Capitol Hill And The 1918 Flu Pandemic, Part 2

Updated: Sep 10, 2020


Photoshopped image of a US School Garden Army Poster (Library of Congress) laid over a 1912 photograph of the Volunteer Park Water Tower (Seattle Municipal Archives)

Summer Lull

"Well, it looks like I'll have a lot of light tonight to work on my war garden!" "You got a war garden, too? So have I. I've got one in a vacant lot across from the house, and work on it all my spare time!"

Claims of the Germans' poor nutrition back in part 1 aside, the U.S. government was trying to improve the nutrition of the Allied forces by mobilizing students across America to maintain war gardens at home over summer break. During the war, farms in Europe had been devastated and many of their workers recruited for military service. Home gardens helped supplement this loss and perhaps they hoped a nutritional boost would help ward off the flu as well. Either way, thousands of Seattle students signed up to garden, and they mustered at Capitol Hill’s Volunteer Park on June 7th for training. Many would return to the park a few weeks later for the fourth of July festivities there; a welcome reward for all their hard work. The Independence Day activities included tug-o-war, 50 and 100-yard-dashes for youth and military, band performances, community singing, and speeches. The high point was a patriotic pageant staged by Seattle's Greek community with a float carrying a giant seven-headed dragon of autocracy representing the Kaiser and his six sons, which was promptly “killed” by Allied soldiers.

Left: 1714 Broadway c1937 via WA State Archives | Center: Samuel Stone, c1925. Seattle Times | Right: Stone Catering Ad, 1917. Seattle Times

This focus on nutrition and patriotic activity continued into the summer when Samuel H Stone, president of the local NAACP and owner of Stone Catering located at 1714 Broadway (Seattle Central College Bookstore today), honored the African American servicemen departing to the battlefront in France with a banquet and jazz performance on August 3rd. Horace Cayton, publisher of Cayton’s Weekly, described Stone’s banquet as “the picture of perfection.”

Left: Beryl Apartments c1937, via WA State Arhives | Center: Edwin Brown c1918 via Cayton's Weekly | Right: Seattle Star article penned by Brown. Click the images for a closer look

For many others on Capitol Hill though, that summer was far from perfect. While officials and others continued to ignore or downplay the threat of “Spanish” Flu, King County had no qualms with taking controversial actions on a different medical front. As a war measure in early 1918, King County opened an “emergency hospital” on Beacon Hill to quarantine people infected with STDs without the right to habeas corpus and reportedly under inhumane conditions. In June of 1918, Elinor Olsen, manager of the Beryl Apartments, 318 E Pine st, was falsely arrested and unlawfully placed in this quarantine based on the arresting officer's fraudulent claim that she tested positive for an unspecified STD. Lawyer, future mayor, and fellow Capitol Hill resident Dr. Edwin J. Brown took up her case and others like hers and launched a nearly year-long crusade against this injustice. Not content to do that alone, he even filed to run for King County prosecuting attorney in August. Perhaps he believed he could change the system from within or maybe his crusade was just a self-promotional springboard into public office as Mayor Ole Hanson later accused.

Meanwhile, telephone service, an essential asset to any community suffering a major health emergency, had been gradually getting worse as the flu was spreading across the globe. Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company (PTTC) officials blamed the poor service on increased war usage and too many skilled operators getting married. Union telephone operators blamed it on PTTC for refusing to let many union operators return to work. Eager to get these skilled operators reinstated and improving service, local unions from Seattle, Portland, and elsewhere organized meetings with PTTC and the U.S Department of Labor throughout the summer in order to compel PTTC to reinstate the union operators. And two of Capitol Hill’s own, Helen McKinley and Anna Little were among those leading the charge.

Lastly, housing, an essential resource during a pandemic, was becoming increasingly costly and scarce due to tax increases, fossil fuel shortages, and the rapid influx of ship builders (similar to the influx of tech workers today.) Many property owners, called “rent hogs”, exploited this crisis by rapidly increasing rent far beyond what renters could afford. And just like today, many renters actively opposed this. For instance, residents of Rialto Court, 1729 Boylston Ave, staged a rent strike after enduring a staggering 30% rent increase followed by another of $15 (worth $254 today.) Like them, countless other renters all over Seattle were enduring the same. Grassroots groups like the Anti-Rent Profiteering League formed and held meetings with Renters, landlords, and government officials to resolve the issue.

