Ways of Seeing: Virus outbreak of 1924 overtook California in unprecedented ways

In 1924 a virus outbreak overtook the state of California in unprecedented ways. The virus, known in Latin as aphtae epizooticae is a hardy virus that can spread rapidly. Virus particles can survive for two weeks on wool and for three months on leather, rubber, and hay. It can live on people’s clothing and in their throats as they travel. Cars or trains can carry the disease across town, county, state, or international lines. 

Once infected, one may not show symptoms for days. And those who survive the virus can carry it for up to 18 months after they become infected, making the spread of the illness unpredictable. When the outbreak happened, fear of contagion heightened in unparalleled ways.

The outbreak in California was the fastest moving and most extensive that the United States had ever experienced, and it triggered widespread panic, prompting government authorities at every level to enforce regulations in an attempt to contain the disease. Tracking diagnoses, U.S. officials drew and re-drew quarantine lines and insisted on restricting movement. 

But people as well as animals had little regard for these arbitrary lines drawn on maps and they continued to move wherever they wanted. In March of 1924 the Los Angeles Times reported that quarantine rules, “prohibit[ed] all persons from entering or trespassing on private premises along public thoroughfares in any close quarantine area except by official permit.” 

It went on, “This includes pleasure seekers, campers, flower pickers, mushroom hunters, salesmen agents, peddlers, sheep shearers, buyers of live-stock, poultry and junk. Dogs may be moved only in crates by common carriers of official permit. Officials may destroy dogs and cats found on other than owners’ premises except those under immediate control.” 

If people wanted to visit friends in quarantined areas, they needed a permit. If families wanted to go on hikes, they could not. The same article noted that all areas under quarantine were being rigidly patrolled by federal and local officials. 

The disease wrought such havoc that patrols became quite rigid. At some California county and state lines quarantined boundaries became militarized. At one point, when Arizona Governor George W.P. Hunt learned that the disease had reached Southern California and travelers threatened to cross state lines, he called the Arizona National Guard to patrol the state boundary. The guard set up five checkpoints and announced their arrival with “short bursts of machined gun fire.” 

President Calvin Coolidge bemoaned Hunt’s actions and asked him to relax the measures, but the governor refused. Instead, the Guard established disinfecting stations where cars drove through pools of formaldehyde and train passengers walked through similar pools to disinfect their shoes so as not to carry the disease on their person or on their vehicles across state lines. 

Trade from California became restricted too. In some cases, goods like railroad ties could not be shipped from California. In other cases, states across the nation would not accept fruit, beef, or hides. Mexico and Canada even closed their borders to goods and some traffic from the U.S. to ensure that they were protected from the disease. Because the disease posed such a threat, U.S. officials sprang into action and had the authority to detain, search, and disinfect anyone crossing county, state, or quarantine lines. Because of a virus, officials could deny U.S. citizens the right to move from one place to another. 

The disease aphtae epizooticae is also known as Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) — a disease that infects cloven-footed animals such as cattle, sheep and swine. In the 1920s and then again in the 1940s, the U.S. and Mexico experienced devastating outbreaks in the cattle industry that resulted in major quarantine initiatives that affected the lives of many people and had devastating impacts on the economy. More than 100,000 domestic animals died, and the U.S. government spent over a billion dollars on quarantines and compensation to farmers for animal and property losses. 

But the quarantines worked and restriction of movement of people and animals was a critical component of that initiative. 

Today we find ourselves in the midst of a similar, yet different scenario. COVID-19, or the Corona Virus, like FMD is a hardy virus that we may not know we are carrying for days until we show symptoms, which is why federal, state and local initiatives have asked us to practice what they are calling “social distancing.” Bars, restaurants, and schools are closed, and the news keeps talking about how this could last for weeks, maybe months. 

Folks complain that it is inconvenient — and it is! But we have already seen that the economy is taking a hit and history has shown that viral spread is not only economically devastating, but also that quarantine measures and the restriction of movement can work.

So, please, stay patient and stay home. 

Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history at the University of Vermont and the David and Dana Dornsife Fellow for Historical Work in the American West at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. She lives in Weybridge.

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