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Father O’ Sullivan and the Spanish Flu in Capistrano

By Chris Jepsen, President, Orange County Historical Society

Socially distanced on Camino Capistrano, circa 1919 – Photo courtesy OC Archives

San Juan Capistrano, famous for capitalizing on the romance of all things Spanish, found nothing romantic about the Spanish Influenza of 1918. The journals of Monsignor St. John O’Sullivan of Mission San Juan Capistrano provide a unique snapshot of the way the dreaded virus impacted this small Orange County community and other contemporary sources help flesh out the tale.

Father St John O’Sullivan

Even as the Great War raged across Europe, the “Spanish Influenza” (a.k.a. the grip, la grippe, or the 1918 Flu) ultimately infected about a third of the world’s population and killed at least fifty million people. (Keep in mind, the world population then was about 1.8 billion, compared to today’s 7.8 billion.) Cases of the Spanish flu began showing up in Southern California in mid-September 1918 and by mid-October the epidemic had a strong foothold in Orange County. By then, the County Hospital was closed to visitors, public gatherings were sparsely attended, and churches suspended services. Meanwhile, the County Jail acted like something of an incubator.

Each city was largely left to decide for themselves how best to combat the virus. Many promoted the use of gauze masks. Most closed their schools at least for a time, often continuing education via correspondence. Various schemes for quarantine were instituted.

Federal government influenza warning published in the Santa Ana Register, 10-17-1918

The disease came through the region in three main waves – spring, fall and winter – and wreaked havoc each time. No area of the county was spared, but largely Hispanic communities like Delhi and San Juan Capistrano were particularly hard hit.

Father St. John O’Sullivan (1874-1933) was directed to San Juan Capistrano from Arizona by Father Alfred Quetu in 1910. O’Sullivan suffered from tuberculosis, and a parish in a small sleepy town with a good climate seemed like something he might be able to manage in the time he had left. Hopes for his survival and his ability to accomplish anything were low. But O’Sullivan fell in love with the town, regained much of his strength, lived another 23 years, and profoundly changed San Juan Capistrano, its historic mission, and California forever.

Father O’Sullivan at the Mission

Starting in a tent amid the ruins of the Old Mission (which hadn’t had a priest in residence since 1886), he gradually brought the place back to life – both as a church and as an important historic site. He restored the Serra Chapel, replaced weeds with gardens, rebuilt walls with his own hands, added a parish school, and methodically turned the old ruins back into Mission San Juan Capistrano. He also wrote books about Capistrano and popularized the local legend of the swallows. Throughout the state, his work served as the model for how to preserve and restore the old California Missions.

O’Sullivan was also beloved locally as an excellent parish priest, a good citizen and a fine man. One part of that reputation, no doubt, came from his time assisting the community during the difficult months of the Spanish flu epidemic.

Every day during the pandemic, Dr. Ruggles Allerton Cushman (1856-1954) – who lived in and had a busy practice in Santa Ana – would come down to San Juan Capistrano to tend to the ill. He would arrive at or before 10 o’clock each morning and meet O’Sullivan at the Mission. Together, they went from house to house, visiting the afflicted.

Dr R A Cushman

Newspapers gave daily death counts and case counts, although they were wildly inaccurate, leaving out many unreported cases, including quite a few of those living in the country between incorporated cities. Likewise, County death records fail to fully paint the picture, as the causes of death listed for many are listed as afflictions likely caused by a preceding case of influenza. For instance, while the causes of death for many during 1918 are listed clearly as “Influenza,” “Spanish Influenza,” ‘Pneumonia ‘Influenza,’” or “Lobar Pneumonia ‘Influenza,’” others are simply listed as “Pneumonia” or “Lobar Pneumonia,” leaving the underlying cause of the pneumonia in question. Sometimes, however, it’s possible to make educated guesses, as in the case of Jennie Lopez, age 22, who died of “Lobar Pneumonia” on October 24, 1918, just a week after two members of her family died of “Pneumonia ‘Influenza’.”

The whereabouts of O’Sullivan’s original journals are unknown, but luckily, famed ethnologist John Peabody Harrington transcribed his entries for 1918 and 1919 into his own notes. Notice that for each entry, O’Sullivan kept a running tally of cases in Capistrano and even went back to correct his own math at one point. A transcription of these entries follows in bold type, interspersed with other information (in italics) to provide context. By the time of the first of these entries, Santa Ana was the only large city in Orange County still “open.” Appropriately, the first entry tells how “la grippe” came to San Juan Capistrano:

Oct. 23, 1918 – Wednesday – The influenza appeared among walnut pickers in the orchard attended by Barns. A young man, Mexican, came on the stage from El Toro on Sunday afternoon last. The same night he was taken sick. Tuesday morning, Dr. Cushman was called from Santa Ana and found two others, a man and a woman also sick. This morning (Wednesday) two other men were sick in a neighboring tent.

