Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, April 3, 2020

How My Old Man Survived the Spanish Flu and a Stay in the Pesthouse

George Hanlon at 80
The old man, George Hanlon (1905–1991), had an interesting time of it during the Great War in our home town of San Francisco. Years ago, I did  a presentation for the S.F. Chapter of the World War One Historical Association titled "Thanks, Dad, for the World War I Memories." I am going to focus on one part of that presentation for this article, but first I should explain how a boy aged about nine to 14 years old got to see and experience a broad range of the unfolding events of an exciting time for America and his own city.

My grandparents had broken up just about the time war broke out in Europe. My two aunts went to live with grandmother Laura in Arizona and Dad and his younger brother uncle Jimmy stayed with Grandfather Jack. I never met the man, but by all reports, Jack was a real hard case.  He soon ordered his oldest son to find work after school to support his upkeep. Consequently, at age ten, George found employment with Mr. William Randolph Hearst as a newsboy with Hearst's afternoon paper, the Call. His regular corner was  at 22nd and Mission Streets, but he was frequently picked up on a truck with other boys and brought to venues like boxing arenas, ballparks, political rallies, and so forth to sell papers.  This job led to a lot of adventures for him, plus the chance to contact many interesting people—a life experience not open to other school kids from the working-class Mission District.

For example, Dad was selling the Call on Market Street the day of the 1916 Preparedness Day Bombing and saw the casualties (about ten, I think) still bleeding out on the street. He viewed the demise of air daredevil Lincoln Beachey at the 1915 Worlds Fair (on Lincoln Beachey Day, to everyone's surprise). There were also countless military and navy events he attended, and he even saw General Pershing once. Now, George Hanlon was  a born storyteller and talker and would chat up his customers and other newspaper people at these events. These included Jack London, future heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey,  New Yorker founder and Stars and Stripes editor Harold Ross (a Call reporter), Mayor Sunny Jim Rolph, and San Francisco's celebrity gangsters of the day, Spud Murphy and Kayo Kruvosky.

In the middle of all this, though, there was illness.  Like today, very serious illness.  And since at this writing—like all my readers—I'm enduring this odd form of incarceration called "sheltering in place" due to the Bat Soup Plague, it occurred to me that there might be some interest in what dad told me about the visit of the Spanish flu to the city by the Golden Gate. In addition, sometime before, during, or after those events young George managed to contract smallpox and get confined in the city's infamous House of Pestilence, the Pesthouse, so I'll include some of his memories about that experience, too.

The Spanish Flu Hits San Francisco

Market Street, San Francisco, Armistice Day 1918

I checked the statistics, and, according to one article I found, there were 45,000 cases reported in San Francisco (about 10% of the population at the time) with 3,000 deaths (6.7 per 1,000). For comparison, the number of the city's sons and daughters listed on the memorial to the war's fallen in Golden Gate Park is 758. The flu hit the city in two waves, one Oct–Nov, and the second Dec–Jan. Dad thought the second wave was worse, at least morale-wise, because it was an utter surprise, and people thought they had already beaten off the epidemic.

He passed on some more interesting details about the pandemic over the  years. There was a long period of anticipation because the flu marched across the county from east to west. Recall that it was brought back to America first by wounded Doughboys brought home through Boston, so it sort of marched across America. He thought that, initially, the locals mostly underestimated it or thought it would "burn itself out." The two worst areas hit by the flu had strong ethnic flavors back then: North Beach (mostly Italian) and his own Mission District (mostly Irish). There were a lot of closings, including churches and theaters, but these lasted only about a month for each wave. The city and county hospital was swamped with cases, and the Navy set up a huge field hospital in the spanking new Civic Center plaza. 

By far his strongest memories involved the wearing of masks. The city's mayor and public health officials strongly supported them. When the first wave hit, there was a mandatory mask wearing order issued. It was a criminal offense to be without your mask in public and some people were thrown in the clink, others fined. Naturally, masks came to be in short supply, so many people had to improvise their own. The masks were brought back when the second wave of the flu came. By that time the populace was much more resistant to wearing them and the order was not as strongly enforced for the most part. Dad told me there were celebrations when the order was finally rescinded.

At the newsboy level,  he and the other kids (all borderline delinquents) resisted wearing them properly. They would drop the mask so it was just hanging around their necks and most people would not notice. The beat cops, however, were offended and did not tolerate this practice. They would sneak up on the perpetrator and give them a not-too-gentle tap on the back of the head with their billy clubs. Trying to imagine the response to this 100 years later in the touchy-feely, sensitive America of today sets me to laughing.

