Though disease epidemics were common throughout America and the West in earlier times, the worst epidemic in terms of loss of human life came to Wyoming early in the 20th century, in the fall of 1918.
From October of that year through January 1919, 780 people died statewide, victims of the flu epidemic. Of those, 169 died directly from the flu while the rest were taken by a combination of flu and pneumonia.
The sickness came just as World War I was drawing to a close. The war had begun in 1914 and the United States had entered it in April 1917. Beginning early in 1918, in the space of 15 months the disease killed somewhere between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide—far more than the 20 million civilian and military deaths attributed directly to the war. In Wyoming, too, the flu was deadlier than the war: Around 11,000 Wyoming men served in the war; about 500 of them died.
Though at the time it was called the Spanish Influenza or more often Spanish flu, the epidemic did not begin in Spain. King Alfonso XIII of Spain fell gravely ill after the flu was widely reported in Madrid in May 1918. Spain was not a combatant in the war, however, and, therefore, news of the epidemic was not censored there as it was in France, England, Germany and the United States. The king recovered, but the name “Spanish influenza,” stuck.
The epidemic came in three waves worldwide. The first, in the spring and early summer of 1918, was relatively mild. The second, beginning in summer and gaining vast momentum in the fall, was far deadlier. A third wave, in the winter and spring of 1919, was less lethal than the second but still dangerous. Young children and elderly died, but what made the epidemic unusual, and different from coronavirus, is that many victims of the Spanish flu were healthy young adults.
Like today with the coronavirus, local and state public health officials drastically curtailed public activities—shopping was limited, schools closed, and public and private gatherings were canceled.
Many died of Spanish flu during the last two weeks of October and the first week of November of 1918, by which time, according to some national news accounts, the epidemic was declining. That appeared not to be the case in Wyoming, however. Reports of disease and flu deaths continued unabated at least until January 1919. A few newspaper editors noted that schools, closed for the semester, were about to reopen in December, but most did not begin sessions until after the Christmas holidays.
Just as recently occurred, the University of Wyoming suspended classes. The University shut down in early October with a formal notice reported in the Wyoming Student. “The culmination of the growing epidemic of Spanish influenza throughout the city came on the afternoon of Tuesday a week ago,” the article noted, “when the health authorities ordered all places of amusement, all public gatherings, and all schools closed until further notice.”
According to the report, Dr. Aven Nelson, president of the university, “suggested that the enforced vacation would offer excellent opportunity for reading and outdoor exercise, and that if used to catch up on the things for which the ordinary routine does not give time, it would not prove too irksome.” Pointing out that officials discouraged students from spending time downtown, the editor observed, “… since the soda fountains and picture shows are also closed, there is not a great deal of inducement to loiter on the street.”
Statewide, of the stores that remained open, many limited the number of customers. Some Cheyenne stores allowed only five customers at any one time for each 25 feet of store front. Because reports from other area towns told of the dire consequences of the disease, some towns, such as Kemmerer, managed to escape widespread influenza by imposing quarantines and cancelling public events before the disease made its appearance.
Workplaces statewide were disrupted. The Wyoming Labor Journal noted, “There has been no part of the state that has been immune nor has any particular class of people been favored. There have been a number of deaths, but in the majority of instances where proper care has been taken the worst result has been from the incapacitating of the victims.”
By mid-December, state health authorities were still urging that quarantines continue because the Spanish flu was spreading again. C.Y. Beard, secretary of the Wyoming State Board of Health, warned of lifting quarantines too soon. He also chastised some Wyomingites who insisted upon continuing card parties and social gatherings.
Officials were still concerned about the epidemic after the New Year. When theaters and churches were allowed to reopen in January 1919, people occupied only alternate seats.
The last Wyoming cases were reported in the early winter of 1919, although precautions were still in place in most Wyoming schools and towns until the following summer. By spring, no more cases were reported. Still, the following fall, many people were wondering if the flu would return. It didn’t, at least in Wyoming.
The death toll from the Spanish flu epidemic has been measured for many states. Inexplicably, Wyoming is not included in the government listing. The Wyoming Board of Health claimed some 700 people died from the flu or its effects; historian T.A. Larson placed the figure at 780. Random samples of cemetery records and newspaper obituaries from the period confirm a number in that range.
A century later, the question about how such an epidemic might affect Wyoming continues to be raised. Historian John M. Barry predicted the impact of such an epidemic nationally. “If a new influenza virus does emerge, given modern travel patterns, it will likely spread even more quickly than it did in 1918,” Barry writes.
There are many differences between the coronavirus crisis and the Spanish flu pandemic. They are different diseases, of course, but we also have more resources in 2020 to combat disease. As Anne Rasmussen, a historian at the EHESS university in Paris, said to a French newspaper reporter in March 2020, “…It’s a different world now from the one that saw the Spanish flu. Things are done on a different scale now, with much more research and a much more efficient approach to dealing with diseases. There are great reasons for hope.”
Thanks to University of Wyoming emeritus professor Phil Roberts for much of the text for this post. It was taken from his article, “The 1918 Flu: A Pandemic Sweeps Wyoming,” which was published September 24, 2018, on WyoHistory.org.