Have warned all to stay at home as much as possible. Saw trustees Woodward and Rosenbaum and they closed the school yesterday afternoon. Got them to close last Wednesday but they opened up again Monday. Asked Dan Salazar and he closed his pool room. No public mass Sunday or Sunday week, but about ten came anyway last Sunday.

By October. 26, two hundred and seventy-six cases of the Spanish Influenza had been reported to the County Health Officer, with most of those coming from “south” Orange County. (South Orange County was then considered anything south of about Katella Ave. in Anaheim) were in short supply at the County Hospital (now the site of UCI Medical Center) and patients sometimes had to be cared for by relatives or other volunteers. Doctors were also in shorter supply than usual, with several of them serving in the military during the war.

Oct. 29 – Tuesday – No public mass last Sunday – 1 at mass, except household. So far, the following had the influenza, all of them developed since last Friday, and as well as I can remember in the order named: Reginaldo Yorba, Librada Yorba, Fidel Yorba, Ernesto Salazar, John and George Hunn, Adela Ricardes, Cristin Garcia, Dan Garcia, Clemencia and Ventura Garcia, Dan Salazar, Mrs. [Magdalena] Salazar, Eduardo Salazar, Pete Rios. [Pete Rios] was brought to county hospital last night, and I learn by phone that [he] is in a dangerous condition this afternoon, 4 p.m. Milo Stevens and family up the Trabuco are reported all down with the influenza.

Miguel Aguilar is down with it. All the walnut house help are now sick with it except apparently Mr. Van der Leck. They are Miguel Aguilar, Fidel Yorba, Cristina Garcia (Mrs. “Slats” Watenburg), and Ventura and Clemencia Garcia [?], Adela [?].

By late October, the practice of quarantining flu-infected individuals and households was becoming significantly more common in Southern California. On October 29, the Santa Ana Register reported that 113 homes in Santa Ana were quarantined, public gatherings were prohibited, numerous local doctors were down ill, and there was little chance of the schools being reopened the following week. “Every bed in the County Hospital was filled. Nearly all of the new patients were Mexicans. The hospital has been going ahead heroically under heavy odds. With illness on the staff and the work very heavy, the hospital has been doing excellent work. Just at present there is a decided shortage in nurses… The most serious phase of the situation so far as getting the flu under control is the indifference and ignorance of a large share of the Mexican population. Many of the Mexicans resent quarantine keenly and use diverse means of breaking it. …It is almost impossible to keep the Mexicans from visiting the sick. There is little question but that there are a good many more cases of influenza among the Mexicans than the doctors or health authorities know about. A large proportion of the deaths that have occurred have been among the Mexicans. Failure to take care of themselves, crowded and insanitary conditions in their homes … makes the disease more deadly among them.”

Oct. 30 – Dr. Cushman here last night. We visited nine houses: Salazar, 4 sick with the influenza. Yorbas, 3 sick. Andres Garcia 3, Filipe Garcia 2, Mike Aguilar 2, Hunn 2, Angel Caperon 1, Joe Ricardes 3, Santos Yorba 1 (doubtful), Vicente Oliveras 2, Salazars 1.

Tonight, the doctor came again. At Mike Aguilar’s, two more sick. At Caperons, one more. At Andres Garcia’s, one more. Found John Lobo, wife and three children sick. This [makes] 37 cases among our people. Simmons and wife and one or two children sick.

Pete Rios taken to County hospital night before last from Milo Stevens up the Trabuco with [pneumonia] from the flu.

Vida Van der Leck returned from L.A. last Thursday just recovering from it. All the Olivares family of [Gasa?] seem to have had it and recovered.

On Halloween the Santa Ana Register reported on a different kind of mask than those usually associated with the holiday: “Masks are rapidly disappearing in business houses. They have not been worn very extensively in this city, and some doctors maintain that there is more danger in their use by inexperienced people than without them. Proper sterilization is necessary to make the masks safe, and it is said that very few people take the proper precaution. Some are known to have taken a mask after boiling it and placed it in a bag in which soiled masks had been carried.” The epidemic did nothing, however, to curtail trick-or-treating and other Halloween shenanigans.

Nov. 1 – Apparently no new cases yesterday, but today Dr. Cushman came in the afternoon to see Ubaldo Manriquez. I did not know the doctor was here until after he left. Immediately phoned for him. Vicente Olivares’ “Bill” down with it. Gracia Olivares, Clotilde Garcia, Beatriz Garcia, Tula de Rios, Delfina Rios, Florencia Rios, John Agular are those who fell sick today — and Ubaldo Manriquez. Nine new cases. 37+9=46

Nov. 2 – Six new cases today. Jesus and Gabriel Caperon, Dona Balbineda and little David Yorba. Lillie is better. Two cases near Serra. Paul Bucheim and [the wife of one of the section house men got it.]

