Vallejo and Solano County: COVID-19 is bad, but not as bad as the 1918 flu pandemic

Brendan Riley’s Solano Chronicles: Old reports show pandemic impact in Solano County

Spanish Flu victims were treated at the Navy’s hospital on Mare Island and at other facilities on the island and in nearby Vallejo. (Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum files)
Vallejo Times-Herald, by Brendan Riley, May 10, 2020

My recent column on the Spanish Flu of 1918 outlined its deadly impact on Vallejo and Mare Island. After the column was published, I was able to locate two century-old state reports that have a lot more information about the pandemic, one of the worst in history, including details on influenza-related deaths throughout Solano County.

According to the old California Board of Health reports, the Spanish Flu killed 341 people in Solano County between 1918 and 1920 – more than half of them in the first wave to hit our area, between late September and early December 1918. Another 169 deaths in the 1918-20 period were caused by pneumonia, probably linked to the influenza in most cases. Three-quarters of all the known victims were from Vallejo and Mare Island while the rest were from smaller communities.

After the first cases of Spanish Flu were reported, Mare Island and Vallejo responded by banning large gatherings, barring liberty for sailors in Vallejo, shutting down theaters, dance halls, libraries, schools, churches and other sites used for “public assembly.” Emergency hospitals also were opened and face masks were mandated. Restrictions also were imposed in other towns in the county.

The 1918 flu deaths totaled 163 in the Vallejo area and 53 elsewhere in Solano County. Victims included Marian Turner, a nurse in charge of one of the Navy’s influenza wards on Mare Island; and Adolph Widenmann, member of a well-known Vallejo family. Other victims included Morris Buck of Vacaville and Dan O’Connell of Benicia, prominent farmers in Solano County; and three daughters and one son of Mr. and Mrs. Bert Evins, Dixon farmers.

By early December the crisis seemed to be ending and restrictions were lifted. But a second wave of influenza developed in January 1919 and the restrictions had to be imposed again, lasting in Vallejo until the end of the month. The 1919 total of flu deaths was 35 in Vallejo and 18 in the rest of the county. The victims who died during January included B.F. Griffin, president of the First National Bank of Vallejo – whose daughter-in-law, Mrs. Roscoe Griffin, had died from the virus a few months earlier.

The state Board of Health reports, published in 1921 and 1923, show that the third wave hit in early 1920, with 58 flu deaths in Vallejo and another 14 deaths elsewhere in Solano County. A ban on indoor public meetings and other restrictions were imposed again, remaining in place in Vallejo and on Mare Island until mid-February. A week later, similar restrictions were ordered in Vacaville. The 1920 victims included a Navy doctor, Lt. Edward McColl.

The state reports give a Solano County breakdown only for Vallejo. With a 1918 population of about 14,145, it was well above the 5,000-population cutoff for California towns and cities listed in the documents. Fairfield, Vacaville, Benicia and other communities in Solano County were all under 5,000 residents per town at the time. Their combined population totaled 16,251.

In addition to the total of 341 flu-related deaths in Solano County, the state reports also provide the totals for neighboring counties in the 1918-20 time frame: Marin, 135; Napa, 159; Sonoma, 317; and Contra Costa, 453.

Those numbers were dwarfed by the number of influenza deaths from 1918 to 1920 in the Bay Area’s most populous counties, Alameda with 2,004 and San Francisco with 3,829. The Spanish Flu death total for the entire state of California in the 1918-20 period was 20,801.

Those in the 25-to-34 age group suffered more than any other age group in the state. “In 1917 the average Californian died at the age of 52 years,” the 1921 Board of Health report stated. “In 1918 this dropped to 40.6 years, showing clearly the ravages of influenza among the young.”

“As in all other parts of the country, a feeling of impotence in the face of a rapidly spreading infection on the part of the health officers (in California) was responsible for much confusion and lack of proper utilization of what scanty means of control were available,” the report said. Adding to the problem was “the invocation of many peculiar and useless measures that were intended to check the epidemic,” the report added.

Around the U.S., many doctors prescribed whiskey for people sickened by influenza. Dubious tonics, promising protection or relief from the flu, included Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets, Dr. Bell’s Pine Tar Honey, Schenck’s Mandrake Pills, Beecham’s Pills, Pepto-Mangan and Miller’s Antiseptic Snake Oil. There were accounts of mothers telling their children to stuff salt up their noses and wear bags of camphor around their necks. A four-year-old girl from Portland, Ore. was said to have recovered from the flu after her mother dosed her with onion syrup and covered her with raw onions for three days.

“Back in 1918, the basic treatments that were offered were enemas, whiskey, and bloodletting,” Dr. Jeremy Brown, director of emergency care research at the National Institutes of Health, said during a recent CBS interview.

The Spanish Flu killed an estimated 675,000 people in the U.S. and as many as 50 million people worldwide. Now the world is threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic, but because of the advances in science Dr. Brown argues that 2020 won’t be another 1918.

“Hospitals as we know them today were quite different,” Brown said. “There were no intensive care doctors who really understand how to treat the very sickest patients. There were no antibiotics to treat any secondary infection. So, it was a very, very different time, and a very different way of practicing medicine back then.”

— Vallejo and other Solano County communities are treasure troves of early-day California history. The “Solano Chronicles” columns, running every other Sunday in the Times-Herald and on my Facebook page, highlight various aspects of that history. Source references are available upon request. If you have local stories or photos to share, email me at You also can send any material care of the Times-Herald, 420 Virginia St.; or the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum, 734 Marin St., Vallejo.