Kassel, Michael (2019, color, OWM)

As of the writing of this article, Wyoming is under attack by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. As of Tuesday, April 21, 322 confirmed cases have been reported in the state, and 76 are here in Laramie County.

Although the change to our daily lives is profound and the situation is frightening, it isn’t unprecedented. Cheyenne has been through this before, and the people then were just as concerned about how to deal with the epidemic as we are today.

Our experience began with news in May 1918 of a strange new disease on the march at the height of World War I. An unknown plague was sweeping Spain and England, and making tens of thousands sick. It was a new type of “La Grippe,” a malady that had first made its appearance in Cheyenne in 1889.

The disease was bad, but then again, this new strain of the disease was in Europe, and there was no cause for alarm. In early June, word arrived that this disease was ravaging the German front lines in the Great War. It was later revealed that Kaiser Wilhelm II also was sick. Our papers crowed that we were winning the war, and the enemy was failing.

On Sept. 17, the world changed. News arrived that this new disease had struck 184 people in New York City. Health officials insisted there was no cause for alarm. They were wrong. The next day the U.S. Army revealed that the malady was spreading swiftly through army training camps, with more than 1,750 cases, but only two deaths so far.

Three days later, Massachusetts declared an emergency as the now named “Spanish Influenza” dashed through shipyards, killing 120 people and infecting thousands more. The disease had reached army camps in Washington State, with almost 10,000 soldiers now sick. On Sept. 22, the disease appeared in Boulder on the campus of Colorado University. The Cheyenne population came to the terrifying realization that the distant disease was now on our doorstep.

While papers in our city published harrowing reports of thousands of cases in one major area after another, health boards for the state, county and city shared what they knew with our anxious citizens. Papers published details about the disease and how to slow the spread of the “flu.”

High fever, painful aches in the head and back, possible trouble breathing, and sore throat were all signs of the disease. As precautionary measures, the health officials sanctioned the cancellation of all parties and the closure of churches, movie houses and theaters – anywhere that large groups of people congregated together.

Most people took these sanctions to heart, but there was no penalty for not doing so. It wouldn’t be until the crisis got worse that the recommendations would become orders.

In the meantime, doctors made recommendations that might sound familiar: If you are sick, stay home in bed, stay at least five feet from people, cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, and stay away from people who are noticeably ill. Droplets from coughing, sneezing, talking and laughing were the source of the disease’s spread. There was an immediate effort to ban public spitting on sidewalks, stairs and streetcars.

Some folk wisdom crept into the papers as well: Refrain from wearing tight clothes and shoes, keep cool while walking and warm while sleeping. These had little effect on the disease, but some, such as warnings not to use public towels or drinking cups, seem like common sense today. One thing neither professionals nor good Samaritans mentioned was to wash your hands, especially after caring for a sick family member.

On Oct. 8, the Spanish Flu arrived in Cheyenne. At first, only 10 people were stricken with the disease. Not taking any chances, Superintendent A.L. Jessup followed health officials’ recommendations and closed the city’s schools Oct. 9. He asked parents to keep their children close to home and not let them loiter in the neighborhoods, something parents were reluctant to do. Pool halls and saloons remained open, although loitering in the depot lobby was banned.

On Oct. 10, the cases in Cheyenne sprang up to 50 persons. In response, all libraries and club reading rooms closed. Civic organizations cancelled meetings. To prevent loitering, cigar stores were ordered to pull their seats or box them up. Soda fountains had to remove their chairs and stools. On Oct. 11, Governor Frank Houx ordered all saloons, pool halls, Red Cross work rooms and night schools across the state closed. By public order, all funerals would be private family affairs.

By Oct. 15, the increasing count of flu cases jumped by 100 in less than 48 hours. Police chased children off the streets, while doctors pleaded with restaurants to change the worst of their habits.

Previously, restaurants, saloons and soda fountains merely rinsed dishes, glasses and utensils in a common basin of water before giving them to the next customer. Health officials demanded that dishes be sterilized instead, but few did so. By the end of the month, police threatened to arrest any establishment that didn’t clean their dishes properly.

Before October ended, Cheyenne had over 500 cases, and the disease was getting worse. Conditions were so bad at St. John’s Hospital that health officials established a temporary hospital in the top floor of the Masonic Temple, complete with beds, folding toilets and nursing staff. None of these measures were enough. The biggest problem were the citizens of Cheyenne themselves.

