The Local History

by Logan Camporeale

Spokane Going Viral: Lessons from 1918

In 1918, Spokane officials mandated substantial social distancing measures to limit the spread of an influenza outbreak. 

(Note: I am not a scientist, virologist, epidemiologist, or even a historian of science, but I am a local historian interested in how our region dealt with and was impacted by previous pandemics. This blog post and timeline is an evolving work that will be continuously updated and I encourage any comments or suggestions. I received some excellent feedback from Dr. Monica H. Green, including a tip to explore the Influenza Archive)

On October 5, 1918, James Alphea Howe died after a bout with pneumonia. Howe, a retired merchant and farmer, was 79 years old. Due to his age and the prevalence of respiratory illness, not much thought was put into the cause of his death. The 1918 flu virus had been spreading across the country and western Washington, but there were still no confirmed cases of the virus in Spokane. But, two weeks later Spokane doctors would connect the dots, James Howe was the first Spokanite to die from the 1918 influenza outbreak. Spokanites were dying before local health officials knew the virus had arrived.

The Spokane Regional Health District announced the first three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Spokane County on March 14, 2020. This announcement and the resulting interventions to reduce the rapid spread of COVID-19 (#flatteningthecurve) are scary and panic-inducing, but they are not unprecedented in our city. And, most importantly, the measures Spokane took in 1918 seem to have been effective at slowing the spread of a deadly disease that was transferred in the same ways as COVID-19.

In 1918, the world experienced one of the largest pandemics in modern history. The 1918 influenza, often erroneously referred to as the “Spanish Flu,” was a worldwide pandemic that killed at least 675,000 Americans and 50 million people worldwide. The 1918 flu was caused by an H1N1 virus, much like the virus that caused the 2009 “Swine Flu” outbreak. From a virology perspective, the H1N1 virus is notably different from the novel coronavirus COVID-19. However, despite the differences, the viruses have three important similarities that allow for meaningful historical comparisons. First, both viruses spread primarily via droplets transferred from one person to another while in close contact or by touching the virus when it is present on surfaces. Second, neither virus had a known vaccine or approved treatment at the time community spread was identified, meaning that controlling the virus was primarily limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions. Third and finally, before both viruses arrived in Spokane they had spread rapidly in Europe, the east coast of the United States, and even western Washington, providing Spokanites an opportunity to intervene before the pandemic arrived in the Inland Northwest.

Washington State and Spokane initiated non-pharmaceutical interventions to slow the spread of COVID-19 and there will likely be more mitigation efforts announced in the coming days. So far, all gatherings larger than 50 people were banned, schools and universities were cancelled for six weeks, and bars and restaurants were limited to to-go orders only. These social distancing efforts were not initiated until the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Spokane. How do these interventions compare to the measures taken in 1918? 

The transfer of communicable diseases in 1918 was not accelerated by international air travel, but the spread was still incredibly rapid. Spokane newspapers began warning readers about the 1918 H1N1 virus in August of 1918. On October 6, 1918, Spokane Health Officer, Dr. John B. Anderson, announced that there were still no confirmed cases in Spokane. On October 7, 1918, Spokane announced its first confirmed case of the virus (Although, much like COVID-19, it had almost certainly been spreading in Spokane for some time). The same day that the first case was announced, Dr. Anderson, enacted “quarantine regulations” by ordering the cancellation of all public gatherings including schools, universities, churches, mining and stock exchanges, all club and social meetings, YMCA activities, and all jury trials in superior court. As the virus progressed, Dr. Anderson put limits on public transit and elevator capacities, and he even banned Halloween masks.

Taking these actions were swift and effective, but they were met with some resistance. On October 11, 1918, health inspectors arrested a clairvoyant and a pool hall operator for hosting groups of over 10 people. Dr. Anderson took one of the most notable enforcement actions on October 21, 1918, when he was issued a warrant for the arrest of A. R. Wilson, the Superintendent of Washington Water Power’s streetcar company. As part of Dr. Anderson’s mandated “quarantine regulations”, streetcars were ordered not to fill beyond their seating capacity with standing-room-only riders, but W.W.P. cars had been ignoring that directive. (For more details on Spokane’s 1918 H1N1 response, read Nick Deshais’ excellent piece.)

