Produced by the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine and Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library

Influenza Encyclopedia

The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919:

A Digital Encyclopedia

Denver, Colorado

50 U.S. Cities & Their Stories

Denver and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

On September 27, 1918, a young Denver University student named Blanche Kennedy, died of pneumonia a few days after returning from a trip to Chicago. It was Denver’s first influenza-related death.1

City Manager of Health and Charity and former Denver mayor Dr. William H. Sharpley took quick action. Having heard reports of influenza across the state and assuming that the epidemic would soon reach Denver, he had proactively formed an influenza advisory board on September 26.2 Sharpley urged the public to be on guard. He recommended that residents avoid needless crowding, cover all coughs and sneezes, keep their homes and offices well ventilated, and seek a physician at once if cold-like symptoms developed. He also offered the less-than-helpful recommendation to keep a clean mouth, a clean heart, and clean clothes, and advised “mak[ing] nature your ally, not your prisoner” by avoiding tight clothes and shoes.3

Neither Sharpley nor the influenza advisory committee were convinced that the eight cases in Denver were due to the same virulent “Spanish influenza” strain that was making its way across the nation.4 It was not until several days later, on October 4, when the number of cases and deaths had climbed rapidly, that Sharpley and the advisory board realized they were facing the deadly epidemic. Sharpley quickly ordered hospitals to isolate influenza patients in separate rooms and not in the general wards, or to use screen dividers between beds in institutions where such separation was not possible.5 Denver braced for the worst.

The next evening, Mayor W. F. R. Mills, the city council, the bureau of health, the local medical association, the school board, and representatives of the clergy and the business community, met to discuss the impending epidemic and decide what actions should be taken. The medical representatives recommended closing places of public assembly, arguing that it would save money as well as lives. The large numbers of cases expected, amplified by the equally large number of people who would have to care for the ill, would have a devastating impact on Denver’s economy. The business community agreed. As the manager of the Rialto Theater stated, “I shall sacrifice gladly all that I have and hope to have, if by so doing I can be the means of saving one life.” This was a hyperbolic statement to be sure, but one that echoed loudly in 1918, when citizens were expected to sacrifice for the greater good of a nation at war.6

Less than ten minutes after the conclusion of the meeting, Sharpley had drafted an order, signed by Mayor Mills, closing all schools, business colleges, churches and Sunday schools, clubs, lodges, pool halls, movie houses, theaters, reading rooms, Red Cross work rooms, dance halls, and colleges (except those under government supervision), and banning all music rehearsals, public indoor funerals, fraternity and lodge meetings, and all other places of public assembly (defined as two or more people). Workplaces with large numbers of employees were to be inspected by the health department and all suspected cases discovered would be segregated, and those buildings found to be poorly ventilated would be ordered closed. The order would go into effect at 6:00 am on Sunday, October 6. For that day only, Catholic churches would be allowed to hold their early mass, as there was no way to contact members of the congregation before they began arriving.7

Denver residents generally adhered to the health department’s closure order and public gathering ban. Interpreting the order literally, however, people soon began congregating outdoors in the busy downtown shopping district, as the public health edicts only applied to indoor assemblies. Clergy began holding outdoor services for their congregations. As the number of new cases continued to increase, these assemblies were said to be the cause. Business owners and those unemployed as a result of the closure order were particularly vociferous in decrying these gatherings, arguing that the epidemic could not be stamped out quickly unless all assemblies were halted, outdoor as well as indoor.8

By the morning of October 15, physicians reported 257 new cases in the last 24-hour period, bringing the total number of cases since the start of the epidemic to 1,440. Sharpley attributed this sharp rise to open-air assemblies, and more specifically to the “criminal neglect” of those who participated, and banned them forthwith. He also added more restrictions, prohibiting streetcars from carrying more than 65 passengers and requiring them to be fully ventilated at all times, and instituting staggered business hours for down businesses and offices to alleviate crowding on public transportation. Stores located within the downtown business district had to maintain 9:00 am to 6:00 pm hours, while offices and other businesses were required to close by 5:00 pm. Lastly, public outdoor funerals were added to the list of prohibited gatherings; previously, only indoor funerals were under restriction.9

