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Facing the killer 1918 flu

When Medford Mayor C.E. Gates learned people were dying of the 1918 flu across the border in California, he took quick action.

He ordered Medford residents to wear masks, told the railroad to stop bringing sick people into town and closed down schools, churches and other places where people gathered.

But dozens of businessmen, a local doctor and Christian Scientists opposed the mayor’s actions — triggering what became known as the “Cheesecloth Battle” because of the material often used to make masks.

“It took guts to stand up against the businessmen and a doctor,” said Ashland author and historian Joe Peterson.

Peterson is giving a talk called “What to Do? The October 1918 Killer Flu Hits Southern Oregon” from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Medford library, 205 S. Central Ave., and again Wednesday, Oct. 10, at the Ashland library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd. The free talks are part of the Windows in Time history lecture series.

The flu pandemic hit Southern Oregon 100 years ago this month.

Unlike other flu outbreaks, the virulent 1918 strain hit people in the prime of life, mainly taking out people age 20 to 40 rather than confining itself largely to the very young and the elderly.

Because it likely originated in animals, the 1918 flu may have caused the strong immune systems of healthy adults to overreact, damaging their lung tissue and leading to respiratory failure, researchers theorize.

Flu victims often developed a blue tinge to their faces, coughed up blood and suffered hemorrhaging in their lungs, Peterson said.

The flu killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 Americans.

In comparison, about 10 million soldiers, including almost 117,000 Americans, died during World War I.

Although many more people died from the flu than from combat, historians traditionally have neglected the pandemic, said Peterson, who has taught high school advanced placement history classes as well as university courses.

“I never did justice to this topic,” said Peterson. “I thought, ‘How did I miss it?’ I treated it as a footnote to World War I, and yet way more people died from the flu than were casualties of war.”

He said his research into the local impacts of the flu is an attempt to help rectify that past oversight.

When Gates, Medford’s mayor, mandated that masks be worn in public, he was opposed by prominent residents such as Dr. James Madison Keene.

“Keene compared the mask supporters to a ‘Bolshevik body,’” Peterson said, referring to the Communists who had seized power in Russia in 1917. “It was a clash between the values of individual freedom and the common good.”

John Mann, owner of a Medford store, also opposed the masks. He complained wearing the masks gave his clerks sore throats. Mann was fined $5 for not wearing a mask — a sum in those days that was equal to a day’s wages.

Other businessmen joined the fight against the mask requirement, saying it was bad for commerce, Peterson said.

The businessmen had allies in local Christian Scientists, who believed people should be healed by faith and prayer — not medical care.

Catholics took a different approach, welcoming flu patients into Sacred Heart Hospital in Medford. The hospital offered its upstairs floor as a flu ward, and the city of Medford provided bedding. Of 150 people treated at the hospital, 12 died, Peterson said.

“There were a lot of last-minute baptisms and conversions,” he said.

When a resurgent Ku Klux Klan began targeting Catholics, Jews and recent immigrants in Oregon in the 1920s, people in Southern Oregon recalled the help provided at Sacred Heart Hospital.

“People remembered only a few years previously Catholics had saved a significant number of people. There was a soft spot for Catholics as a result of this era,” Peterson said.

Ashland saw the first deaths from the flu when a man, woman and 2-year-old boy died while traveling through the area, he said.

Ashland officials took a different approach and didn’t mandate the wearing of masks. However, there were still restrictions on public gatherings, Peterson said.

At the Methodist church in Ashland, for example, funerals were moved outdoors and pregnant women were banned from attending, he said.

In total, 10 people died in Ashland from the 1918 flu, Peterson said.

Ashland Mayor C.B. Lamkin said the town did fairly well during the outbreak because it had pure mountain water, a fine climate and residents who were right-living Americans not prone to drinking alcohol and living impure lives.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

The Sacred Heart Hospital in Medford reserved its upper floor for the treatment of 1918 flu patients.