Arizona's Bout With The Deadly Flu Of 1918

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This month of October marks the 82nd anniversary of the deadly influenza epidemic that ravaged the world in 1918. That same year, on Nov. 11, the Armistice was signed ending the First World War, but the joy of it was dampened by the deaths of 20 million people worldwide from the flu; 500,000 of the deaths were Americans

The war itself had claimed the lives of 116,500 American doughboys.

On that Armistice Day, Arizona Governor George Hunt, who had married into the Rim country ranching family of Jesse Ellison, was on a train going to Texas for a meeting. When he heard the news of the armistice, he wrote in his diary, "my first impulse was to offer up a prayer and then I cried"

His return to Arizona was hastened by the death of his former private secretary Leroy Ladd, who had died of the flu. The governor was photographed at the funeral wearing a flu-mask. Soon after that his wife, Duette Ellison Hunt, and other members of their household fell victims of the flu. Governor Hunt, now recently retired, occupied himself caring for the ill. He observed that he had gone "from the governor's office to cooking."

Mrs. Hunt recovered slowly, and it was not until the following February that she was up and about. The politically astute Hunt would fill three additional terms as Governor of Arizona in the years following.

Rim country settlers seem to have been relatively unscathed by the epidemic, though many families received word of loved ones dying elsewhere.

It was the mining communities, army posts and Indian camps that suffered the worst affects.

In nearby Prescott, the disease was introduced by a contingent of soldiers who had come from Iowa to Fort Whipple. In the close quarters of the army camp, the illness spread rapidly; 8 cases one day, 5 the next. Although the fort was quarantined, the flu spread into town, where public gatherings were forbidden. Schools, lodges, picture shows, churches and pool halls were closed. Dances were discontinued. State and county fairs were canceled.

The situation was similar in Globe, where the impoverished living conditions of the miners promoted the spread of illness.

Phoenix was even worse, where 10 percent of their 10,000 population died. Facemasks were required for everyone, kissing and other intimate contact was banned, hospitals were filled with three times their normal patients, and funerals were limited to family members only.

By December of that year, the epidemic seemed to subside, and then a second wave hit Arizona in February of 1919. Symptoms included chills and fevers of 104 degrees. After 3 or 4 days the fever receded, but complications often came with it which led to the many deaths.

Amazingly, the Payson Pioneer Cemetery reveals only two burials in 1918, but scores of births. Pine Cemetery the same, with only one 1918 burial. Apparently new life was stronger than death here. Perhaps it was the outdoor life, the clean air, and the relative isolation from the outside world that preserved the settlers. Precautions were made, and teacher Lena Chilson Hampton remembers that the Payson schools were closed for almost six weeks.

In the Rim country, it was the Tonto Apache population that took the hardest hit. Daisy Russell, in an oral history of 1971, remembered the bad smell of sickness, and that many of the Indians left the area after so many adults and babies died. Riley Neal, in a 1970 oral history, recalled how many Tontos moved up into the Mazatzal Mountains when the 1918 flu hit their people. One of them who had been working on the Roosevelt Dam, brought it into their Gisela camp, and it quickly spread.

"They got up, what wasn't dead, and left," Neal said. "They always think they can run away from death, you know. They think it's an evil spirit that gets in there amongst them."

The term "flu" comes from the Italian phrase, influenza di freddo, "the influence of the cold."

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