The Slow Road to Recovery

By October 20, just a few weeks since the appearance of the first cases in the city, Denver residents began to grow restless with the closure order. Records of new cases from the previous 24 hours seemed to indicate that the peak of the epidemic had been reached, and health officials looked with great hope to the end of the epidemic. Mayor Mills went so far as to announce that the scourge would be nearly over within a week. As the number of new cases dropped slightly, Sharpley and the health department came under increasing pressure to re-open the schools, theaters, and entertainment venues. The health commissioner was guardedly optimistic. He announced that he hoped to allow theaters to re-open in time for Saturday shows on October 26, and that if theaters were allowed to re-open schools would be as well. State health authorities, who had enacted a closure order and gathering ban two weeks earlier, were not so optimistic, however. On October 25, when the latest influenza figures did not indicate the decline everyone had wished for, the state board of health announced that the closure order would not be lifted at present.10

By the first week of November, the situation appeared to have improved enough to revisit the idea of lifting the prohibitions. On November 7, Sharpley, Mayor Mills, and the state board of health met to discuss the re-opening of Denver. According to the plan they adopted, churches would be allowed to hold one half-hour service starting Sunday, November 10. Catholic churches were allowed additional services to accommodate their large congregations, provided each mass did not last longer than thirty minutes and no two services began within the same hour. Theaters, movie houses, and other public amusements could open after midnight, but only with written permission from Sharpley’s office. Those places located in areas where the epidemic was still raging would not be allowed to open. Some measures were to be kept in place. Schools were to be kept closed for an additional week, and would not open until Monday, November 18. Streetcars were still subject to the same ventilation and maximum passenger restrictions, public funerals were still prohibited, and bargain sales at area shops and department stores were not allowed. Office buildings and department stores were also to hold to the current, staggered business hours. The public was warned to limit gatherings so far as possible.11 It seemed that Denver’s bout with influenza was finally drawing to a close.

Immigrants, Influenza, and Scapegoating

The coast was not yet entirely clear, however. Influenza was still reported to be raging in several immigrant neighborhoods, particularly in Little Italy and to a lesser extent in Globeville, the Eastern European immigrant enclave. Despite–and perhaps because of–the city’s small total foreign-born community (only 15% of the total population in 1920), immigrants were often the objects of scorn in Denver.12

Prejudice made it easy to single out Italian immigrants as noncompliant. As the rest of the city seemed to be recovering from the epidemic, Little Italy and Globeville (the Eastern European immigrant neighborhood) were still suffering. One unidentified health department official attributed it to the social customs (and perhaps unwittingly to the poverty) of these two immigrant groups. “When an Italian or Austrian [a catch-all term for anyone from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire] is taken sick, a physician is seldom called,” he told the press, “but all the relatives and friends immediately flock into the house to call on the sick person.” For this reason, he argued, the epidemic continued to rage in these neighborhoods. In contrast, the epidemic was said to be well under control in the West Colfax neighborhood, the Jewish section of the city.13 Another unidentified health department official put it more bluntly: “The foreign element gives us much trouble when an epidemic occurs. They pay no attention to the rules or orders issued by the health board in its effort to check the disease.” He also attributed the problem to family and friends calling on the ill–“two or three dozen or more,” as he put it–rather than isolating the patient and avoiding contact.14 In short, Denver’s Italian population was seen as unable or unwilling to adhere to the middle-class values of social orderliness considered so important–and so “American”–to their native-born counterparts.

To help ensure that the epidemic did not rage out of control once more, health authorities intended to keep Little Italy and Globeville under the closure order even as it was removed for the rest of the city. The health department printed notices in Italian and posted them throughout the neighborhood, informing residents that influenza was spread by visiting the ill or attending funerals of those who had died of the disease. “If you want to keep well, keep out of the sick-rooms,” the posters admonished. To make sure these instructions were followed, the department ordered its officers to enforce strictly quarantines in Little Italy and to force occupants to remain indoors and to discontinue all visits.15

Armistice Day: Peace in Europe, War on Influenza

Ultimately, the epidemic did rage once more. On November 11, the day that the epidemic measures were lifted in Denver, communities across the United States celebrated Armistice Day. Thousands of Denverites thronged the streets, hotels, and other buildings, celebrating the war’s end. Over 8,000 attended a celebration at the city auditorium alone. That evening, after several weeks without entertainment, crowds attended theater shows and movie houses, watching Ethel Barrymore in Our Mrs. McChesney at the Strand, Theda Bara in Salome at the Broadway, and others.16

