Spanish Flu and the First Amendment

Spanish Flu and the First Amendment

Learn how the suppression of Free Speech and Free Press by the US Government had a disastrous influence on the spread of the Spanish Flu. We take a broader look, as well as focus on one small Maine community, to see the lives affected by this deadly disease and the tragic consequences of the restriction on First Amendment freedoms.

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it harmonizes.”

Stephen King


In the fall of 1918, farmers across the nation, including some in the Bridgton, Maine, area were very angry with the Word and Works printing company of St. Louis, Missouri. These farmers were subscribers of the popular Irl R. Hicks Almanac. They had paid their subscription fees but their almanacs had not arrived on time. Some Almanac subscribers furiously wrote to Word and Works demanding a refund. Some even threatened lawsuits. In the days before the internet, television, and radio, people depended on almanacs for farming and to not receive one when needed was sometimes an issue of life and death. Therefore the missing Almanac was no laughing matter. Eventually the Irl R. Hicks Almanac was sent out. Farmers received the Almanac and went about their work and the incident was soon forgotten. What had caused the delay, however, was the unexpected death of the Word and Works publishing foreman. He had shown up to work ill, slogged through the day, but was soon dead from the severity of his affliction. In the process he had infected numerous other employees at the publishing company, putting a halt to business. This event would be one of the earliest indicators to the people of Bridgton, and small towns across the US, that something wasn’t right.

Bridgton, Maine, during the fall of 1918 was a modest community of only 2,500 residents. Like many Maine towns of that day it had mills, a tannery, a shoe factory, and a brick manufacturer. It had packing plants for vegetables and even boasted a coffin shop. Canals and railroads connected it to the outside world and brought people in and out. It was a typical Maine town.

On a September Saturday in 1918, a soldier at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, came down with the same mysterious illness that had inflicted the printers in far-off Missouri. The soldiers at Fort Devens were from all over New England, including Bridgton, and were awaiting deployment to France to fight in the Great War. The disease burned through the camp killing scores of soldiers. One soldier, Wint Clark, from Bridgton, described the devastation years later: “people were dying something wicked! Something wicked! Truck after truck came by our barracks, all draped in red, white and blue, carrying the bodies. I counted 65 trucks in one hour go by that place.” Officials at Fort Devens decided the soldiers should be sent home to recuperate if they could. This decision would have disastrous consequences as it would help spread the virus.

George Kimball, the third soldier at Fort Devens from Bridgton to get sick, came down in late September. His mother went to see him and care for him. George’s mom found him on a cot on the patio since the hospital was so overflowing. She had to wear a gas mask the entire time she was visiting the hospital. As Kimball’s mother, and other Bridgton mothers in similar situations, made their way to south to see sick sons, the bodies of two twenty-five year old victims of the disease, both soldiers at Fort Devens, were coming back the opposite direction on their way to Bridgton for their double funeral at the First Congregational Church in town.. Crowds gathered to commemorate the lives of the two fallen men- the first Bridgton men to die from the illness. The mothers going back and forth from Bridgton to Fort Devens and the bodies being sent home unwittingly carried with them the same plague that would kill 850 men in Fort Devens alone.

By early-October the disease was stalking silently through Bridgton. Mrs. Carrie Batchelder and her daughter Janet succumbed to the disease while Batchelder’s son, Janet’s brother, was fighting in FranceThomas Mullaney, a man who had only been married to his wife Eva for about a year, passed away after a short but severe bout with the illness. Most devastating for the community, however, was the death of 25-year-old Flossie Ridlon. Ridlon was a popular young woman who had been described as “possessed of many excellent and attractive attributes.” The community had rallied around Ridlon as she battled Rheumatism for over a year before she came down with the mysterious disease taking away so many lives in Bridgton. The disease would go on to infect 405 residents of Bridgton in October alone.

What was this disease sweeping through Bridgton? It was the infamous Spanish Influenza. Lasting from February 1918 to April 1920, it infected 500 million people – about a third of the world’s population at the time – in four successive waves. The death toll is typically estimated to have been somewhere between 17 million and 50 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. The first cases were reported, similarly to Fort Devens, at an Army base in Kansas. The disease quickly hopped aboard troop ships heading to Europe and from there went on to devastate much of the globe.

