(The following story was written by Mike Anderson, a Bisbee resident and historian. It was written for Southern Arizona Guide in Summer 2020.)
Bisbee’s Evergreen Cemetery, like many historic burial grounds, is a monument to the community’s past. Its most prominent occupants include George Warren, one of the earliest prospectors in the mining camp. Reputed to be the hardest drinking man in Bisbee, Warren’s name was affixed to the mining district where Bisbee was located. His likeness even appears on the Arizona State Seal. His bones rest beneath a large white concrete monument close to the cemetery’s main entrance.
As one walks through the weed and cactus covered graveyard, it’s easy to pick out clues that reveal Bisbee’s character. There are graves of pioneers dating back to the 1880s, when the town was a raw and relatively primitive copper mining camp. Many headstones have Eastern Europeans names, with epitaphs chiseled in Cyrillic letters.
One of the most striking features of the cemetery comes from the large number of graves bearing the death dates of 1918 and 1919. Those were the years that a great pestilence scourged the earth and Bisbee was not spared.
Pandemics are nothing new to the human experience. Ancient Greek historian Thucydides chronicled the devastation caused by the plague of Athens in 430 B.C. Plagues periodically devastated the Roman Empire and ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages. Outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and smallpox increased in frequency as human population increased and concentrated in cities.
Morbidity and mortality – known in laymen’s terms as disease and death – were much more a part of everyday life in the early 20th Century than they are today. Tuberculosis was widespread and a diagnosis was almost always a death sentence. Other communicable and infectious diseases such as influenza, whooping cough, measles, polio, smallpox, typhoid fever, cholera, scarlet fever and malaria also cut a swath through the human population. In 1918, life expectancy in the U.S. was only 54 years for women and 48 years for men. But, despite the accepted prevalence and impact of disease, the world was totally unprepared for what it was to encounter during the second half of 1918.
The impact of the war in Europe had already reached the copper mining town of Bisbee, AZ well before the summer of 1918. Most of that impact had been positive. The price of copper had skyrocketed since hostilities broke out in August 1914 between the Allies (primarily Britain, France, Russia and later, Italy) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey). Jobs were plentiful and copper production ever-increasing, as the Allies – and now the Americans – demanded more and more copper for their war-related industries.
For most Bisbee residents, any hardships brought by the war to date consisted of waving goodbye to loved ones as they left on trains for training camps or by spending their wages- voluntarily or not – to buy the Liberty Bonds that financed the war. Men from the age of 21 to 45 registered for the draft and those in their 20’s faced an increasing likelihood of being called up for military service.
Although America entered the First World War in April 1917, its army was tiny and the country totally unprepared to join in the fighting against Germany. Within a year, the United States armed forces increased drastically in size as millions of American young men were conscripted, sent to the dozens of training camps constructed throughout the country and, once sufficiently trained, shipped to France, packed like sardines in transport vessels.
By June 1918 American soldiers had been committed to the fight on the Western Front and were engaging the German army on the Marne River and in the Belleau Wood. As had been the cases for French, British and German soldiers since August 1914, casualties among the American forces were horrific, starting with hundreds killed and wounded per day and quickly escalating to thousands. By July 1918 the casualty reports appearing in the Bisbee Daily Review were ominously long and getting longer. The dead, including Bisbee men reported killed in action or dead from wounds or disease, were buried in hastily dug graves located in rapidly expanding military cemeteries in France and Belgium.
As the scale and intensity of combat increased for the American Army, so did the need for reinforcements and replacements. The entire process of training and transporting masses of men across one continent and then across an ocean, intensified. That pipeline of khaki-clad bodies provided an almost-perfect breeding ground for an infectious disease, which was not long in making its appearance.
Most epidemiologists and virologists believe the H1N1 influenza virus first appeared in early 1918 among swine herds in the Midwest, most likely in Kansas. The virus moved quickly from pigs to humans and by March, cases of flu were breaking out in Army camps throughout the Midwest.
