Eighty years ago, the United States faced the worst epidemic in our nation’s history. The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 killed over half a million Americans and an estimated 20 million persons worldwide.
By Richard Melzer and Oswald G. Baca
Eighty years ago, the United States faced the worst epidemic in our nation’s history. The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 killed over half a million Americans and an estimated 20 million persons worldwide. More Americans died of the flu than in all the country’s wars of the 20th century combined, including the First and Second World Wars. No one was safe, regardless of where a person lived or how hard a person tried to avoid the dreaded disease. Not even the residents of far-off Belen were immune once the flu germ entered New Mexico in the fall of 1918.
Residents of New Mexico and Belen tried various measures to avoid the flu. Governor Washington E. Lindsey urged the closing of all schools, courts, churches and other public gathering places. Health officials warned people to avoid excessive eating, too much work, unventilated rooms, coughing or sneezing without handkerchiefs, spitting on the ground, and drinking whiskey.
Despite the latter advice, some locals believed that drinking moonshine liquor was a good way to prevent, or even cure, the flu. Martin Quintana recalled that his father preferred this method, although his mother did not; ladies didn’t drink in those days, no matter what the emergency.
Other homemade remedies were attempted, but to no avail. Some turned to curanderas, but not even traditional herbs and treatment helped in this crisis.
Belen, like all towns along major railroad routes, was especially vulnerable. Railroad workers and passengers could easily bring the flu germ from across the state and, in fact, the nation. Dozens in Belen caught the disease, with a high percentage dying of influenza or pneumonia within hours.
Eduardo Abeyta, a worker at Belen’s roundhouse, died in the epidemic, leaving his wife a widow and five young children fatherless. Frank Barror, a locomotive engineer, survived the epidemic, but his wife, Lucy, died of the flu at their home on Third Street and Ross. Another railroad worker, Fred Hawkins, lost both his wife and son elsewhere in town.
On October 10, 1918, the Belen News printed a long list of stricken residents, including the bookkeeper and cashier at the John Becker Store and so many employees at the First National Bank of Belen that the bank was forced to temporarily close down. Transported by wagon, many flu victims were brought to the local grammar school to receive care. Well neighbors often brought soup to the sick in their homes, only to catch the flu themselves.
Even Dr. Williamson came down with the illness, leaving Dr. Radcliffe as the only local physician well enough to handle the onslaught of patients in need of attention. Health personnel arrived from out of town to help in the crisis. The Santa Fe Railroad brought Dr. Knapp of Santa Fe to look after railroad employees and assist Dr. Radcliffe as much as possible.
But a whole army of doctors and nurses could not have stopped the flu and its deadly assault. Usually, at least one member of every family caught the flu, increasing the odds that others in each family would grow ill, too. According to one estimate, more than half of Belen was sick. As many as ten residents on a block reportedly died on a single night.
Everyone was susceptible, and in an odd quirk of fate, those in the prime of their lives, in their 20s and 30s, fell victim and died most often. One of the authors – Oswald G. Baca – lost both his maternal grandmother, Rebecca Armijo Sanchez, 22, of Jarales, and his paternal grandmother, Luz Romero Baca, ago 30, of Los Trujillos. They died in October, the worst month of the epidemic.
Church bells rang day and night to announce the passing of more and more residents. Belen’s two hearses, a car and a horse-drawn buggy, were kept busy, with the car reserved for the rich and the buggy used by the poor. Without enough coffins available, the dead were hurriedly buried in mass graves.
Belen and the surrounding settlements of Los Chavez, Los Trujillos, Jarales, Bosque, and Pueblitos were among the hardest hit areas of New Mexico. In October 1918, burial records at Our Lady of Belen Catholic parish show an astonishing 122 burials, or an average of four per day. For comparison, in September 1918, there had been only nine interments at the Catholic cemetery, in November there would be only 19. In the entire previous year, there had been 67 burials; in the succeeding year, there would be only 58.
Given the unprecedented number of burials, it was only a matter of time before rumors spread that some victims of the flu had been buried prematurely. According to one such rumor, a local woman was buried, but her daughter insisted that her mother was still alive. When the mother’s grave was dug up, the exhumed body was reportedly in a different position than when it was originally laid to rest.
A 35-year-old male from Bosque was also supposedly buried alive during the epidemic. While digging a grave for another flu victim, the Bosque man’s coffin was accidentally dislodged. The grave diggers opened the disturbed coffin to find the confined body in a contorted, belly-down position, indicating that the poor man had suffocated after burial had taken place.
Thankfully, the flu subsided as quickly as it had begun. Much of the epidemic remains a mystery to this very day. Not even its name, the Spanish flu, is understood because the epidemic did not originate in Spain or any other Spanish community. Evidence points to its origin in March, 1918, at an Army camp in Fort Riley, Kansas, from which it spread in two terrible waves around the world.
All we know for sure is that the epidemic hit with incredible force in the last days of the First World War, showing no mercy to a world already ravaged by four years of violence and death. Some, like the preacher Billy Sunday, believed that the epidemic had been caused by so much sin in the world. Others believed it was caused by the Germans as part of their hated germ warfare. Regardless of how or why it came about, all were relieved that the epidemic had largely passed by early 1919.
Tragically, more than 1,000 New Mexicans died of the flu and never enjoyed the new year or the post-war era of peace. The First World War thus ended in Belen and the United States, claiming the lives of innocent citizens living thousands of miles from a battlefield, but unprotected from an enemy so small that no microscope of that day was powerful enough to detect it.
Valencia County News-Bulletin, Nov. 25, 1998.
[La Crónica de Nuevo México 50 (July 1999): 7. Published by the Historical Society of New Mexico and reproduced with their permission.]
Spanish Flu; Epidemic; New Mexico; statehood period