Why were the hapless citizens of Bridgton, and every other small town across America, caught so off-guard by the pandemic? Part of the answer lies in the suppression of free speech and the freedom of the press enacted by the United States government during World War I. In 1917, president Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Espionage Act which prohibited “obtaining information, recording pictures, or copying descriptions of any information relating to the national defense with intent or reason to believe that the information may be used for the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.” The act also created criminal penalties for anyone obstructing enlistment in the armed forces or causing insubordination or disloyalty in military or naval forces. These overly-broad restrictions on First Amendment freedoms would contribute to the spread of the disastrous influenza. Wilson followed up the Espionage Act with the ancillary Sedition Act of 1918 which made it a crime to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States.

News of a virus spreading through Army camps in the Midwest, then the east coast, and then Europe was available as early as March and April of 1918. The first wave of the pandemic was much milder than it would become but it showed signs it was quickly becoming far deadlier during its initial spread. When the disease returned in the late summer during its second wave, its mortality rate would reach 2.5%- compared to less than 0.1% in previous years. Worried about its effect on morale during the war, the Wilson administration used the Espionage and Sedition Acts, to impose strict silencing of accurate medical reports. Newspapers that were reporting accurately on the dangers of the influenza early on were silenced using the Espionage and Sedition Acts.  The acts allowed the government to do three troubling things: silence newspapers, ignore doctors, and spread false information. The Jefferson County Union, a newspaper in Wisconsin, attempted to sound alarm bells about the pandemic in September of 1918. The Army prosecuted the paper under the twin acts for hurting morale on the homefront and silenced the paper.

While the Jefferson County Union was being silenced, in Philadelphia, doctors pleaded with government officials to cancel a patriotic war bond parade scheduled for the 28th of September. When the officials refused to heed the doctors’ warning, they went directly to the press. Fearful of being prosecuted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, however, the press refused to publish any stories or warnings about the pandemic. The parade went ahead and by the end of the pandemic, 14,500 people had died in the city from the influenza.

It was clear the virus was now out of hand and ignoring it entirely was impossible. In Maine, it wasn’t until the 25th of September, 6 months after the first wave of the virus had gotten underway, that the state Department of Health issued warnings about the disease. Unlike in Philadelphia, the liberty loan parades were postponed throughout the State because of public health concerns, Dr. Leverett D. Bristol, the health commissioner of Maine, said that he believed the epidemic of Spanish influenza in this state seems to be increasing, and he thought moving picture theaters ought to be closed temporarily as a preventative measure, but that the schools should remain open. Following a conference of 30 citizens in Portland, the city mayor’s office voted informally to close all places of public assembly. When Dr. Bristol recommended to the Portland mayor that a mask mandate should be implemented, the mayor frowned dramatically and others in the room laughed. 

The disease was shaping up to be a disaster for the state of Maine, and the whole country at large. The cat was now out of the bag and, 6 months after the disease began, by the time the flu was already claiming victims in towns throughout the country, newspapers finally were braving the Espionage and Sedition Acts and were discussing the pandemic openly. The Bar Harbor Times, bewildered by the sudden onslaught that beset the nation seemingly out of nowhere, cried: “Is this new disease which has already killed hundreds and stricken thousands of our soldiers and civilians a new German war offensive? If not, how did it happen that this epidemic appeared so suddenly and extensively in such widely scattered cities and army camps throughout the country? Smitten as from a bolt from a clear sky thousands of Americans have been suddenly prostrated in many widely separated parts of the country, during the past 10 days, by a disease which is called, apparently for want of a better name ‘Spanish Influenza’.” Little did the Bar Harbor Times know that the Federal government had long known of the disease but had suppressed the press and people from openly discussing it. 

Even the name, “Spanish Flu” is a reflection of this government suppression of free speech. The disease became commonly known as the “Spanish Flu” in the United States and Europe because many assumed it had originated on the Iberian Peninsula, but the nickname was actually the result of a widespread misunderstanding. Spain was one of only a few major European countries to remain neutral during World War I. Unlike in the warring nations, where wartime censors suppressed news of the flu to avoid affecting morale, the Spanish media was free to report on it in gory detail. News of the sickness first made headlines in Madrid in late-May 1918, and coverage only increased after the Spanish King Alfonso XIII came down with a nasty case a week later. Since nations undergoing a media blackout could only read in depth accounts from Spanish news sources, they naturally assumed that the country was the pandemic’s ground zero. The Spanish, meanwhile, believed the virus had spread to them from France, so they took to calling it the “French Flu.” 53 seconds.