The section house was where the men who ran the local railroad operations lived. Serra was the name for the old rail stop at Capistrano Beach.

Nov 3 – Sunday – New cases, Lenora, Juanita and Daniel Rios, and Beatrix Garcia. Joe Lopez, Rosa Aguilar and her two children Crescencia and the baby. 8=51=59

Nov. 4 – No new cases today that I know of.

Nov. 5 – Fe Ramos, Octavia Ochoa, Sara de Belasquez, Andres Garcia, Virginia Watenburg (age 4) – 5 new cases today. Baby of Pedro Harday died today but not of the influenza. Also Marcos, Rosa’s little baby sick. 6+59=65

Nov. 6 – New cases: Joe Yorba, Josephine Rios, Grace Combs, Teodoro Olivares. 4+65=69

Nov. 7 – New cases: Joe Olivares and two children, Hortensia and baby. Rosenda de Ramos and Esperanza, Ramon Rios. Nieves de Sepulveda and baby. Lorenza de Manriquez. 11+65=76

Gave John Aguilar, who has developed pneumonia, all the sacraments. The war ended today and the bells were run to announce it by Albert Watenburg, Julian Aguilar and one other (false alarm).

“I can’t see that the epidemic is letting up,” Dr. C. D. Ball told the Register. “There are about twelve burials a day in the nearby cemetery. The south end of the county from Huntington Beach to San Juan Capistrano is rotten with it. I should say one-third of the houses have it.” Dr. Cushman added, “I think it is wrong to quarantine heads of families. Families have been shut up, and no way to get food. There should be an inspector go to every quarantined family every day, and money appropriated to meet their wants. If it was cholera or smallpox, people would be wild. They are indifferent to this, it seems, yet it is a terrible disease–a terrible disease. I am not in favor of keeping the schools closed.”

On November 7, the Orange County Board of Supervisors passed Ordinance No. 159. This emergency measure prohibited “the assembling and congregating of persons in public places, and public gatherings, without permission of the County Health Officer…” It called out such examples as “any public school, church, theater, pool or billiard room, dance hall, lodge room, club room or [public gatherings in] private homes out of incorporated municipalities.” Violators could be fined up to $50 or jailed for up to 10 days.

Nov. 8 – New cases: Baby of Joe Olivares (Two others beside those recorded had it and recovered without doctor.) Francisco Ramos, Manuel Manriquez, Myrtle Combs. 6+76=82

False alarm about the end of the war.

Nov. 9 – New cases: Tom Ramos Sr., Tom Ramos Jr., Consuelo Stanfield, Margarita (Lopez), baby of Anita, Antonio. Mother and Anita had it and recovered without doctor. 82+8=90

Mrs. McHenry and oldest girl. 90+2=92

Nov. 10 – New cases: Clarence Mendelson, Aurilio Lopez. Newly found being sick some days. Delfina Sepulveda, Leguarda de Sepulveda, and eight at Jimenez. 12+92=104

Lillie Yorba had relapse – pneumonia. Mike Aguilar has bad interior left ear. Little Girl and wife of McHenry sick Friday 2+104=106.

Nov. 11 – War ended at 11 today French time. Brought Lilly to hospital today. Went with her in ambulance to County Hospital. Gave her sacraments. Did not visit all today. Only new cases I know of are Earl Stanfield and the grandmother, Refugio de Rios. 2+106=108.

Found Candido Jimenez with pneumonia, fever 104°. Brought him and rest of family pills.

Nov. 12 – New cases: Jesus Maria Lopez, Jesusita. Baby boy at Lopez. Voila Keller de Aguilar, Gussie Mendelson, Willie Forbes, Jr., Guadalupe de Perez, Adela Lopez. Newly found, Francisca and Erolinda Jimenez. 10+108=118

Lilly reported better this evening. Lorenza de Manriquez and Candido Jimenez very sick. Mrs. McHenry had bad nose bleed this evening. Candido Jimenez had 104 2/5° this afternoon. Ten of them are sick.

By now there was a clear pattern throughout the county in which predominantly Mexican neighborhoods – which often held more family members and more generations per household – were being hit much harder by influenza than were predominately white neighborhoods. By mid-November, white parents in Santa Ana were requesting that any reopened schools be segregated with specific schools for the Mexicans. “This is a temporary adjustment,” reported the Register. “It is proposed to leave to the next school board the problem of a permanent adjustment.”

Nov. 13 – New cases: Baby of Edonardo Perez, and he himself newly found, Eugene Arce. 3+118=121

Nov. 14 – New cases: William Forbes, Sr., and Francisca de Lopez. 2+121=123

Nov. 15 – Martin, Basilio and Theofila Perez, children. 3+123=126

Nov. 16 – Tiby Marquez, Mrs. William Forbes, Ysidro. 3+126=129.