At the beginning, the new strain of flu virus didn’t seem to be any more dangerous than previous ones. But as time passed and as the flu made its way across America by train and across the Atlantic to Europe and back by troopship, it mutated into something far more deadly. Unlike other flu strains. The A1N1 flu bug attacked the lower respiratory system. In severe cases, a victim’s lungs filled up with fluid, causing a painful and terrible death by drowning. Today, this phenomenon is known as Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS).
In September 1918 reports surfaced in Army camps of hundreds of cases of flu, with an ominous number of resulting fatalities. The Bisbee Daily Review dutifully reported each day on the new wave of flu cases hitting the training camps, but the disease’s impact didn’t hit the town directly until September 26, when a train brought the body of Private Carl Axel Carlson home. Carlson, assigned to Co. E, 127th Machine Gun Bn., was a Swedish immigrant-turned miner who’d been drafted into the Army a short time earlier. While in training at Camp Dix, NJ, he’d contracted the influenza virus and died a few days later on September 23.
Carl Carlson was given a military funeral with full honors and buried on Sept. 30 in Bisbee’s Evergreen Cemetery. Within a few weeks he was to have plenty of company.
Spread by train travel (considerably slower as compared to travel by jet aircraft today) the A1N1 flu virus reached Bisbee by Oct. 4, when the first cases were reported in the Warren Mining District. Scores fell ill overnight. Contact tracing of infected persons revealed that the virus had arrived in town from three directions: California, Texas and Sonora.
On Oct. 5, Cochise County public health officials imposed a quarantine on Bisbee to try to slow the spread of the virus. Theaters, public schools, churches and the Copper Queen Library were closed. Dances and public meetings were banned and all public places were ordered to be fumigated. Street cars could only carry as many passengers as there were seats for.
The Warren District mining companies (mainly Phelps Dodge, the Calumet & Arizona and Shattuck Arizona Copper) also complied with the quarantine. Change rooms (where miners exchanged their street clothes for work clothes) were fumigated. The cages used to lower men deep into the mine shafts carried only five miners at a time instead of nine and a limited social distancing of three feet – when possible – was also ordered.
But the measures to slow the pandemic were too little and too late. By October 8 over 130 cases were reported in the Warren Mining District. Bisbee’s first locally-recorded flu-related fatality was reported on October 9, when Frank Tracey, a 31-year-old miner employed at the Phelps Dodge-owned Czar Shaft, died at his home on Mason Hill. A day later, John Petrovich, a Serbian immigrant from Austria, died at the Copper Queen Hospital. Petrovich also worked at the Czar Shaft.
More deaths quickly followed. Among them were the unnamed stillborn son of Woodie Bell Whitehurst, who died Oct. 13. Woodie died the next day. By October 25, 21 residents of Bisbee and its outlying communities had died from pneumonia, which was the byproduct of the influenza viral infection. Twenty-five more flu-related deaths were recorded before the end of the month, bringing the total body county in October to 46. Flu-stricken patients died almost every day at home or at the mining company-owned Copper Queen and Calumet & Arizona hospitals.
Treatment consisted of whatever palliative care was available, accompanied with compassion and encouraging words. The majority of patients recovered – some after a lengthy, debilitating illness. Others – men, women and children, old and young alike, wealthy and working class, native-born and immigrant, succumbed to the virus. One such casualty was Dr. Paul R. Doron, a Phoenix physician who had come to Bisbee to help overworked local doctors conduct physical examinations of young men who had been called up for military service. He contracted the virus in Bisbee, returned home and died in Phoenix a few days later.
The pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time There was no possibility of a “stay at home” order being issued because fighting on the Western Front was reaching its climax and no consideration was given on any level of government towards taking steps that would have hindered the war effort. Several of the local doctors who would have been on hand to help treat flu patients had joined the Army and were serving at training camps in the U. S. or overseas.
News of the heavy and bloody fighting during the St, Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne campaigns pushed flu-related news off the front page of the Bisbee Daily Review. But the virus continued its own deadly work, infecting hundreds, then thousands, decimating the local work force. The Phelps Dodge Mercantile Stores, the many copper mines and the telephone company all reported drops in productivity because of massive absenteeism related to the flu.
