Las Vegas Sun

November 24, 2014

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Heroes of the pandemic

Flu deaths

Only 28 of the 43 Southern Nevadans who died of flu or from pneumonia brought on by the flu during the pandemic of 1918-19 were noted in the obituaries of the Las Vegas Age newspaper. All died in Las Vegas unless otherwise noted.

-- Oct. 7: Harry Edward Davisson, 30, machinist foreman.

-- Oct. 13: Mrs. J.H. Nichols, 34, mother of three.

-- Oct. 26: Joseph Sonzo, age and occupation unknown.

-- Oct 31: Francisco Funes, 28, railroad worker; George W. Phillips, 36, railroad worker; Pete Baron, 32, miner.

-- Nov. 1: Rosa Lopez, age and occupation unknown.

-- Nov. 3: Hormena Rohrman, age unknown, hospital care giver; Antonio Vasquez, 49, occupation unknown; Francisca Vasquez, 1. Note: Father Antonio and daughter Francisca were buried in the same casket.

-- Nov. 4: George Ulnie, age and occupation unknown; Vera Lopez, age and occupation unknown; Benjamin Pellizon, age and occupation unknown.

-- Nov. 5: Harold Knight Riddall, 38, miner, chemist and metallurgist who determined the presence of platinum in the Boss Mine, died in Goodsprings; B.E.D. Valentine, 45, occupation unknown; Joseph T. Huntsman, age and occupation unknown, resident of Mesquite.

-- Nov. 7: H.E. McCallum, age unknown, railroad conductor and father of four; Patrick O'Donnell, age and occupation unknown.

-- Nov. 11: Clyde Kemper Hooke, 31, railroad worker.

-- Nov. 12: Inocencia Chancole, 35, occupation unknown; Cecelia Boyer, 61, occupation unknown; Joe Fietta, 27, employee of the Yellow Pine Mine, died in Goodsprings.

-- Nov. 13: William Ham Daugherty, 75, age and occupation unknown, died in Jean.

-- Nov. 14: William Green, 17, railroad storehouse worker; Gertrude Bock, 30, occupation unknown.

-- Nov. 15: Jose Castro, 24, occupation unknown.

-- Dec. 9: George Arthur Fayle, 37, former Clark County Commission chairman and owner of Goodspring's Hotel Fayle, died in Goodsprings.

-- Dec. 17: Florence Annette Holmes, 22, sister of silent film actress Helen Holmes, who starred in the "Hazards of Helen" serial in 1915, the first motion picture filmed in Las Vegas. Florence Holmes spoke fluent Spanish and used that skill to warn the local Hispanic population about the flu and to help in treating the afflicted.

Las Vegas' first pharmacist, William E. Ferron, worked long into the nights during the fall and winter of 1918, mixing concoctions for prescriptions in a valiant effort to help his customers survive the flu pandemic that had gripped the world.

At the same time, Dr. Royce Wood "Roy" Martin, Clark County's chief health officer, drove throughout the county on primitive roads to treat a panicked citizenry.

"Every household was impacted by the flu that swept through this town in 1918," said Bob Stoldal, vice president of news operations at KLAS Channel 8 and a historian specializing in Las Vegas history from 1900 to 1921.

"Every Las Vegan either had the flu, knew someone who had the flu or knew someone who had died from the flu. It was frightening."

Stoldal has spent five years researching the worst-ever flu pandemic that killed more than 40 million people worldwide and more than a half million in the United States, including 43 in Clark County, which had a population of about 2,000.

In a sense, Clark County, with its roughly two dozen deaths per 1,000 residents, was lucky compared with Philadelphia, where 158 people out of every 1,000 died; Baltimore, where 148 out of every 1,000 died; and Washington, where 109 of every 1,000 died.

But with Southern Nevada's population now about 1.8 million, a modern flu pandemic with a death ratio comparable to that of 1918 would result in more than 43,000 people dying locally.

"We need to understand that, as in 1918, this flu would cross all economic strata," Stoldal said. "It would kill the rich as well as the poor; the healthy as well as those with weakened immune systems. We need to take it seriously."

As the world braces for what some experts warn will be a flu pandemic three times more deadly than the Spanish flu pandemic that struck in World War I, Stoldal said Southern Nevada needs to learn from its mistakes of 87 years ago.

For example, although the first case of Spanish flu hit town on Sept. 23, 1918, one of the town's two newspapers, the Clark County Review, "ignored or downplayed the epidemic for nearly a month," Stoldal said.

In the Oct. 5 edition of the Review, which today is the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the paper reported on Page 4: "Local doctors say there are no cases of the 'flu' in Las Vegas at the present."

However, the rival newspaper, the Las Vegas Age, under Editor C.P. "Pop" Squires, had jumped on the story the preceding week and reported in the Sept. 28 editions on Page 1: "A number of Vegas people have been suffering from an epidemic of influenza."

The Age reported that, by Oct. 5, 80 cases of flu and six cases of flu with pneumonia had been reported in Las Vegas. By Oct. 19, the Age reported, there were 140 cases of flu locally, including five new cases per day.

While the reports in the newspapers were conflicting and potentially confusing to the public in the days before radio and television news, Doc Martin knew he had a major problem on his hands. Several members of Martin's family were sick with the flu, Stoldal said.

The town's hospital on Second Street had just 12 beds, so most flu recuperation took place in homes -- many of which had "quarantined" signs nailed to their front doors by health officials.

Longtime Las Vegas businessman Ed Von Tobel was 5 years old in 1918 and recalls precautions that were taken to protect the young.

