New Mexico’s Most Popular Public Official Succumbed to Pneumonia Which Resulted from Influenza,” read the top of the New Mexico State Register on Oct. 18, 1918. Just below, another headline read: “Influenza Spreading Rapidly Over Country.” Yet another headline stated that “Every School in the State Has Been Closed on Account of the Epidemic Previous to the Governor's Proclamation,” with the article also noting that they had converted a Valencia County high school into a hospital for handling the new influx of influenza cases.
Despite being 102 years ago, the 1918 headlines sound eerily familiar. The paper continues to list the deaths around the state. In Albuquerque alone there were over 50 funerals in one week due to influenza. By the time New Mexico could even begin to make sense of these deaths, the worst was yet to come.
Just as New Mexico was about to turn 6 years old, a battle that had been brewing halfway across the world was nearing its end. Despite the fact that New Mexico was a brand new state, New Mexicans prided themselves on their military service, with the state having the fifth highest number of U.S. recruits per capita for World War I.
The war had been a gritty conflict, fought in trenches and swamps across Europe. The fighting conditions were almost unthinkable by today’s standards. It was in these trenches that what would become known as “Spanish flu” began to kill troops faster than the war itself, claiming more lives than the entirety of the war. Perhaps it was the unfortunate timing of events across the globe that forced New Mexico to face one of its toughest battles to date.
Inaccurately dubbed ‘Spanish flu’
The origin of the Spanish influenza pandemic wasn’t actually Spanish at all. Because of Spain’s neutrality during World War I, their media remained uncensored, thus allowing them to accurately report the rising epidemic. While other countries kept such information hidden, so not to give any idea of weakness, the flu was then dubbed the “Spanish flu,” quite inaccurately.
In fact, there is some debate about how the disease actually first made its way to America. Some theories suggest that it may have appeared in New Mexico at Fort Bayard, others say it travelled with various troops, railroad workers and more. One theory suggests that New Mexico was first hit by the pandemic when a traveling circus from Texas came to town, according to Richard Melzer, professor of history at University of New Mexico-Valencia campus.
Regardless how the country had gotten to such an infection rate, it was time to deal with the spread. Devorah Romanek, curator of exhibits at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in Albuquerque, explained that part of why New Mexico was so badly hit was due to the state’s infancy.
“There was a Board of Health but not a Department of Health, so they didn’t have a lot of structure or organization statewide around health care,” Romanek said. Along with being in the middle of trying to set up state organizations like the Department of Health, there was also a statewide shortage of doctors and nurses.
Angel of Pecos
While being inundated with the flu, New Mexico took several precautions to try to protect itself. Gov. Washington Lindsey closed schools, theaters, pubs and other large public gathering spaces. Due to this quick action, “the public thus had the feeling that something was being done in a period when little else seemed to be working well,” said Melzer, in regards to Gov. Lindsey’s actions.
Alongside the governmental efforts were strong individual efforts as well. One name that kept recurring was that of Josephine “Grandma” Cox Anderson. While her husband was busy settling the land that would become known as Carlsbad, Anderson realized that there was something serious happening around them. Known as the “Angel of the Pecos,” Anderson took it upon herself to take in patients sick with influenza, and to spread her healing knowledge. According to the state historical marker in Carlsbad, Anderson never lost a single patient.
A bell rang for every death
Even though state and local measures were taken across the United States to subdue the virus, the country was also celebrating the end of World War I, and mass public parties and parades ensued. To many, the end of the war was a time to celebrate, meanwhile troops from across the U.S. were coming home with influenza. Beginning in early October of 1918, state papers started to document a rise in deaths from the flu. It was clear that something bigger was happening.
The state saw casualties in almost every county, with nearly 1 in 5 families having a relative that succumbed to the disease. While the newly settled New Mexicans experienced loss due to the flu, it was Native American reservations that experienced the pandemic’s greatest atrocities.
“There was a certain bell for the notice of death, and [my grandmother] said as a little girl how awful it sounded,” said Priscilla Reyna Jojolo in the documentary “The 1918 Influenza in America,” which was published on Youtube in June of 2014 by ‘The Best Film Archives.’
Ilona Spruce, director of tourism at Taos Pueblo, says that she has also heard the infamous tales of the 1918 pandemic. “My grandma talked about ‘the illness that came through,’” said Spruce, adding that along with the pandemic, Taos Pueblo experienced tremendous disparities and transformation throughout the years.
Forced draft, assimilation of Native Americans
The Catholic Indian boarding schools are one place where Native and Western culture integrated and assimilated, all while separating Native children from families across New Mexico. Native Americans were required to be drafted even though they were denied citizenship at that time.
“I know that we had men serve in World War I who were in the boarding schools, and that’s where they drafted all the Native Americans,” said Spruce. “The history in this area is just really harsh.”
Apart from being adversely affected by the local and state government, the Native communities had to endure continuous hardships. Spruce remembers her grandparents talking about the repercussions, and how World War I brought what they called “the sickness.” Spruce explained this as “what they would later call alcoholism,” and attributed many factors to increasing “the sickness,” including the mandatory military service, and the fact that the communities had to deal with “a lot of PTSD and other disorders.” Spruce also noted that children coming home from English-speaking-only boarding schools “didn’t even know how to talk to their parents,” causing additional communal problems beyond the deaths from the 1918 pandemic.
Lockdowns, masks, distancing
Across the country, many cities encouraged masks to be worn, people to stay at home and discouraged all mass gatherings. What we now call social distancing took place all over New Mexico. The Albuquerque Journal reported that one church would still hold services, “but they were held in the open air, on the lawn, surrounding the church and pastoral residence, instead of in the church,” attributing the change in venue to the presence of influenza.
In Northern New Mexico some towns were open to travelers, but most of the state seemed to take Gov. Lindsey’s and the U.S. government’s advice on protection. “Some towns even required that masks be worn, and Taos was one of them,” said Melzer.
This mandatory requirement of masks and physical distancing echoes what Taoseños are experiencing in 2020. Perhaps the disproportionate loss New Mexico and Native communities experienced in the past led to the state’s rapid attempt to control the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When you look at the statistics and rates today, New Mexico is an absolute anomaly here in the American Southwest,” said Romanek. “That’s because of the preparedness and the willingness on the part of the state government to take very immediate actions.” Romanek also noted that in 1918 and even today, “New Mexico doesn’t have resources that a lot of other states do.”
Complacency not an option
Fast forward to today: we are dealing with something not so different. COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Native communities at an astonishing rate, but not Taos Pueblo. While the virus spreads across the country alarmingly fast, New Mexico seems to be successfully battling COVID-19, all the while sitting between two states with some of the highest infection rates currently in the nation.
There is a general consensus that we are doing well as a state, but Melzer said we should not pat ourselves on the back quite yet. “If we congratulate ourselves too much we might become complacent, like we did at Memorial Day,” he said.
It’s clear that New Mexico generally takes the new national threat seriously, and the best we can hope for is strong positive leadership going forward.