I have updated the curve for 3-17-2020. Spokane announced the 4th case of COVID-19. I made an error the first time I graphed the curve by plotting the total number of cases instead of the new cases per day. I fixed the error.

Despite the social distancing measures, the number of Spokanites with the virus quickly exploded. The first case was announced on October 7. One week later, Spokane reached 500 cases, and two weeks later the count had surpassed 1000. By the end of the October 1918, Spokane was counting over 3000 cases of the 1918 H1N1 virus including 76 deaths. The total number of cases doubled every seven days, a stunning rate of spread. (I will continue to update the epidemiological curve as more COVID-19 numbers are announced, and I will add more to the 1918 curve as we get closer to Day 25.)

I have created the timeline below in order to show the speed in which the situation changed in 1918 Spokane and to offer comparisons with the COVID-19 pandemic as it progresses. As you flip through the slides, it is important to remember that October 7, 1918 is equivalent to March 14, 2020. (If you would like the sources for any of the newspaper articles, email me or leave a comment.)

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Reverend C. A. Rexroad: Grand Cyclops of Spokane

The Ku Klux Klan in Spokane

The Ku Klux Klan invokes visions of hooded men burning crosses and intimidating non-whites in southern states. But in the 1920s, those frightening sights would have been familiar to Spokanites, too.

The Spokane Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was organized in 1921 with elected officers, membership dues, and over 100 members. According to local newspapers, the upstart Klan was relying on political influence more than violence to achieve their goals. Most individuals who belonged to the Klan maintained their anonymity, and the members names were rarely published in the newspapers.

One Klansman though, Reverend C. A. Rexroad, was not shy about his affiliation with the robe and hood. Rexroad, a long time minister, moved to Spokane from Butte, Montana where he became the pastor at the Corbin Park Methodist Episcopal Church. Rexroad came under fire when he was outed in the newspapers as the Grand Cyclops of the Spokane Ku Klux Klan. His photo was plastered in the headlines and his bosses were notified of his role in the KKK. 

Due to public outcry, Rexroad was removed as the National Guard Champlain, his membership in the American Legion was questioned, and the board of the Corbin Park Methodist Episcopal Church met to determine Rexroad’s future. The board unequivocally supported the reverend and vowed to “stand behind Mr. Rexroad no matter what comes or goes.”

Klan gathering described in pro-Klan newspaper, The Fraternalist, June 12, 1924.

Although there was no substantial opposition to the Klan, one group formed a resistance. The Organization of the Three Brothers was founded in 1921 with the hope of removing all KKK members from political office in Spokane. (I have not discovered anyone specifically, but this likely means that Klan members did hold political office in Spokane.) Despite their efforts, the Klan continued to grow through the 1920s.

In 1924, under Rexroad’s leadership, the Spokane Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan held a large initiation ceremony on Five Mile Prairie. One hundred and fifty new members were initiated while they stood at the base of a ninety foot tall cross engulfed in flames. According to a pro-klan newspaper, over 4,000 klansman and 3,000 visitors attended the ceremony. Although smaller than chapters in southern cities or in Portland, the Klan was a powerful political force in 1920s Spokane.


This article was originally published in Nostalgia Magazine as part of my bi-monthly column “Heroes and Scoundrels.”

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Walter Lawson: Breaking Down Barriers, Upholding the Law

-Walter Lawson served the Spokane Police Department for eighteen years

When the 1900 United States Census was taken, there were 376 black residents in Spokane, making up slightly more than one percent of the city’s total population. One of those residents, Walter Lawson, moved to Spokane in 1894 where he became an officer for the Spokane Police Department.

