Many of the lockdown and personal protective measures being implemented in the face of the coronavirus were issued during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. With school closed, public gatherings banned, and businesses shut, authorities began to enforce compulsory face masks on their citizens.
Although not yet mandatory, officials around the world, including the UK, are currently considering whether to advise the wearing of masks, with growing evidence to suggest it lessens the chance of spreading the virus.
Having to wear a face mask might be met with opposition today just as it was in 1918 – though the consequences for not doing so would surely not be as serious a century ago.
In the US, news reports noted resistance in many towns; health officers as well as police officers were empowered to order people to wear masks or go home.
A headline in The Bellingham Herald dated 28 October 1918 read “Refuses to Don Influenza Mask; Shot by Officer”.
The story described how an attempted arrest of a person not wearing a face mask led to a shooting.
The reporter wrote: “On October 27, 1918, a special officer for the board of health named Henry D. Miller shot and severely wounded James Wisser in front of a downtown drug store at Powell and Market street, following Wisser’s refusal to don an influenza mask.
“According to the police, Miller shot in the air when Wisser first refused his request.
“Wisser closed in on him and in the succeeding affray, Miller shot him in the leg and right hand.
“Wisser was taken to the central emergency hospital, where he was placed under arrest for failure to comply with Miller’s order.”
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Meanwhile, in Arizona, police took a less combative approach and handed out $10 (£8) for those caught without the protective gear.
People began to contest the fines, and the courts had an influx of influenza related appeals, with a local Tucson reporter dubbing the laws of court there the “influenza court”.
According to The Atlantic, an Arizona police chief declared “We are going to enforce this ordinance or close up the town entirely.”
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One day in the court, 28 people appeared to appeal for relief from the $10 fine.
Many tried to be creative with their defences – one person said they wanted only “a brief privilege of fresh air”; he hated that the privilege cost him a week’s wages.
Yet, none were ever excused.
The Red Cross distributed gauze masks in the US, and came up with a snappy slogan to encourage people to wear them: “Obey the laws, And wear the gauze! Protect your jaws, From septic paws!”
Across the Atlantic in the UK, authorities appeared to take the flu’s spread less seriously.
In London, people flocked to restaurants and galleries, while soldiers on leave flooded the West End’s theatres.
The lack of social distancing made a perfect breeding ground for the virus, with many dying not from the war abroad but while on leave at home.
Mabel Pride, mother-in-law of poet Robert Graves, went to the theatre with her son Tony while he was home on leave and died of Spanish Flu two days later.
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