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By Tom Marshall
The last time our country faced a pandemic like the coronavirus, San Clemente didn’t even exist; but its founder did.
During the 1918 Spanish Influenza outbreak, Ole Hanson was the mayor of Seattle, Washington. New research by Historical Society President Larry Culbertson reveals how Mayor Hanson handled it.
The first cases of the flu in Seattle turned up in September 1918. Of first concern were the men working at the shipyards—a major part of Seattle’s economy at the time. Cargo and passengers arrived en masse from all over the Pacific Rim.
Though unable to test everyone arriving at the port, Mayor Hanson’s health officials proclaimed in a Sept. 24 Seattle newspaper account, “There is no cause for alarm as yet.” Ten days later, the Seattle Star reported the city’s first death among its nine cases. Hanson’s Department of Health advised that “men with temperatures of 103 degrees or more were of the greatest risk.”
Four days later, the paper reported 13 more had died in the area, including one at the shipyard. The Star also noted a scarcity of physicians in Seattle due to World War I. At that early point, the supply of masks was depleted. (Months later, it was determined those masks were ineffective, anyway.)
Mayor Hanson then closed all schools and places of amusement. Is this beginning to sound familiar? In a somewhat conflicted message, he urged all citizens, “Keep in the open. Sleep with the windows open. Avoid drafts.”
By Oct. 26, the mayor released more restrictions on the populace. He ordered police to break up any gatherings of people and to stop street cars that didn’t have at least three windows open on each side.
Stores were allowed to open only between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays, except for grocery stores and pharmacies. Four days later, Mayor Hanson ordered what the Spokane Chronicle called “the most drastic quarantine ever enforced in Seattle.”
It also required “the wearing of gauze masks everywhere, except in open air, and to be enforced by the police.” Apparently, the supply of masks had been replenished.
By Election Day, Nov. 4, the influenza cases were reported to be in decline. Mayor Hanson encouraged everyone to vote early to avoid crowds late in the day and promised, “All polling places will be well-ventilated, windows kept open and no crowds allowed to gather.”
But in December, the flu roared back.
Inoculations began about the same time, and the pandemic was declared over in March 1919. In Seattle, 1,500 people had died from influenza. In August, declaring, “I am tired out and am going fishing,” Hanson resigned as Seattle mayor.
There were rumors he was ill, which he denied. He didn’t just take a leave of absence because a political foe would have taken over as acting mayor. As Ole explained, “I would as soon have taken a man from the penitentiary and left him in the mayor’s chair.”
By resigning, the city council could appoint a new mayor.
So, health scare over, Hanson embarked upon a nationwide speaking tour. The Spanish Flu returned to Seattle that fall, but with far fewer cases.
Tom Marshall is a member of the San Clemente Historical Society and a retired journalist.