Members of the 25th Infantry Buffalo Soldiers at Ft. Keogh, Montana, 1890, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Before arriving in Spokane, Lawson completed five years in the United States Army. He enlisted for his term in 1886 and became a member of the 25th Infantry Regiment, a segregated unit of black soldiers often referred to as the Buffalo Soldiers. During Lawson’s time in the service, the 25th Infantry was stationed in the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Montana. They did not see much active combat but the regiment was involved in the Ghost Dance War, a months-long armed conflict that ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre.

After his service, Lawson settled in Spokane with his wife Millie and began work as a porter at downtown hotels. Hauling luggage was not as exciting as soldier life, but in 1899 his military experience paid off. He was hired as a special policeman with the Spokane Police Department.

Officer Walter Lawson soon after he was hired by the Spokane Police Department, c1900, courtesy of Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

In 1905, a terrible crime occurred in Spokane. An abusive husband shot his wife in the abdomen and knee, and left her to die. The woman bled on the floor for hours before crawling to a neighbors home seeking help. She was taken to Sacred Heart Hospital where she was treated for her wounds, but her attacker was still at large. Officer Lawson located the man the next morning and apprehended him. As Lawson made the arrest, a .38 caliber revolver fell from the suspect’s pocket. Lawson had his man, and the likely assault weapon.

Officer Lawson worked over eighteen years with the Spokane Police Department serving in various positions including as a stock policeman, a driver, and a patrolman. In 1917, while still working for the department, the well-liked officer, husband, and father passed away. Much of the city was devastated. The Police Chief and fellow officers lauded him as “one of the bravest officers who ever wore the blue or swung a nightstick.” Newspapers across the nation exclaimed Lawson’s death noting that the Pacific Coast was now without a single black police officer.

 This article was originally published in Nostalgia Magazine as part of my bi-monthly column “Heroes and Scoundrels.”

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“Baby Face” Bobby Landis

-Bobby Landis killed a cop, an inmate, and attempted multiple prison escapes.

Bobby Landis was a scoundrel. Before he set foot in Spokane at sixteen years of age, he was an accomplished thief, who had shot and nearly killed a druggist. His crimes had earned him a fourteen month stay at a reformatory for young boys, and when released he violated the terms of his parole. This was just the prologue of Landis’ wrap sheet, once he arrived in the Inland Northwest he became an infamous criminal and an uncontrollable prisoner.

Detective Roy Fordyce, Image Courtesy of Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture

On November 13, 1929, Spokane Police Detectives witnessed two boys buying a handgun from a pawn shop on West Main Avenue. The detectives, Roy Fordyce and George Bradley, confronted the suspicious pair as they left the shop. The detectives questioned the boys and, after learning they were staying across the street at the dodgy Spokoma Hotel, asked to search their room. The boys agreed and the group headed up to the third floor of the building. It is unclear exactly what transpired after they entered the room, but moments later the unmistakable sound of gunshots poured from the hotel.

The Daily Tribune, 11/23/1929, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin

When the firing came to a stop, the boys were apprehended but both officers had been shot, and Detective Roy Fordyce lay dead on the floor. The suspects were arrested and one of the boys, “Baby Face” Bobby Landis, took responsibility for the murder and confessed to shooting his weapon first. After a dramatic trial, the jury convicted Landis of murder of a police officer. The young murderer was spared the death penalty, in part due to his age and his questionable mental stability, and he was sentenced to life in prison at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington.

Landis took the life sentence in stride. Less than a year after he arrived, he made his first escape attempt. The convict made it over the first prison wall but he gave up when guards started shooting at him. Landis was not discouraged though. Eighteen months later, he sprinted across the yard and pole-vaulted over the west prison wall. This time he made it out, but he was recaptured later that day and returned to the prison. In another daring escape attempt, Landis, with a group of fellow inmates, hijacked a prison truck and led guards on a chase through downtown Walla Walla ending in a gunfight that left Landis wounded.

