Monday, March 16, 2020

Oshkosh Saloons and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918

The autumn of 1918 was a time of panic in Oshkosh. A deadly pandemic had arrived.

The virus for what would come to be known as the Spanish Flu had been spreading west since early September. By the end of the month, it was a full-blown pandemic. The first cases in Oshkosh were reported on October 5, 1918. City Health Commissioner Dr. Arthur H. Broche confirmed that 10 city residents had been diagnosed with the Spanish Flu. Two days later, two of them were dead.

It was a horrid, rapacious disease. It struck so quickly that some were reduced to helplessness within hours of first showing symptoms. It began with a raging fever, head and body aches, and burning eyes. Then hair loss, delirium, and vomiting blood. Death within a day or two of onset was not uncommon.

Over the next three days, more than 150 people in Oshkosh became infected. Signs were posted on their homes: "Warning! Influenza Here." The city came to a near standstill. A ban was placed on public gatherings. Schools, churches, and businesses closed. Events of all kinds were canceled. There remained, however, a refuge for those unwavering in their commitment to social living. The swinging doors of Oshkosh's saloons continued to swing open.

Inside Tom Ryan’s Clipper Club saloon on North Main Street, Oshkosh, in the early 1900s.

There's a well-known adage favored by politicos: never let a good crisis go to waste. The pandemic of 1918 roused Oshkosh's ineffectual anti-liquor agitators. The rising body count inspired them. On October 12, a week into the crisis, a crowd of Oshkosh prohibitionists rallied at City Hall demanding to meet with Oshkosh Mayor Arthur C. McHenry. The mob was made up mostly of women representing groups such as the Winnebago County Dry League, The Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and the Women's Missionary Society.

"The delegation was quite large, but because of the order of the board of health against people congregating in considerable numbers, only one representative from each organization was present at the conference. The others remained outside the mayor's office or at the Otter street entrance to the city hall while it was in progress."
   - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; October 12, 1918.

The protestors delivered a predictable set of demands. Shut down all saloons and pool halls in Oshkosh. Now.

Arthur C. McHenry had been Oshkosh's mayor for seven months. He was "avowedly wet" and defiantly pro-saloon. McHenry had no use for prohibitionists. He had campaigned saying, "I stand for the largest possible measure of personal liberty... my attitude toward the saloon will be my attitude toward all legitimate business – a square deal to all without fear or favor!”

The anti-liquor crusaders couldn't have been too surprised with the result of their efforts. This was a group grown accustomed to losing in Oshkosh. The Daily Northwestern reported that "Mayor McHenry received the delegation with courtesy and gave attention to what its members had to say, but he declined to accede to their request."

McHenry told them that he'd already done all he was going to as far as the bars were concerned. The city had instituted a 5:30 pm curfew on cafes, restaurants, pool halls, and saloons. Onto that was tagged a "no spitting" ordinance. Though as one Oshkosh man observed, it did little to stem the saliva tide. He counted 108 globs of expectorant on North Main Street between Algoma and Church.

A sign common across the nation during the the 1918 influenza pandemic.

A few days after the confrontation at city hall, McHenry was being less solicitous towards the anti-saloonists. He noted that in Madison, a dry town, deaths from Spanish Flu far exceeded those of wet Oshkosh. McHenry added that he wouldn't be cowed by "Agitators whose interest in the spread of the epidemic is evidently secondary to their desire to grasp this opportunity in closing institutions whose business does not coincide with their ideas of public welfare."

But McHenry's tactics were more nuanced than his rhetoric. The 5:30 pm curfew was tantamount to shutting the saloons down. The majority of Oshkosh’s saloon patrons didn’t leave work until 5 or 6 pm. So the taps were off by the time they reached their watering hole. The curfew had the effect of preventing people from congregating at the bar without making it a mandate.

Meanwhile, the disease raged on. By the end of October, approximately 1,000 cases of Spanish Flu had been confirmed here.

The Oshkosh flu wagon outside of the State Street Fire Station.
The city’s old, horse-drawn ambulance remerged in 1918 to transport those sick with the flu.
The motorized ambulance was reserved for those with illnesses other than the flu.

The mayor’s approach proved effective. In early November, the spread of the disease in Oshkosh appeared to be under control. Restrictions were eased but then reinstated after another spike in new cases. Finally, in late November, the disease abated. Eight weeks after the first reported cases, the curfew and ban on public gatherings were lifted. Schools reopened on the first Monday in December.

By that time, 116 Oshkoshers were said to have died from the dread disease. Christmas was coming. Black wreaths were hung from the doors of the dead.

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