Armistice Day happened to fall in the middle of the first surge of the illness. The photo above shows the Armistice Day celebration on Market Street in San Francisco, with everyone is wearing masks, not all of them properly positioned. Somewhere in that crowd was young George Hanlon, probably dropping his mask.

The Pesthouse

Pesthouse Compound, San Francisco

Early San Francisco had a lot of problems with epidemics of various kinds, even the bubonic plague at the turn of the century. Consequently, the city fathers decided in the 19th century to build a quarantine facility on sparsely populated Potrero Hill in the southeastern part of town. It was given a grim official name, the House of Pestilence, which was shortened by everyone to the Pesthouse. It was both despised and feared by San Franciscans, rich and poor alike. No one was exempt from a visit there.

Smallpox was a persistent problem, and around the time of the First World War my father caught a case in one of the outbreaks of the illness. Consequently, he was ordered quarantined and condemned to a stay in the Pesthouse. He remembered arriving there with great foreboding, and his first impressions did not reduce his anxieties at all. The appearance of the ward and the grotesqueness of the infected patients were shocking to him. (He only had a mild case, himself.) However, he told me the staff was somewhat kindly, the library sufficiently stocked, and the food wasn't too horrible. Best of all, he soon found some ways to make money.  

If you look at the photo above from the University of California, the Pesthouse was a compound rather than a single building. I don't know where dad was quartered, but he was on the top floor, whichever building it was. One problem the patients on his floor had was getting the packages of food their families brought to the facility, but could not bring inside the building. Dad was always excellent with ropes and pulleys, and he soon set up rig to lift up the care packages. At first,  he just settled for a little share of the food, but he finally declared that he was henceforth going to charge a nominal fee per box. No one complained. He told me one his best customers was a descendant of Jesse Chisholm of Chisholm Trail fame. Included in the deliveries were, of course, a variety adult beverages for the inmates. Dad, also mentioned prostitutes made occasional appearances on the premises but never claimed to have facilitated their access.

His other moneymaking venture proved so lucrative that he actually overstayed his own illness to keep raking in the loot. He told me that when his fellow sufferers had been deemed fit for discharge there was still some residue of the smallpox pustule or scab that had to be removed with a scalpel and the site disinfected. (He called it the "seed," but I don't think that is medically accurate.) With the large number of smallpox patients, there was a waiting  period of several days for this procedure before the almost healthy patient could get discharged. Dad "volunteered" to help with this process.  He was taught the procedure by some staff member and given his own scalpel and a bottle of alcohol. Unbeknownst to the medical people, Dad informed his patients that there would be a charge for his helping expedite their discharge. He told me they were always happy to pay his fee and get out of that place as quickly as possible. I don't know what the fee was, but it was a lot more than he was making selling newspapers. This went on until most of the patients from the recent outbreak had left. The head doctor, who by this time knew what was going on, took him aside one day and said something like, "George, thanks for the help, but it's past time for you to go home." He was back on his corner at 22nd and Mission the next day.

Anyway, this is what Dad's life was like in the time of the Spanish influenza when the Great War was going on.  Thanks again for the World War I memories, Dad.


  1. Thanks Mike for the great first hand account; it is not only timely, but also uplifting in this fearful time. Incidentally, the vacine for the Bubonic Plague was synthesized in a little shack type building on the site of the former US Public Health Service Hospital on Lake St. in San Francisco in 1905.

    1. Thanks Parnelli. One of the first shots I got in the Air Force was for the plague. I didn't know its connection to the hometown.

  2. Plagues and virus aside, this is a semi-humorous account of the 1918 epidemic as it was managed in San Francisco.

    You've got to love the Irish !

  3. Thanks, Mike. Where was the pesthouse compound located in San Francisco?

  4. Hi Shellie. I've seen 26th and De Haro listed as the location. Frankly, though, that seems too far west of the place dad pointed to as we drove around town. It was on the hill behind the big Army Street gas tank, that no longer exists.

  5. Fascinating account--really enjoyed it. Also, it gives me hope!

  6. My grandmother was a Red Cross volunteer in Detroit during the war, worked through the flu. Grampa got the flu in '18; Gramma's hair turned white in three days. He survived, my mother was born in 1923.