Masks appeared on the faces of Bisbee residents by the end of October, but the flu virus continued to take its toll in November, with another 54 flu-related deaths recorded. Despite the death toll and the massive numbers of sick, there was pushback. Some Bisbee residents, bored and frustrated, called for lifting the quarantine, but public health officials refused to budge until Nov. 11, when the quarantine rules were loosened. Pool halls and soft drink parlors (Arizona had approved prohibition on Jan. 1, 1915) were allowed to re-open and public dances were permitted. In order to qualify for re-opening, business operators had to thoroughly disinfect their buildings and post notices prohibiting any coughing, sneezing, kissing and the shaking of hands on the premises.
Fighting stopped on November 11, when the exhausted belligerents signed an armistice. The pandemic remained relegated on the back pages of the Review with most readers focusing their attention on the upcoming peace negotiations at Versailles. But, while the shooting had stopped on the battlefields of Europe, the Grim Reaper continued to do his work in the homes and hospitals of Bisbee. Among November’s dead were Mary Gidley, wife of the safety supervisor for Phelps Dodge in Bisbee, Lawrence and Bert Crane, brothers in their 20s who lived on a family-owned cattle ranch in the Mule Mountains just west of the “Divide”, Marija Kasun, a Croatian immigrant, Andro Gurovich, an ethnic Serbian copper miner born in Austria and Jerry F. York, a teamster born in New Mexico.
December finally brought a measure of relief, with the monthly death toll falling to 15. It was no consolation to the Hispanic residents of Tintown (a still-existent barrio located along Highway 92 on Bisbee’s west side which was ravaged by the pandemic) Among Tintown’s dead were Amada Najera, Isabel Marquez, Rosario de Davila, Apolonio Villa and Ysidro Lopez. Segregated from Bisbee’s Anglo community in life, they joined them in death in Evergreen Cemetery.
The pandemic remained in relatively low gear for the next three months, with 13 deaths recorded in January, 12 in February and 16 in March. Only five were reported in April – all during the first week. The last person known to have died from the 1918-19 influenza pandemic was Ira lee Roberson, an Arkansas native who worked as a miner and also operated a ranch west of the Divide. He died on April 6 and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery.
By the end of April, reported influenza deaths in Bisbee were once again a rarity. Families grieved their dead while life began its return to normal. Outdoor Saturday night dances at the pavilion in Warren’s Vista Park resumed.
60,000,000 Dead Worldwide, 650,000 Dead Americans from Influenza of 1918-19
Worldwide, the 1918-19 influenza pandemic may hay taken as many as 60,000,000 lives – far more than died in World War I. It’s now believed that the flu may have killed more than 650,000 Americans during that time. No town, no city, no rural community was spared.
Scientists and historians researching the flu outbreak are confident that they understand how the A1N1 virus developed and spread but they are less confident about explaining how the virus behaved during its course. Why did deaths suddenly drop during winter, when flu usually does its worst work?
Several possible explanations have been offered. Once the war ended in November 1918, copper production came to a virtual halt. Much of Bisbee’s workforce was laid off, which resulted in fewer people coming into daily contact with one another.
Another possibility is that the onslaught in October and November resulted in the infection of a large enough part of the community to cause “herd immunity.” Once a sufficiently large enough number of persons had contracted the flu, survived its effects and became immune to it, the chances of uninfected persons catching the disease fell substantially.
It’s also possible that the rudimentary public health rules that closed down large public gatherings had an impact. Or, perhaps, the virus had simply mutated into a less virulent form.
Whichever the case, the 1918-19 Influenza pandemic came and departed, leaving its grim mark on Bisbee. For those who took the time to remember 101 years later, when a new pandemic swept through the world, the Spanish Influenza and its toll in Bisbee of seriously ill and dead (estimated at between 160 and 200) provided a bleak warning about the contagious diseases that would inevitably come again.