On Nov. 11, the Great War came to an end. Thousands of workers and other happy citizens spilled into Cheyenne streets with spontaneous parades and general good-natured mayhem. Doctors immediately reported that they did not approve of the celebrations, and the epidemic would likely intensify. As one party-goer put it, “Somebody is always taking the joy out of life.”

Shortly after this remarkable event, city schools announced that their self-imposed closure was going to be lifted, as promised, on the 19th. Businesses that eagerly anticipated the passing of the emergency decided that the announcement was their cue to return to normal operations. Despite warnings from health officials, businesses threw open their doors. The population flooded back to life as usual. Movie theaters were packed to capacity. Barbershops and shoeshine stands did a rapid business as men cast off their shaggy appearance. Soda fountains also opened, but quickly ran out of ice cream, much to the dismay of desperate customers.

Schools, fortunately, were not well attended, as many parents feared for their children’s safety and kept them home. In response, the school board contemplated cancelling holiday vacation to make up for lost time.

For their part, doctors were extremely frustrated by events. With businesses open and children running the streets, one doctor exclaimed bitterly that churches might as well open, too; the quarantine was a joke. Soon, no one was laughing.

As might be expected, the following few days of “business as usual” allowed the flu to strengthen in the city. On Nov. 24, draconian measures were put in place indefinitely. Schools, churches, movie houses and other public gathering spaces were ordered closed, this time with penalties. Stores could not let in any more than six persons at a time under threat of closure and arrest. A strict quarantine was put in force, and a wave of signs appearing in windows of homes and businesses struck by the flu, banning all but health workers from entering.

Thanksgiving celebrations were cancelled. Police patrolled the streets, ready to give tickets of anywhere from $100 to $500. As December dawned, the streets were quiet, and the economic and social outlook was dire. Businesses groaned for the lack of commerce. Christmas, too, looked like it would be cancelled, and some people speculated that the epidemic might stop Frontier Days the next summer.

Wyoming had nearly 12,000 cases of influenza. Doctors and nurses everywhere were near collapse from exhaustion.

In the 11th hour, glimmers of hope began to show. Doctors noticed that citizens were taking the quarantine seriously this time, and a noticeable drop in new cases was evident daily. Clever proprietors discovered the value of the telephone as a means to keep profits coming in, and customers were making good use of impromptu delivery services and curbside pickup. By Dec. 20, new cases of the flu dropped to single digits. Some restrictions were lifted, with 10 people at a time being allowed into stores to do Christmas shopping. It was hoped that more venues would open, but officials stated the citywide quarantine would remain in place at least through Jan. 1.

After Christmas passed, and fewer and fewer cases were being reported, health officials agreed to allow churches, schools and movie houses to open, with conditions. It was mandated that schools would provide wider aisles between desks, churches would only use alternate pews and theaters would leave every other seat empty. On Jan. 3, preparations were made to prepare for the return of the state Legislature, but the solons were taking no chances. All of the Legislature’s upcoming celebrations and gatherings were cancelled. Even Gov. Robert Carey, newly elected, swore off an inauguration ceremony and quietly took the oath, the quietest swearing-in of a governor in Wyoming history.

By Jan. 5, 1919, health officials had seen encouraging signs that the worst of the epidemic was over, and restrictions began to be lifted gradually. Citizens crossed their fingers and attempted to rebuild their interrupted lives. Even after three months of quarantine, the Spanish Influenza continued to claim lives of citizens through early February. Most had been sick prior to the lifting of the ban and finally succumbed to gradually worsening complications. New cases continued to rapidly decline, and by Feb. 16, all restrictions were removed.

The Spanish Flu had claimed the lives of 128 Cheyenne citizens and had sickened hundreds of others. For Wyoming, the death toll was 780, making the disease deadlier than the Great War, which had claimed approximately 450 of our soldiers’ lives.

If there is to be a silver lining to this tale, it is this: After the conclusion of the epidemic, the economy of Cheyenne recovered well. Business did, indeed, return to normal, and there was no mention of this terrific malady by the time Frontier Days kicked off in July. Papers returned to stories about the new peace in Europe and about the new liquor ban that was about to make the state dry.

The people of that time moved on with their lives, and the Spanish Flu became a figment of the past. We can sincerely hope that the good efforts of our officials, our health professionals and ourselves will make our current epidemic a distant memory, as well.

Michael Kassel is associate director and curator at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum and an adjunct instructor of history at Laramie County Community College. Email: mike.kassel@oldwestmuseum.org.

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