By Gary Nelson, GSN Contributor
The worst disaster ever to strike the East Valley did not come with flashes of lightning, roars of wind and rain or the rumble of a trembling earth.
It came invisibly and silently, stalking the young and old, the righteous and the unrighteous, with a murderous efficiency rivaling that of war.
It has been a century now since the horrific global pandemic known as the Spanish flu came calling here. But the modern cities that sprang from the suffering little villages of that time still bear testimony to the horror.
Mostly you can find that evidence in the microfilmed pages of the region’s community newspapers of that era. But stroll a cemetery and you may find, for example, the grave of one Peter John Schaefer, a farmer, father of three, who died of the flu in Mesa on Nov. 25, 1918, a few days before he would have turned 37.
Arizona was still barely more than a frontier outpost when the flu struck. Statehood had been conferred only six years before, and what now are the robust cities of the East Valley were mere dots on the map with a total population of less than 7,000. Miles of desert and farm fields separated them.
But such relative isolation spared no part of the earth in an outbreak whose global death toll is most conservatively estimated at 20 million. Some estimates run five times that number.
The autumn of 1918 would have been grim enough without the flu. The Great War had by then nearly finished its work of ending more than 15 million lives, among them several young men from Mesa.
Still, judging from the newspapers of the day, folks hereabouts were trying hard to maintain a sense of normalcy. An election campaign was on, school was starting and the crops were coming in. Two gentlemen named Curry and Frye were advertising for customers to visit their Pastime Pool Hall in Chandler, boasting “a fine line of fresh candies and cigars.”
And if news of the gathering influenza calamity was creating a sense of unease in the public, it seems the newspapers all but bent over backwards to avoid fanning the flames of panic.
Coverage of the outbreak was subdued and incomplete, even during the height of the calamity.
The approach of The Chandler Arizonan was typical. An online archive of the paper is available at chandlerpedia.com, maintained by the Chandler Museum.
Published weekly on Fridays, the paper usually ran only four pages, dominated that fall by wartime propaganda and appeals to buy Liberty Bonds for the war effort.
It appears the paper’s first mention of the flu came on Oct. 4 under a one-column headline on Page 6. The headline said, “Influenza is severe grippe.” The first sentence said, “The rapid spread of Spanish influenza and the possibility that it may hit Chandler has raised the question of just what the disease is.”
The article went on to say the flu was an unusually virulent form of the respiratory disease known then as the grippe, that it usually affected 30 to 40 percent of the residents of a stricken community, and that outbreaks generally lasted four to six weeks.
Bedrest and the use of handkerchiefs were advised.
One week later, the region was under siege.
A one-column front-page headline on Oct. 11 reported, “Public places closed tight by influenza.” Schools were shut, the movie theater closed and churches suspended services. Nearby Gilbert also had closed its school.
“There are about a dozen cases in the vicinity of Chandler, but none in the town itself,” the paper said.
Another week, and the situation was dire. Chandler, with fewer than 1,000 people, now reported 75 cases – an infection rate that would sicken more than 75,000 people in the present-day East Valley.
“Four members of the Gardner Drug Co. are down,” the paper said. “The Fosler and Payne families are also down. … The flag-raising scheduled for Sunday has been called off.”
The Oct. 25 paper brought news of three deaths.
“Mrs. D. Mendez, wife of Joe Mendez, a naturalized citizen of the United States and a leader of the better Mexican element, was the first to die. Five small children survive. … There are about a dozen cases in Little Mexico and its citizens are in a panic.”
On Nov. 8, in a story that still didn’t get the biggest front-page headline (that was reserved for the war-bond campaign), The Arizonan reported 17 Chandler deaths in just that week alone. Among them were two young mothers with 13 children altogether.
The Red Cross sent out an appeal for clean rags to be used in the town’s makeshift flu hospital set up in a schoolhouse.
Two weeks later, the newspaper reported that the flu was abating among white people but was still ravaging Mexican and Indian communities.
“A band of Pima Indians was reported Wednesday down with the flu,” the paper said. “They were found just east of town and appeared to have wandered off the reservation despite the orders of the superintendent at Sacaton.”
The last paragraph of the story – a classic case of burying the lead – said this:
“A pathetic incident comes from the Anderson ranch. In the large family of Rafeal Vasurto, seven children died, all within a few days. The mother and father both escaped.”
The paper also reported that week that Chandler needed to clean up its piles of reeking trash – including some rotting animals – before the state board of health would lift the flu quarantine.
The epidemic was easing by early December, with the schoolhouse hospital now closed and getting ready for pupils. The fourth-grade teacher, Miss Mary Corbell, would not be returning to class, however. She, too, had been felled by the flu.
There is no indication that the little newspaper kept a running tally of deaths in Chandler. It specifically mentioned as many as 40, but only in anecdotal fashion. The pattern was the same for other papers that covered the calamity in the region, including the Arizona Republican and the Mesa Daily Tribune.
Indeed, there appears to be no record of the number of flu deaths in the region or in Arizona as a whole. Many people died at home, sometimes in remote rural areas, and were not kept track of. And, as might be gleaned from some of the articles quoted above, not all ethnic groups received the same consideration in the press.
The specter of 1918 still haunts the American and global public health communities. Flu season still comes and goes every year, some years more virulently than in others. But modern sanitation, communications and up-to-date vaccines all work our favor.
To date, no sequel has yet rivaled that of the nightmarish autumn of 1918 – and, heaven willing, none ever will.