Before he faded from the public eye, Landis added one more dark line to his already extensive wrap sheet. He and another prisoner from Spokane County, Joe McWilliams, had been bumping heads. At some point, Landis had enough of McWilliams antics. One morning, while the two were in the exercise area together, Landis drew a handmade knife and stabbed McWilliams twice, once in the stomach and again in the chest. McWilliams spent the next three months in the prison hospital before succumbing to his wounds. He was not tried for the crime, but “Baby Face” Bobby Landis had killed again.

In just over three years at the penitentiary, Landis nearly escaped three times and killed a fellow inmate. But, despite his turbulent start, the convict settled in to prison life and never committed another major violation. Although he was handed a life sentence, after serving nearly twenty-two years Robert Landis was paroled from the penitentiary in 1951. “One of the prison’s all-time worst headaches had,” according to the Spokesman-Review, “mellowed and matured with manhood.”

This article was originally published in Nostalgia Magazine as part of my bi-monthly column “Heroes and Scoundrels.”

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Francis Cook: The Father of (Mt.) Spokane and an Early Spokane Booster

-Francis Cook’s legacy is evident in green space sprinkled across Spokane County.

On an early summer morning in August 1912, sixty-one year old Francis H. Cook climbed into an open roof automobile alongside some of the most important people in Spokane and Washington State. The caravan of finely dressed dignitaries included W. J. Hindley, Mayor of Spokane, Marguerite Motie, the first Miss Spokane, and Marion E. Hay, Governor of Washington State. The group, joyfully waving green and yellow pennants, headed northeast to put a capstone on one of Cook’s most important accomplishments, a freshly graded road to a newly accessible recreation paradise atop the tallest mountain in Spokane County.

Francis Cook and dignitaries in a procession of automobiles on Riverside Avenue before embarking on their journey to rename Mt. Spokane on August 23, 1912. Image Courtesy of Washington State Archives, Digital Archives

Francis Cook came to Spokane in 1879 when only about 300 white people called the city home. He started the region’s first newspaper, The Spokan Times, and he was one of the city’s first and most effective boosters. Early editions of his newspaper encouraged readers to share the paper with friends and family encouraging them to settle in the “Wonderful Spokan Country.” His paper included a regular column,

“How to Reach this Country,” which provided detailed instructions and approximate costs to arrange transportation to Spokane. His newspaper was a bullhorn featuring a regular sales pitch for the City of Spokane.

Cook did more than beg people to move to Spokane; he helped develop the city. In 1888, he started the city’s first interurban railroad that connected Downtown Spokane with the South Hill. The steam powered train provided easy transportation to and from Cook’s newly planned neighborhood, the Montrose Addition, which later became the Manito neighborhood and park. In far north Spokane, he developed the area that became the Wandermere Golf Course and neighborhood. Cook’s efforts paid off as he watched the City of Spokane grow from a few dozen pioneer families to over 100,000 residents.

Spokane dignitaries raise the United States and Spokane flags at the top of Mt. Spokane in 1912. Mt. Spokane was renamed on this occasion. It was previously called Mt. Baldy or Mt. Carlton, and not surprisingly, its renaming was met with some resistance at the time. According to the Spokane Tribe, the original name for the mountain is “scq’wulsm,” referring to a place with dried flowers and leaves. Photo courtesy of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (L96-39.49).

Although his life was not without speed bumps, in August of 1912, when he departed with the automobile procession of dignitaries to christen his most recent project, his life accomplishments were realized and recognized. When they reached the top of his new road, which the Spokane Daily Chronicle lauded as “the longest auto grade in the world,” a ceremony was conducted where the United States flag and Spokane’s municipal flag were staked at the summit. Miss Spokane addressed the group, “You, our mountain, have been a true friend to Spokane. Our act this day cannot be more than a weak recognition of our love for you. You shall have the best we have to give—our name itself. I christen thee Beautiful Mount Spokane.” After years of hard manual labor building the road with his son, and after decades of boosting Spokane’s image, Cook was recognized for his work and the mountain was named after the project he cared most deeply about, the development of the City of Spokane.


This article was originally published in Nostalgia Magazine as part of my bi-monthly column “Heroes and Scoundrels.”

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