Left: Seattle Star "Rent Hog" Cartoon, 1918. | Right: Rialto Court, 1729 Boylston Ave in 2019 via Google Street view

Thankfully, both the Rialto residents and the telephone operators got their way and even on the same day. On Thursday, September 12, 1918 residents of the Rialto successfully capped their rent increases at $5 and the operators’ unions succeeded in getting many operators back to work. Unfortunately, by this point, the flu’s second wave had already hit, this time on our nation’s eastern shores, and would eventually eclipse these successes.

Second Wave: The Flu Crosses The Pond

Times Square, c1918. Via Museum of History and Industry

The day before, Wednesday, September 11, was sunny and in the 60s. The weather was perfect for the Boston transplant living on Capitol Hill to head down to Times Square (5th/Stewart/Westlake) to catch game 6 of the Cubs vs Red Socks World Series on the Playograph: an elaborate electronic scoreboard used to reenact games in real time with updates received over telegraph. Hundreds, if not thousands, packed in, either blissfully unaware or callously denying that they could have been rapidly spreading and catching the flu. And for Red Socks fans, it was an afternoon to celebrate not fear. The Red Socks clinched the championship title in a 2 to 1 victory over the Cubs.

Left: Seattle Times Building with Playograph, c1920 via MOHAI. | Right: A similar Playograph, via wikipedia

Now were our imagined Bostonian like me, he would have purchased copies of the evening papers on the way home to keep the front-page reports as a memento. And right beside the World Series report he would have read of the allies’ first successful piercing of the Germans’ Hindenburg Line: another cause for celebration. However, had he continued reading through the Seattle Star that evening, his blissful ignorance would have turned to dreadful awareness from the alarming report of 1000 cases of flu in Boston. This was the first official report in Seattle of a “Spanish” flu outbreak in the United States. Although cases had been occurring in Boston for at least two weeks at that point.

Canadian Food Board poster, 1918

Might people have started hoarding groceries and other staples like when COVID-19 first hit the U.S.? Possibly, but many (particularly the rich) had already been hoarding illegally in opposition to war rations like their Canadian neighbors depicted here. Instead, if the Seattle Times can offer any insight, people’s fearful speculation would have resurfaced and morphed into outright conspiracy. On September 19, the U.S. war department fed newspapers across the nation a story that German spies carried in U-boats had likely been spreading the virus in theatres and sports venues along the Atlantic coast. This is similar today to how President Trump has framed COVID-19 as the “Chinese” virus stoking fears that the Chinese government created it and deliberately released it into the world.

Conspiracies aside, there was no denying the facts. Over 100 had already died in Boston by this point and the Great Lakes Naval Training station near Chicago went on lockdown the next day after its first death among hundreds of cases there. A day later (Sept 21), health officers at Camp Lewis near Tacoma reported over 100 cases of the flu.

Soldiers outside Camp Lewis quarantine appearing to take it lightly, 1918. Via Washington State Historical Society

Concurrently, Seattle’s health commissioner J.S. McBride announced the city was preparing to fight the flu and urged Seattleites to avoid the ill, eat well, and address symptoms immediately. Things were moving fast.

The Flu Arrives In Seattle

Over the following week, Seattle’s first official outbreak developed at the Naval Training Station at University of Washington. On September 28, the Station went on quarantine after reporting 200 cases. However, officials still denied it was “Spanish” flu and claimed the cases were mild. Meanwhile, health commissioner McBride, who likely knew about this outbreak ahead of the report, issued additional guidance urging people to avoid crowds and to contain coughs and sneezes—the same ones from the U.S. Medical Corp everyone had been ignoring since April. Thus, there was this sense of cognitive dissonance, a struggle to reconcile a growing concern and desire to take swifter action with a reluctance to accept the reality and sacrifice daily life as they knew it.