- Desolate Streets:The Spanish Influenza in San Antonio
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A few minutes past four o'clock in the morning on Monday, November 11, 1918, San Antonio residents woke to the sounds of whistles blowing throughout the city that heralded the signing of the armistice that ended World War I. Despite cold weather, men, women, and children gathered on foot and in automobiles at the center of town to celebrate the news. Patriotic songs and shouts filled the air as people, proudly waving flags, lined up for impromptu parades. A reporter for the San Antonio Light described the city going "mad with joy as daylight brought thousands and constantly increasing thousands to the streets of downtown. It was Christmas, New Year's and the Fourth of July rolled into one maddened jubilation."1 For a moment the city forgot desolate streets, closed church and school doors, and the dreaded influenza epidemic that claimed the lives of friends and family members. For the first time since officials prohibited public gatherings in October, San Antonians gathered in merriment. Their joy proved premature; despite the hope that life would once again return to normal with the war at an end and the influenza epidemic on the decline, residents of San Antonio would face a resurgence of the epidemic, although on a smaller scale than that of October. Still the city had weathered the worst.2
Scholarship on the 1918 influenza epidemic, while limited, focuses primarily on the impact the outbreak had on communities in the northeastern United States. Beginning with Alfred W. Crosby's 1976 work, Epidemic and Peace, 1918, republished as America's Forgotten Pandemic: The [End Page 287] Influenza of 1918 (1989), which chronicled the spread of the pandemic in the United States and abroad, scholars have provided accounts of the devastation the disease brought to the nation. Dorothy Pettit and Janice Bailie's A Cruel Wind: Pandemic Flu in America 1918-1920 (2008) broadens the study of the epidemic by weaving local reaction into the analysis of social and political effects. Most recently, Patricia J. Fanning's Influenza and Inequality: One Town's Tragic Response to the Great Epidemic of 1918 (2010) examines the Spanish influenza within the context of the social stratification and community response in Norwood, Massachusetts. While few studies explore the impact the influenza outbreak had on southwestern communities, Bradford Luckingham's Epidemic in the Southwest, 1918-1919 (1984) describes community responses to the influenza in El Paso, Albuquerque, Tucson, and Phoenix.3 This article will broaden that southwestern focus by telling the story of how San Antonio city officials responded to the Spanish influenza in October 1918.
At the time, San Antonio was the largest urban center in Texas. In 1910 the city had 96,614 inhabitants, and by 1920 the population had increased by roughly 60 percent, exceeding 160,000. In addition to civilian residents, the city contained a large military population based at Camp Travis, Camp Stanley, Fort Sam Houston, and the newly established flying installations, Kelly Field and Brooks Field. Although this narrative is not intended to be an examination of the influenza on these bases, the city's reaction to the outbreak among the military population is part of the San Antonio story.4
In 1918, the United States, embroiled in a war, encountered a silent and deadly enemy on its own shores. On March 11, 1918, at Camp Funston, Kansas, several soldiers with flu-like symptoms were admitted to the [End Page 288] hospital, and within five weeks the base reported more than one thousand cases. The new mutated strain of the flu, the Spanish influenza, spread across the globe claiming more lives worldwide, both civilian and military, than the war. In the United States, health officials attributed an estimated 550,000 deaths to the pandemic and its complications, while the worldwide death toll exceeded twenty-one million. Though cases surfaced in the spring, the highest mortality rates occurred during the fall, with October being the deadliest month.5