So thorough was the newspaper blackout that the first time the citizens of Bridgton would hear about the Spanish Flu in town was on September 6th (four months after the citizens of Spain would hear about it from their media) in the “Bright and Breezy” humor column of the The Bridgton News newspaper: “An epidemic of Influenza is rampant in the German Army, but it goes without saying they are not sneezing at the American Army.” Less than three weeks later the disease making the Germans sneeze would be striking down people, not in the far off trenches of Europe, but in the homes of Bridgton. Even by October 4th, the Bridgton News was describing concern over the influenza as a “hysteria”. By the 11th, a third of the weavers at the American Woolen Company Mill in Bridgton were sick with influenza. The Post Office was shut down because a majority of the mail carriers were ill. Even three staff members of the Bridgton News were down from what they had so recently described as “a hysteria”. 50 seconds.

By November, more of Bridgton’s citizens had died. One young man, Guy Rolfe, decided to brave the illness by volunteering to help nurse the many sick in the community. He himself succumbed to the illness in his family home on School Street at the age of 23. Cyrus Barker, a machinist by trade who had gotten into the grocery business, died at 63. Barker was an outlier since the disease mostly took young people in the prime of their health by causing an overreaction of the immune system that often led to pneumonia, meningitis, and then death. 27 seconds.

Efforts to contain the virus grew in reaction to the mounting death toll. Mask mandates were a popular strategy to slow the spread of the disease. Citizens, finding the mask mandates troublesome and, as some claimed, a violation of their rights, organized together to utilize their First Amendment rights and protest the mask mandates. In San Francisco,the first city to issue a mask mandate an Anti-Mask League was formed to more effectively protest the mask mandates. On a January 25th, 1918, meeting, 4,000-5,000 people gathered to attend an anti-mask rally.  The president of the League, suffragist, attorney, and labor rights activist Mrs. E.C. Harrington, and a fierce critic of the mayor who issued the mask mandate, suggested that the mask mandates were politically motivated. The debate was heated. Some objections to the ordinance were based on questions of scientific data while others considered the mandates an infringement on civil liberties.

Tensions in San Francisco became even more flared when on October 28th, a man named James Wisser was giving a public speech in which he described mask wearing as “bunk”. A health inspector, Henry D. Miller, led Wisser to the drugstore to buy a mask. At the door, Wisser struck health inspector Miller with a sack of silver dollars and knocked him to the ground, then began beating him with the sack. While being “pummeled,” Mr. Miller, 62, fired four times with a revolver. Passers-by “scurried for cover,” even though three people, including Wisser, would be injured.  At a boxing match, a police photographer captured images of several supervisors, a congressman, a justice, a Navy rear-admiral, the city’s health officer and even the mayor, all without masks- violating the city mask mandate. The health officer paid a $5 fine and the mayor later paid a $50 fine, but unlike other “mask slackers,” they received no prison time. 

Alma Whitaker, writing in The Los Angeles Times, reviewed masks’ impact on society and celebrity, saying famous people shunned them because it was “so horrid” to go unrecognized. “The big restaurants are the funniest sights, with all the waiters and diners masked, the latter just raising their screen to pop in a mouthful of food,” she wrote. When Ms. Whitaker herself declined to wear one, she was “forcibly taken” to the Red Cross as a “slacker,” and ordered to make one and put it on. Back in Maine, The Bridgton News half-joked that men, “who wear laughable clothes from necktie to socks, are afraid to put on masks for fear it might hurt their personal appearance.” It followed up that line with the grimmer yet also comical, “It is announced that Spain is now rid of the Influenza, yes we know where it went to.” 

Back in Bridgton, by late December there were 124 active cases in the town. Public venues such as schools and theaters were still closed, concerts and lectures had been cancelled, and the town’s community Christmas tree ceremony was cancelled for the year. Deaths continued, however. Louise Durgin, born in 1885 and a resident of Bridgton her entire life, died in her home on Main Street. One man, Charles Treadwell, had a daughter who lived in Bridgton who came down sick. Charles rushed from Naples, Maine, to Bridgton to care for her. While visiting, Charles slipped while climbing out his sleigh and hit his head hard enough that it killed him. His daughter Sadie, the one sick with influenza, died three days later. One Bridgton resident, W. Burton Snow, wrote to The Bridgton News: “The disease is spreading rapidly, and why- should it not? Some places of gathering are closed, others allowed to remain open, some social activity restrained, others not. The mills are allowed-to run, and the workmen from sick homes go from home to factory to factory to home. The movement of influenza stricken families who remain well are unrestricted. They go where they will in store, shop, street, and neighbors. Who shall say when those of us who first contract the disease can first transmit it?…For the community good…close the stricken homes and permit well folks to go about their accustomed activities…or if that seems not best, close the homes anyway and clap the ban on every place of social gathering of any sort.” 

