential panic and fear, are focused on the fact they come from parts of the world that we see ourselves as superior to, such as Ebola coming from Africa, COVID-19 coming from China,” she said. “I think there is political value for a variety of people in power for constructing narratives about these epidemics that lead us down a dangerous path.”
To fill some of the gaps in knowledge about the Spanish flu epidemic, Withycombe is requiring one of her classes to participate in a project to uncover what happened during the outbreak in New Mexico.
“They’re going to be doing a project where they don’t just look through the Albuquerque Journal or the Santa Fe New Mexican, but every digitized newspaper in New Mexico to see the stories people were writing during the epidemic,” she said.
The outbreak in New Mexico came later than the rest of the country, hitting hardest in October and November. Parts of the state came to a standstill. There was a two-week closure of schools, which would sometimes serve as makeshift hospitals.
Alex Castillo, who was 18 at the time, told the Albuquerque Journal “the bells constantly tolled” for funerals.
A Nov. 18, 1918, article in The New Mexican headlined “How to fight Spanish influenza” went beyond the common home remedies such as a whiskey, honey and lemon concoction or onions. It recommended a hot mustard foot bath, plenty of hot lemonade and Dr. Pierces Pleasant Pellets.
“It is best to take a vegetable pill every other day made up of May-apple, aloes, jalap and sugar-coated,” the article by Dr. L.W. Bowers said.
There was no vaccine. Doctors mistakenly thought the disease was caused by bacteria.
In the midst of the outbreak, cities and health departments around the country required people to wear face masks. However, New Mexico was one of a handful of states without a public health department, something that would arise in the aftermath of the flu.
Cities took matters into their own hands. There were quarantines in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Taos would fine or even arrest people without masks.
The masks were often ineffective, having large holes that the virus could slip through. In one account, four women played bridge together in Albuquerque, prudently wearing their six-ply face masks. The next day, three of them were dead.
In summer 1919, much of the flu pandemic came to an end. People either died or developed immunity, and the strain mutated to a less deadly form of the flu.
Poor record keeping has forced some to rely on anecdotal evidence. State Historian Rob Martinez said his great-grandmother contracted the Spanish flu and died, but he has not found a burial record for her.
“We suspect that the deaths were happening so fast that they were just burying them,” Martinez said.
He said despite all the unanswered questions, the search is valuable.
“As a historian, I look back on the Spanish flu, just over 100 years ago, and just see that we’re dealing with the same questions,” Martinez said. “History does repeat itself. It really does.”