The Story Of Payson, Arizona

Chapter 24: the 1918 flu epidemic


The year World War I ended was also the year of the world pandemic of influenza. In the closing weeks of the war, the deadly flu spread rapidly across America and the world, carried by the thousands of soldiers who were in transit.

Within nine months, 50 million people worldwide had died, twice as many as had died in the war.

It was called The Spanish Flu because it was first reported in Spain, but research has shown that it originated in the United States, incubated on Kansas farms by poultry, passed to nearby army camps, and then spread across the world.

As for Americans, 675,000 died from it, millions were hospitalized.

The isolation of Payson apparently protected its citizens. The Payson Pioneer Cemetery lists only a few deaths in that time period, but scores of births occurred. [1]

The Pine cemetery shows only one burial in 1918.

In addition to the isolation, the Rim Country’s clean air and outdoor life may have helped to preserve the residents.

Surrounding towns were hard hit. In Prescott the disease was introduced early in October by a contingent of soldiers who had come to Fort Whipple from Iowa. In the close quarters of the army camp the illness spread rapidly and the fort was quarantined. It spread into the town, and all public gatherings were soon banned, dances discontinued, fairs canceled.

The situation was similar in Globe. Phoenix was hard hit, where 10 percent of the 10,000-member population died.

Face masks were required for everyone; hospitals were filled with three times their normal patients and funerals were limited to family members only.

When news came of the Armistice, Arizona’s Governor George Hunt was on his way to a meeting in Texas. Shortly he received word that his former personal secretary Leroy Ladd died of the flu. The governor was photographed at the funeral wearing a face mask.

Soon after that, his wife Duett, the daughter of local rancher Jesse Ellison, became a victim of the flu, along with other members of their household.

Governor Hunt occupied himself during those days caring for them, and remarked that he had “gone from the governor’s office to cooking.” Mrs. Hunt recovered slowly, but was up by the following February.

Enough word of the danger reached Payson to cause everyone to be especially cautious. Teacher Lena Chilson Hampton remembered that the Payson schools were closed for almost six weeks as a precaution.

The Tonto Indian population was not as fortunate as the rest of the Paysonites. It may have been due to their more primitive living conditions, but when one of the Tontos, who had been working on the roads near Roosevelt, brought the flu to their camp at Gisela, it quickly spread. Soon other Tonto camps were infected.

Daisy Russell remembered the bad smell of sickness, and that after so many of the adults and babies had died the Tontos left the area. 

Riley Neal recalled how many of the Tonto Apache moved up into the Mazatzal Mountains, “They got up, what wasn’t dead, and left. They always think they can run away from death, you know. They think it’s an evil spirit that gets in there amongst them.” [2]

An awareness of the danger was impressed even among the children. They developed a rhyme by which to skip rope:  

I had a little bird,

His name was Enza.

I opened the window

And in-flu-Enza.

Even though Payson was spared from the ravages of the Great Flu Pandemic, this is an appropriate time in our story to relate how coffins for the dead were made.

There was no mortuary to provide services we now take for granted, so some men of the community made a specialty of furnishing pine coffins. Among them were Bill Craig, Frank Owens and Henry Haught. Some of the town’s women and schoolgirls did their part by lining the coffins with white or black sateen, carefully tacking it in. This material was kept on hand by some in the community, especially out on the ranches where there was not time to obtain the lining when it was needed.

Neighbors would cleanse and dress the body and the local justices would conduct the service. In their turn they were John W. Wentworth, George Randall, J. F. Vann, or a Mormon from Pine.

If a traveling preacher or missionary were in the area he would be called upon. The men would dig the grave and close it, as the entire process was a community effort. There was no facility for embalming, so burials took place soon after death.

Among the local Apache people the “coffin” was simply the blanket of the deceased. The body was taken to a secret place and hidden, perhaps in a rock crevice. The name of the dead family member was not spoken after that for fear the spoken name would call the ghost back to the land of the living. The problem with that was not only fear of haunting the living, but the desire not to interrupt the delightful life the deceased was living in the spirit world.

In Payson’s pioneer days, making the coffin was a tender service, and the maker of the coffin was long remembered by families, often noted in their diaries.

For example, in notes passed down regarding the Ellison family cemetery on the Q Ranch [3] indicate the importance of this act. “First to be buried was Bud Campbell [4] who was killed by the Indians near the Ellison Ranch July 6, 1896 … The coffin used for Bud Campbell was one that had been brought in for Mr. Pringle … Mrs. Delbridge died of cancer … Ben Nail made her coffin. When Uncle John Abbott died in October 1908, Clare Haught made his coffin. John Whitlake Gifford was killed by Dan Harkey at the Rock House in Dec. 1913. D. V. Marley sent Rans Spurlock to get Ben Nail to make the coffin …”

Coffin maker Ben Nail was killed by a runaway team of horses when they took opposite sides of a juniper tree on the old road to Starr Valley. Ben is buried on the Cline ranch “near the west gate on the old road that led to Payson.” [5]

Ben’s brother Preston is buried in the Pioneer Cemetery under a simple plaque that reads, “Pres Nail.”

Both men were bachelors, but the community gathered to do what Ben and Pres had done for others — build the coffin and lay them with care in a deep grave. 

In spite of Payson’s fortunate escape from the 1918 flu epidemic, death was always hovering close at hand.


[1] Irene Chilson Barkdoll died in 1918, but no date is listed. Mary Pyeatt died in 1919, likewise without listing the time of year. Ivan Russell died July 17, 1919, but the pandemic was over by then.

[2] Both references are from 1971 and 1970 interviews respectively. The tapes and transcripts are in the Rim Country Museum.

[3] The Q Ranch is located between Cherry and Canyon Creeks, east of Payson.

[4] Robert Lee Campbell, husband of Rose Ellison.

[5] Rim Country History


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Requires free registration

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.