The virus, however, was already out of hand in Bridgton. Dr. Angus Hebb, a physician in town, was working so feverishly that he kept two horses and hired a driver in order to have time to catch a nap between visits to his patients. Reportedly, Hebb was very successful with his flu cases and attributed his success to a liberal use of castor oil. Bridgton lacked a hospital and, due to the influx of sick residents, Dr. Hebb used part of his house as a temporary hospital. Anonymous citizens, most lost to history, people like Dr. Hebb and Guy Rolfe, the young man who perished while volunteering to help others, risked everything to help their communities throughout America. . 

Influenza waxed and waned in Maine throughout late 1918 and the first six months of

1919. The 1918 State Department of Health report states that Maine “was one of the first in the

U.S. to take action requiring influenza to be reported by physicians to local boards of health, and by the latter to the State Dept of Health; and giving local boards of health authority to institute modified quarantine.” Other parts of America were not so fortunate. The active suppression of free speech and the free press denied officials the right to see case and mortality numbers in order to get a sense of how dangerous the disease was, it barred the press from warning people and reporting on stories, and it enabled the disease to surprise towns and cities who had no time to plan for the pandemic. 

Almost 47,000 cases of influenza were reported in Maine with about 5,000 deaths during the pandemic. Another 500 Mainers died overseas due to the pandemic. Tragically, the leading associated causes of Influenza deaths were pregnancy, tuberculosis, and heart disease. Indeed, newspaper reports across Maine noted the association of pregnancy and death from influenza. The death rate from influenza in the preceding years ranged from 1 to 6 per 10,000. In 1918, that death rate was 32. One-half of these 5,000 deaths were in the month of October, 1918 alone. About 50% of those who died were ages 20 – 40. The years preceding the pandemic, 3% of deaths from influenza were in this age group.

Unsurprisingly, President Woodrow Wilson never spoke publicly about the pandemic feeling he did not want to detract from the war or demoralize the public. Wilson, perhaps the man most responsible for the devastation in the United States from a disease that killed almost as many Americans as the Civil War, himself would come down with the Spanish Flu while negotiating peace in Paris in 1919. When Wilson came down with the flu his mental state collapsed. Wilson became obsessed with “funny things,” as an aide put it. He grew fixated on the furniture in the house and came to believe that he was surrounded by French spies.

The US government’s suppression of free speech and the free press during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, while far from being the only reason, was an important factor in how easily the disease spread throughout the world. One can only speculate how things might have turned out differently had there been no suppression- how many lives could have been saved. 

According to a Maine Department of Health and Human Services report, “there are small signs scattered across our state even today, leaving evidence of the impact of the 1918 pandemic. One example is in the Bath-Brunswick area. This city was more vulnerable to the impact of influenza because its population had recently doubled to nearly 20,000 as a result of wartime jobs in the shipyard. In a matter of weeks, Bath saw more than 3,000 cases of influenza. Although Bath had its own hospital, 4 additional makeshift hospitals were set up. For

two weeks in mid-late October, all public gatherings were closed. Tagging of houses with white cards and red letters tacked to the doors warned people not to enter because of  influenza in the household. As in other Maine towns, influenza outbreaks visited twice more over the coming months. Among those who succumbed to the infection in Bath were three nurses who volunteered to assist the city: Harriet Bliss, age 28, Alice Dain, age 29, and Adelaide Hogue, age 34. As evidence of the pandemic’s effects, a commemorative plaque still hangs today at MidCoast Hospital, in honor of these young women.”

In Bridgton, Maine, however, there is no physical reminder of the disease that ravaged so many homes in the town, many of which still stand and now belong to new families. Even throughout 1918-1919, the pandemic never was a front-page headline in the Bridgton News. However, in 1980, horror author and fellow Mainer Stephen King released a book entitled The Mist about an unnaturally thick mist which envelopes Bridgton. Within the mist are fantastical creatures that kill Bridgton residents one by one. Two soldiers reveal that the mist may be the result of a clandestine government cover-up involving a nearby military base. Much like the eponymous mist in King’s work, the Spanish flu enveloped Bridgton from a nearby military base and was partly the result of a government cover-up. The Spanish Flu, however, was a horror only nature could conjure up.