Gave Candida Jimenez all the sacraments this afternoon. Guadalupe de Perez had 105° fever at 3 P.M. Tom Jimenez came down from Camp Fremont this morning in answer to night letter I sent him. Took Richard Mendelson – only one in his house not sick – over to Juan Yorba’s. Error in numbers, McHenrys recorded twice. 129-2=127

Nov. 17 – Sunday – Found no new cases today. Dr. Cushman here in evening to see Candido who is very low. Heart good, temperature 102°, but lungs almost filled up. Guadalupe de Perez very bad, 104°. Doctor advises taking her to the hospital. Lilly Yorba to leave hospital tomorrow and go to her brother Rudolph’s house near Tustin. Candido died at 10:30 P.M.

Nov. 18 – Guadalupe de Perez went to the hospital today with pneumonia. Tiby was worse this morning and Joe Avila’s little boy sick. Doctor came but could not get up to Avila’s, 5 miles toward the [San Juan] Hot Springs on account of muddy roads and rain. He left medicine and I wrote out instructions and sent them up by Damien Rios, who went on horseback.

New cases: Mrs. Staffel, Pilar Lobo, and presumably Jose Avila’s little boy. 3+127=130 cases to date.

By now, the incidence of new cases was beginning to diminish throughout the county.

Nov. 19 – No new cases. Joe Avila’s baby has not flu. 130-1=129

Nov. 20 – No new cases. Guadalupe de Perez died.

Nov. 21 – No new cases. Tiby better 99.3°. Viola de Aguilar 99.3°. Yisidro Villa better. Buried Guadalupe de Perez who died at County Farm yesterday.

The County Farm was the Orange County Hospital and Poor Farm. The Poor Farm provided housing and work for those who were unable to otherwise care for themselves. The adjacent County Hospital – at that time housed in a purpose-built 1914 neo-classical building — cared for those who could not afford medical help elsewhere.

Dec. 12 – Since recording the preceding the following [have] taken the influenza: Joe Avila, his wife Amelia, Henry Jose, Jr., Julian and the baby, Clarence James, Glenn Cook, his cousin about the same age (15), Mrs. Roy Cook. 9+129=138

Mrs. Roy Cook took sick this morning. Julian Aguilar had it and recovered without the doctor. 1+138=139

Dec. 22 – Sunday – Pedrito Oyharzabal sick with flu last Sunday, had pneumonia about four days. Yesterday at 5 P.M. Temp. 103 4/5°. Resp 40. Pulse 128. Better today.

Bennie Forster, three in section house. Polly Lopera (Wilson), Mrs. Congdon and Jack Congdon 8+138=146

By the middle of December, many of Southern California’s bans on public gathering were lifted – just in time for the holidays. At Mission San Juan Capistrano’s heavily attended 8:00 a.m. Christmas morning Mass, the congregation presented O’Sullivan with a generous gift “in gratitude for his faithful work during the influenza epidemic.” (Santa Ana Register, 12-27-1918)

Jan. 8 – Since last, the following have had the flu — Walter Congdon, Antonio Saragosa, Dominga Saragosa and the mother (in section) 146+4=150.

Teodoro Belardes very low with pneumonia.

Jan. 10 — Teodosio Belardes died today.

Jan. 15 — Marcos Forster, sick on the 13th. Modesta Rios and Filomena de Ricardes same day. Frank Rios yesterday. 4+150=154. Today Frank Rios 104°.

Here the transcription ends. It would be fascinating to know what else O’Sullivan may have noted in his journals in the waning days of the epidemic and, indeed, throughout the rest of his time in San Juan Capistrano.

New infections decreased significantly throughout Southern California by February 1919 and gradually fizzled out during that spring. Some believe a smaller fourth wave also swept through in the winter and spring of 1920, although that is not well documented.

White Cross Drug Store advertisement, Santa Ana Register, 10-22-1918

The task remains for some historian to spend the countless days of research needed to develop a full accounting of those who died of Spanish Influenza in Orange County. Finding those who died of “influenza” in the death rolls is straightforward enough, albeit time consuming. However, it is much harder – if not impossible – to sort through the deaths caused by potentially related conditions, like pneumonia, and determine which cases were brought about by the flu. In truth, the local death count may never be fully known. Even less knowable is the scope of the devastation brought to the family and friends of those who died.

But thanks to Fr. St. John O’Sullivan, we have a much better idea of how one small town coped during one of its darkest hours.

[Author’s note: Special thanks to Eric Plunkett for finding historical needles in historical haystacks and to Stephanie George for her helpful editing and suggestions.]