In September of 1918, Treasure Valley residents were focused on the war raging in Europe. They were involved with drives to raise money for that effort and young men were leaving regularly for the fight. But there were lesser headlines in the papers that were starting to capture the attention of readers. There was a plague moving into the United States from Europe. It was sometimes called the Army Plague, because it was infecting army camps and shipyards where returning soldiers were billeted. It would soon be known widely as the Spanish Influenza.
The Idaho Statesman’s medical columnist, Dr. William Brady wasn’t much concerned about it. He was certain it would be no worse than any other flu that had come and gone in the preceding decades. He recommended that his readers prepare for it by taking long walks out of doors. Getting fresh air and plenty of exercise would not prevent the flu, but it would give one the strength and vigor needed to combat it.
The first reports that really hit home were of area soldiers who were quarantined at their bases, either in training or on their way home. Sickness followed for many, and death for a few. Reports of traveling citizens in eastern cities coming down with the disease soon followed.
On October 2, 1918, the Spanish Flu had hit the valley. Six families, consisting of 15 persons in and near Caldwell came down with the disease. The carrier was identified as a woman from Missouri who had visited the families. Quarantines were put in place.
Most of the stories about the flu in local papers were from back east where cases were growing rapidly. A health commissioner in New York was recommending gauze or chiffon masks. Another helpful suggestion he had was to avoid kissing unless you did it through a handkerchief.
As concern about the Spanish Influenza mounted, advertisements started popping up offering preventions, cures, or symptomatic relief. Tanlac Laxative Tablets were said to contain the very elements needed by the system to give it fighting strength. Lister’s Anteseptic Solution was billed as “First Aid to Prevent Spanish Influenza.” This on the same page as an ad for Danderine, claiming that dandruff makes hair fall out. These were alongside ads such as that from the California Fig Syrup Company lauding their product as a cure when your child was cross, irritable, feverish, or had bad breath. Another ad went after the flu fear market, claiming Kondon’s Catarrhal Jelly applied inside the nose would give antiseptic relief.
By October 6, a boy in Star had come down with the flu. On October 9, Dr. E.T. Biwer, secretary of the state board of health, ordered a ban on all public gatherings, including theaters, dance halls, churches, the Natatorium, Liberty Loan rallies (raising money for the war), and political rallies. Only public and private schools were exempted.
This ruffled a lot of feathers. Lodge representatives, members of men’s and women’s clubs, ministers, and pool hall owners made the phone ring constantly at the state board of health, a usually quiet office. Dr. Biwer stood firm, saying that only open-air meetings and private and public schools were exempt.
The Boise Ministerial Association took another tact, saying that if there was danger enough to close churches, then schools should also be closed.
Meanwhile, the Boise City Council questioned the state official’s authority to ban meetings and asked for a legal opinion. An opinion came quickly, but in the form of a Statesmen editorial on October 12. The editors opined that such stringent measures should not be put into effect until “there were 400 or 500 cases, or at least more than our physicians could control.”
Meanwhile, the state began citing pool hall owners for defying the order.
On October 13, the Statesman reported 90 cases of influenza in the state. On October 15, the secretary of the board of health ruled that a state land board meeting should be closed after seeing that 25 people had showed up for the event. That was the same day the paper reported Boise’s first influenza cases.
Mrs. Ray Shawver, 1317 North Twenty-second Street was named as the first person in Boise to catch the disease. Her house was quarantined, and a yellow flag was put out front to visually mark it. When the Statesman next reported state statistics, the number of influenza cases had risen to 161. New cases were reported in Star and Nampa.
It was about this time that the motion picture industry suspended delivery of films to theaters to assure that patrons would not be gathering in infectious groups.
On October 16 the Statesman reported a statewide total of 209 cases. On the 17th, the number was up to 471. On the 18th, the story broke that there were 300 cases of Spanish Influenza in the town of Nez Perce, population 600.
Ada County Civil Defense began gathering the names of nurses, calling for “graduate nurses, pupil nurses, undergraduate nurses, trained attendants, practical nurses and midwives.”
On October 19, the state statistics came in again. Ada county had only 15 cases, but there were 1008 infected statewide. Seven had died.
On October 20, the state health board gave a general closing order for schools statewide. Courts began rescheduling cases.
A rumor spread quickly that Boise was under quarantine, as some smaller towns such as Challis, were. The secretary of the state board of health moved quickly to quash that one.
On the 23rd the statewide toll of confirmed cases reached 1711.
Boise dragged its feet on closing schools. Even so it was costing $20,000 a day statewide to pay teachers who were not working.
By October 28 the Statesman reported 11 new cases in the city, and six deaths in a single day. St. Anthony and Rexburg were under quarantine. Halloween was cancelled in Boise.
The Spanish Influenza would ebb and flow over the coming months until The Statesman was able to declare in a headline on January 19, 1919, “Schools Free of Disease.”
Because of haphazard reporting it is difficult to determine an exact number for those who succumbed to the disease. In Boise, it was probably about 75. Other areas of the state were hit much harder. Paris, Idaho, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, had a mortality rate of nearly 50 percent. Native Americans were hit especially hard in Idaho, with 75 deaths out of a population of just over 4,000. Worldwide estimates are between 20 and 50 million who succumbed to the disease.