"I had to stay in the house all of the time -- I remember wondering why I had to stay locked up and could not go outside," Von Tobel, now 92, said.

Stoldal said he found a stanza that was popular with Las Vegas children in late 1918:

"I had a little bird. Its name was Enza. I opened the window And in-flew-Enza!"

"The flu was talked about for many years after that," Von Tobel recalled. "It was a real calamity."

Arrived on the rails

The flu is believed to have arrived in Las Vegas via a passenger or worker on the San Pedro-Los Angeles-Salt Lake Railroad, then the town's major employer.

Stoldal noted that Las Vegas is visited by millions of people from all over the world, so today it is much more vulnerable.

In 1918 the flu forced the closure of schools, the Majestic Theatre and all public places in Las Vegas.

What is now Paradise Road was then the road to Goodsprings, where residents -- including two-term Clark County Commissioner George Arthur Fayle -- were bracing for the potential spread of the deadly disease.

It was up to Martin, a country doctor who stressed a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables -- albeit often with a lit Lucky Strike cigarette dangling from his lips -- to deliver the bad news to residents throughout the county.

"No serum or other remedy for the disease is known," Martin told reporters. "We are in the midst of an influenza epidemic (that) must be controlled or a great loss of life will result."

On Nov. 4, the Las Vegas City Commission -- today called the city council -- passed Ordinance No. 73, making it mandatory for everyone to wear medical face masks within city limits.

Clark County's American Red Cross chapter quickly began making and distributing the masks. Anyone caught by police not wearing a mask faced fines of $50 to $1,000, Stoldal said.

On Nov. 19, 1918, the Age reported there were 12 deaths from the flu within the week and that three other people were in critical condition. One was C.B Faust -- the town's undertaker.

The Age reported that Faust "is confined to his bed. ... There is difficulty in getting sufficient caskets for the dead and it has been necessary to have them made of boards."

In general, Clark County residents relied on Ferron's apothecary skills to try to avoid ending up in a pine box.

Ferron worked long hours and did his best to provide treatments that would give his customers a degree of comfort, Stoldal said. Still, with no cure available, Ferron's medicines did not make the disease go away.

Ferron was elected the city's third mayor in 1919. He served one term and went on to open several local pharmacies, including White Cross Drugs, which still operates today at 1700 Las Vegas Blvd. South. Ferron died in 1965 at age 77, and a local elementary school is named after him.

Throughout the county

In November 1918, Martin was called to Goodsprings as several flu cases had been reported there and at the Yellow Pine Mine. One victim was Fayle, who caught not only the flu but also double pneumonia.

On Dec. 9, 1918, Fayle, whom Stoldal described as "a robust 37-year-old man," died at his Goodsprings home.

On Dec. 14, the Age in a lengthy obituary paid tribute to Fayle, owner of the Hotel Fayle. He was the husband of the former Jean Henderson for whom the town of Jean is named.

"His (Fayle's) body now reposes in the grave on the little knoll ... just by the place which was his life's best work," the Age reported. "And as the years roll on, the sight of his grave beside the road will be as a greeting to old friends who travel to the little town of Goodsprings."

About the time of Fayle's death, things began to return to normal in Southern Nevada. The Majestic Theatre reopened, as did the schools and the pool halls.

But Doc Martin's work was far from over, Stoldal said.

The week before Christmas, the flu epidemic struck Moapa Valley, with 38 new cases reported.

Moapa community leaders Levi Syphus, Nina Sullivan and Harry and Ellen Gentry sent Martin a telegram saying that the flu hit town "immediately upon the return of one of our soldier boys, who while in Moapa, was treated to a dance. Practically all who attended said dance now are affected."

But as quickly as the flu hit, it was all but gone from Southern Nevada by the first week in January 1919. The Age reported that in Moapa Valley, where the flu "broke out last week with considerable violence (all are reported to be) doing well and no deaths have been reported."

In his report before the 1919 Nevada Legislature, Dr. Simeon L. Lee, then head of the Nevada Board of Health, said the flu "spread rapidly throughout the state until there was scarcely a village or hamlet that did not pay toll to it in human life."

He estimated there were between 4,000 and 5,000 cases of Spanish flu in Nevada and noted that in cases "where pneumonia was contributory, the death rate was very high."

Lee reported that in 1918 there were 235 documented cases of flu in Clark County and 42 cases of pneumonia related to the flu. In comparison, there was just one case of flu or pneumonia and one death from flu or pneumonia in 1917, according to state records.

Stoldal, however, says "the true death toll (from the 1918 flu pandemic) will never be known."

He noted, for example, that W.R. Thomas never fully recovered from his bout with the flu and died in 1920, but is not counted in the flu-death statistics. Thomas built the Thomas Building on the corner of First and Fremont streets where Martin for many years had his practice.

Martin doctored his family back to health as he had done for so many other families by making numerous house calls throughout the valley.

He would go on to build Las Vegas Hospital on Eighth Street and be elected to the Nevada Assembly. When World War II broke out, he came out of retirement because there was a shortage of doctors. Martin died on Dec. 27, 1943, at age 69. A Las Vegas middle school is named after him.

Stoldal said that while today's medicines may be superior to those of 1918, Las Vegans should not be so sure they will do any better with a future strain than the drugs of the past did with the Spanish flu.

"We should not go about with the attitude to not worry," Stoldal said. "We need to be concerned and we need to be knowledgeable. We need to push our government officials -- local, state and federal -- to provide us with as much information as they can so that we can protect ourselves."

Ed Koch can be reached at 259-4090 or at [email protected]

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