Public Health and Culture in Butte – Pt. 1

Butte had an especially proactive Board of Health that met almost daily throughout the course of the pandemic. They instituted many prevention measures and passed regulations to combat the spread of influenza. These efforts, though, were only effective as long as the public complied, which it often did not. Copper mining created an incredibly diverse population, demographically, culturally, and socially. Approximately 30 percent of the city’s population was foreign-born, and countless others were the children of immigrants. These cultural differences, coupled with the transient and often lawless nature of mining communities, created an environment where laws and ordinances were exceedingly difficult to enforce.[1]

             Beginning October 9, 1918, the Butte Board of Health received word of the stringent prevention measures the State Board of Health enacted to combat the spread of influenza and began to meet almost daily. The disease was present within the city by this time, and to prevent “widespread devastation by this contagious and deadly plague” the Board ordered all “churches, theatres, moving picture shows, dance halls, parades, cabarets, and public dances” closed and “bargain sales in stores and all public gatherings prohibited.”[2] By the end of the month, the Board also prohibited large funerals and ruled that all businesses that can be open must “fumigate” their facilities daily and require staff to wear masks.[3] Streetcar windows must be left open and cars fumigated each day, and even all old telephone directories must be destroyed, all in an effort to prevent the spread of disease. Officials believed that disinfecting surfaces and destroying possibly contaminated materials could reduce the number of disease-causing pathogens people contacted. They also felt reducing crowd size limited the opportunities to spread disease. The Board asked the National Guard for assistance in ensuring that crowds did not congregate on the city’s streets, and the police stood guard at funerals to ensure that mourners followed crowd control regulations. The reasoning behind these control measures was sound, but only a total restriction on public gatherings and personal contact could completely stop the spread of disease. The measures the Board took did help to slow influenza’s progression, but none could effectively curb the epidemic entirely.[4]

            By the first days of November, the Board felt that the pace of infection had slowed enough to lift restrictions. On November 11, 1918, the Board believed that “if the public used precausion [sic]” they did not “anticipate any further spread of the Epidemic.”[5] The number of reported cases had decreased, but the Board’s actions were premature. As long as the disease was still present, continued infection was possible, and lifting prevention measures allowed the virus to circulate within a larger and unrestricted population. Butte’s Armistice Day celebrations illustrated this point. On the afternoon and evening of November 11, 1918, just hours after the Board decided to ease prevention measures, Butte’s citizens crowded the streets to celebrate the end of World War I. The Armistice Day festivities caused an explosion in the number of cases not only within Butte, but in the entire state. Within three days, the number of cases in the city more than doubled, and the death toll rose. The effects of the Armistice Day celebration illustrated that the decision to ease public restrictions and prevention measures was premature. The Board determined that the city might need to “adopt drastic measures to exterminate the disease.”[6] Reenacting the measures was necessary to remedy the upsurge in cases that redacting them had caused.[7]

            Within one month, the Board reinstituted all previous restrictions, introduced new ones, and strengthened their enforcement methods. All individuals with influenza had to follow quarantine regulations and placard their homes to announce the presence of the disease. Undertakers had to place those killed by influenza or pneumonia in a closed casket, with the face and head wrapped within 24 hours of death; the casket had to remain closed. Any infractions resulted in misdemeanor charges. Barbershops, saloons, and pools halls remained open, but the Board regulated crowd size and again employed National Guard troops to ensure crowd control.[8]

            Most of the measures met with at least some resistance, and offenders met swift and strict judgment. The police made a number of arrests for violations that included spitting on the sidewalk and sweeping dust into the street, and authorities closed a number of saloons for violating closure and crowd size orders. Despite authorities’ best efforts at enforcement, the public regularly broke regulations and orders, and the city suffered an appalling death toll. In the months of October, November, and December 1918, Butte health officials recorded 5,721 cases and 641 deaths from influenza, numbers that are certainly low as overworked physicians often failed to report all of their cases.[9]

 

[1] U.S. Census Bureau, 1910 United States Census, Silver Bow County, MT.

[2] Butte Health Officer, Department of Health Minute Book, 1903-1923, October 9, 1918, Silver Bow County Board of Health Collection, GR.HL.SB.002, Box 1, Volume 1, BSBPA, Butte, MT.

[3] Ibid., October 15, 1918.

[4] Butte Health Officer, Department of Health Minute Book, 1903-1923, October 12, 15, 18, 21, 31, 1918, Silver Bow County Board of Health Collection, BSBPA, Butte, MT; “Sixteen Deaths from Pneumonia,” Anaconda (MT) Standard, October 23, 1918.

[5] Butte Health Officer, Department of Health Minute Book, 1903-1923, November 11, 1918, Silver Bow County Board of Health Collection, BSBPA, Butte, MT.

[6] Ibid., November 14, 15, 1918.

[7] Ibid., November 15, 1918.

[8] Ibid., November 16, 21, 29, 1918, December 7, 1918,.

[9] Daniel Milton, “Population Control: Butte, Silver County Board of Health, and Spanish Influenza of 1918” (master’s thesis, University of Montana, 1991), 19, 23, AW HO42, BSBPA, Butte, MT; W.F. Cogswell, Tenth Biennial Report of the Montana State Board of Health for the Years 1919-1920, 3, Spanish Influenza Vertical File, MHSRC, Helena.  

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