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‘Stand up and meet the situation intelligently and bravely’: When the 1918 Flu Shutdown Pueblo

Maurice Kilfoy, a 30-year-old Pueblo resident, was visiting brothers Joseph and Leo at the University of Nebraska when he died of pneumonia on the morning of September 28, 1918.

His death was later revealed to be a result of complications from the H1N1 virus known colloquially as “Spanish influenza.” Kilfoy had stopped in Nebraska after returning from a business trip in Chicago, Illinois. Coincidentally, fellow Pueblo man Percy Unwin died of influenza the same day as Kilfoy in North Chicago’s Great Lakes hospital.

“Spanish influenza was the cause of the young sailor’s death,” according to a September 29, 1918 report by the Pueblo Chieftain on Unwin’s death. “He was nineteen years old, and prior to his enlistment was a molder at the Minnequa steel works. The body will be sent home for interment.”

While neither Kilfoy nor Unwin were believed to have contracted influenza in Pueblo, their tragic deaths led the Pueblo County Health Department to take “stringent orders” according to the Chieftain on October 1, 1918.

“Dr. W.E. Buck, head of the department of health, has ordered that every precaution be taken in the internment and a private funeral has been ordered,” according to the Chieftain. “Dr. Buck said yesterday that no report had been received at the health office to show that the disease had reached Pueblo, but he said every precaution would be taken to prevent its spread here.”

Following reports of the disease reaching Pueblo, City Commissioners met with local doctors and citizens to pass an ordinance mitigating the Spanish Flu. Buck and Commissioner of Health F.E. Olin were among those to approve the legal proclamation issued that day, according to an article in the Pueblo Lore written by Ione Miller.

“First: Do not be afraid you are going to contract influenza and die, follow the instructions of the health department and your physician and stand up like men and women and meet the situation intelligently and bravely,” according to the resolution approved by Buck and Olin. “The following simple rules offered at this time are imperative.”

Rules offered in the resolution included the avoidance of “needless crowding,” covering coughs and sneezes, breathing through the nose, washing hands before eating, ventilation at home, drinking water, washing of utensils, and even the avoidance of “tight clothes” and “tight shoes.”

Additional orders were published in the Chieftain the following morning.

“Spitting on sidewalks ordinance to be rigidly enforced,” according to the orders. “All public meetings must be postponed. Children must not congregate on streets or walks to play. No theaters, no schools, lodges, churches, pool halls, dance halls… No loafing in the stores when making purchases. No special sales in stores. All pupils will report to school this morning but will be sent home after a lecture concerning disease.”

While the order closing schools applied to schools within city limits, schools throughout Pueblo County soon followed suit, according to Miller. With schools closed, some teachers made occasional visits to the residences of their pupils, according to the October 4, 1918 issue of the Chieftain.

“But the teachers will be kept busy: each will be assigned to the territory with visits to the pupils from time to time to see that orders of the health department are being obeyed and to keep in constant touch with the condition of the children and to the families in which they belong,” according to the Chieftain.

By October 5, 1918, Pueblo reported 15 total cases of the Spanish Flu. Less than three weeks later, on October 22, the number of reported cases had risen to 391 with 50 deaths. As local hospitals began to overcrowd, 20 extra beds were supplied at 329 Central Main St. near City Hall, according to Miller.

“Although Pueblo health officials were assuring the citizens that because of prompt action, Pueblo was not suffering the number of casualties reported across the state, what no one could foresee was that the epidemic was still in its early stages,” according to Miller. “There would be hundreds of flu deaths in the months to come.”

November 1918 was the deadliest month for Puebloans suffering from the Spanish Flu. The Chieftain reported 16 flu-related deaths on November 1. The monthly total death count for November was 382.

With a local economy shut down and a scarcity in medical care, Pueblo was one of many cities desperate for a cure to the deadly epidemic.