A century ago the 1918 flu killed more than 50 million people worldwide. Spread by troops during World War I, it has been known as the world’s last great pandemic—before COVID-19 came along, that is. But when the disease swept into Houston in September 1918, our city, which had lived through its fair share of yellow fever, smallpox, and other lethal outbreaks, still had plenty of naysayers chalking the epidemic up to the same old seasonal flu. “It’s really quite eerie,” says University of Houston medical historian Helen Valier, who points out the similarities to today. “From the Houston Post you have a very similar situation to now—a lot of people who’re saying this isn’t anything different: This is just regular flu, not Spanish flu. And public health people saying, No, I don’t think it is, actually.”
Granted, the world was also vastly different in 1918. Most people were consumed by the war playing out in Europe, and sensationalized reports had Texans paranoid that Mexicans and Germans would invade at any moment from the south. Houston itself was a rapidly developing city, having doubled in population since the 1910 Census—to about 200,000—and home to all things new and improved, including the nation’s first wastewater “sludge” treatment facilities, the newly constructed Rice Hotel, and a budding deep-sea port, oil industry, and arts community. Packed streetcars allowed the growing populace to move through the city with ease, a modern convenience that would prove to be a problem when the deadly virus arrived.
Known as “Spanish influenza”—not because it originated in Spain, but because the neutral nation reported on the outbreak more than countries at war did, creating the false impression that it was worse there—this H1N1 virus spread from birds to pigs and humans, likely originating in China or America. By the time the pandemic subsided, Spanish flu had infected a third of the world population over three waves from 1917 to 1920. Some 675,000 Americans died from flu-related complications, including organ failure and pneumonia, and many believe that more troops died from the disease than in actual battle during World War I.
The second wave of the Spanish flu, beginning in fall 1918, was the worst—“That’s when you start to see a lot of the deaths,” says Valier—and that’s when it appeared at Houston’s Camp Logan, where Memorial Park is today. Even then Houstonians enjoyed picnics on the park-like grounds and brought soldiers lunch. But the camp was more infamously known as the site of Houston’s first race “riot,” in August 1917, a result of African American troops being harassed by Jim Crow–enabled local law enforcement, which resulted in a confrontation that left 19 dead, 15 injured, and 19 men, all black, unjustly sentenced to hang. That racial tension still loomed large over the segregated city when the flu rolled in a year later.
Initially the outbreak was confined to the soldier training grounds. By September 24 there were more than 600 flu cases at Camp Logan, 48 people had died, and field hospitals were being set up to treat the afflicted men. Soon it spread through town.
Those who contracted the disease faced the unknown. There was no vaccine, and it tended to affect the young severely, with the mortality rate proving to be highest among those aged 20 to 40. Some patients might start showing symptoms in the morning and succumb before nightfall, while others gradually suffocated to death as their lungs filled with fluid. Wilma Bunton was a child living on the edge of the city when she and most of her family came down with it.
“I remember my older brother Louis was the only one who didn’t get sick,” she said in an oral history decades later. “So he’d try to fix something for us for breakfast, or he’d try to fix something for supper. None of us were interested whatsoever. They didn’t have a doctor there, so you just had to do what you thought you could.”
Despite warnings from Texas public health officials, Houston’s local health and city officials played down the threat for weeks, even as 10 more solders died over a 24-hour period on October 3. The Post, one of Houston’s most influential papers at the time, disagreed with the proposed quarantine, and public officials were loath to be the ones to force the issue. But as the contagion continued to spread, the call to close the city began to come from Houstonians themselves.
Damage had already been done. By the time the acting mayor enforced a ban on public gatherings on October 9, the real mayor, 20 police officers, 100 streetcar drivers, 175 phone operators, and likely hundreds of other Houstonians had the flu. The next day the criminal district clerk of Harris County died from the disease, and it was already circulating among the student population of the Rice Institute.
So Houston went dark. For 17 days the quarantine closed courts and stopped jury duty, athletic events, war drives, and other large public gatherings. Moving-picture shows, dance halls, and saloons temporarily shuttered. Churches and schools followed suit, and the Barnum & Bailey Circus packed up and left town. And though Houstonians couldn’t obtain their beloved whiskey (thought to be a cure) and clogged the phone lines to chat—the Dallas Morning News begged people to stop the “idle and useless telephone conversations,” but the Houston Chronicle just asked them to “exercise all possible patience”—residents were compliant with social distancing, for the most part, anyway. Hundreds turned out to see a train carrying German planes and guns roll through Grand Central Station, and city leaders allowed Gentry’s Famous Dog & Pony Show to arrive in town for a five-month stint, despite the quarantine in place.
Still, the people stepped up, albeit some in ways that may have annoyed their neighbors. “Citizens were reporting on each other, too,” says Valier. “Human nature being what it is, some were more enthusiastic than others.” Houstonians volunteered to stand on patrol to watch for crowding in stores. There was cough etiquette, and citizens expressed disdain for spitting, using public cups or towels, and coughing or sneezing in public.
They handled it, though. This was years before the Texas Medical Center would be established, so when the existing hospitals ran out of beds, Rice’s dormitory housed influenza patients. While treating stricken patients, Benjamin Covington, an African American doctor, also developed a formula to ease the pain of flu symptoms, one that was effective enough that the local United States Army medical corps actually secured its use. (Covington would help open the nonprofit Houston Negro Hospital in the Third Ward a few years later, allowing many previously unserved Houstonians to gain access to health care.)
In large part these measures seem to have worked. When the quarantine lifted on October 26, crowds descended upon downtown in the rain to take in vaudeville shows and matinee movies—business as usual. Ultimately, Houston wasn’t ravaged by the 1918 flu the way other U.S. cities were.
And there were other positive developments. The flu outbreak allowed African American nurses and doctors to work openly alongside white colleagues in the unsegregated barracks at Camp Logan for the first time. It likely accelerated the introduction of government regulations at our port—especially since the cotton industry had to quarantine crops with pink bollworm in 1918, too. And because folks could not get the whiskey they sought during the saloon shutdown, a law was passed in December 1918 allowing Galveston residents to obtain it at the pharmacy—with a doctor’s note, of course.
Houston, however, didn’t follow suit. But if you’re searching for a little encouragement right now in the face of COVID-19, a Post quip from the month after the 1918 quarantine offers this advice: Released of that precious boon of leisure, which the ill wind of influenza brought ... all plans for a winter of “carrying on” will go forward with vim.
Sounds like a plan.