Health authorities realized that such crowding was likely to result in a new surge in influenza cases. They also acknowledged that there was little they could do to prevent it. As one official put it, “There is no use trying to lay down any rules regarding the peace celebration, as the lid is off entirely, and should be on account of the glorious ending of the world’s biggest war.” He added that there undoubtedly would be an increase in new cases as a result, however.17

There was. In the days after the Victory Day celebrations, physicians reported increasingly large daily tallies for new cases. A week after the event, Denver was experiencing a hundred new cases and a dozen or more deaths per day.18 Sharpley blamed the public for the epidemic’s resurgence. “It is not the lifting of the closure ban that is the cause of spreading of the epidemic,” he stated, “but the putting aside of all precautions and restrictions by the people of Denver when they celebrated on Victory Day.” Mayor Mills did not think the situation serious, believing that flare-ups would be likely in the near future until the epidemic had passed completely. Nevertheless, the influenza advisory board was called to meet on November 22 to discuss the situation.19

At the meeting, the advisory board recommended once again closing the city’s places of public amusement and issuing another closure order. Sharpley and Mills agreed, and a second order was issued, putting into effect once more the same restrictions used until just two weeks prior. In addition, the twelve members of the influenza advisory board were made health officers and given the authority to arrest any person going into or coming out of a quarantined residence. Streetcars were to be limited to carrying 65 passengers, and conductors were subject to arrest for violating this order. Lastly, all persons entering a store, factory, or other place where large numbers of people congregate were required to wear a face mask. Those who refused to wear a mask were to be barred from entering stores and theaters. The board recommended that streetcar passengers wear masks as well, but it was not made mandatory.20

This second set of restrictions caught the public by complete surprise. Despite the increase in new cases in the days leading up to the November 22 meeting, Denver residents had been told repeatedly by their officials that the main danger of influenza had passed and that the city was on its way to recovery.21 Business owners, especially theater and move house operators, protested vigorously, complaining that the closure order was discriminatory, as it singled out theaters and movie houses while still allowing people to congregate in downtown department stores. Theater and movie interests, along with owners of pool halls and bowling alleys, met and quickly formed an “amusement council,” which adopted a resolution calling on the city either to close all businesses where people congregate or to allow all businesses to operate provided patrons wear masks.22

In the face of such opposition–representing an estimated $2.5 million in capital–Mills, Sharpley, and the advisory board rescinded the second closure order (public schools excepted) only a few hours after it had gone into effect. In its place they instituted a revised mandatory face mask order. Beginning at 4:00 pm on Monday, November 25, Denverites would be required to wear gauze face masks while riding streetcars, when attending church services, when in theaters or any assembly (indoor or out), while shopping, when riding in elevators, when working in a factory, when working in an building to which the public was admitted, or when visiting a physician. Those who served the public in any capacity were also required to don a mask.23

An “almost indescribable confusion,” as the Rocky Mountain News put it, resulted from this sudden shift in policy. Throngs of people crowded city hall seeking clarification of the new rules. Many stores along busy Sixteenth Street were unable to obey the new order, as there simply were too few masks to be had to supply either employees or customers. The Red Cross reported that it was doing all that it could to produce more masks, but it could not keep up with the sudden demand. Store and factory managers told the health department that they were trying to adhere to the new order, but that they would not turn away customers or employees if they were unable to obtain more masks. The answer they received was to simply do their best under the circumstances.24

Enforcement of the mask order was another problem. Even Mayor Mills, despite going along with the proposition, did not expect widespread compliance. He was correct. The day after the mask order went into effect, only a few downtown stores were seen to be using masks. Reasons were as varied as they were creative. “We have received no direct orders from the health department,” said the head of one downtown department store, “and cannot take notice of a newspaper report.” A salesgirl in another shop replied that her “nose went to sleep” when asked why she was not wearing her mask. Another un-masked salesgirl said that she believed that a higher authority than the Denver Department of Health was looking after her well-being.25 The general public was also reported to be going about its business largely as if the order did not exist.

To make matters worse, the mask order that had placated theater and movie owners now upset the streetcar company and its conductors. The initial iteration of the order required that conductors of the Tramway Company, the company that ran Denver’s streetcars, enforce the mask order aboard their cars. The Tramway Company balked at this idea, however, arguing that its conductors had no legal authority to refuse a ride simply because the passenger was not wearing a mask, and that attempting to do so would result in innumerable fights between patrons and conductors and possible lawsuits against the company. Deputizing conductors would serve no purpose; if an unmasked passenger refused to comply, the conductor would be forced to arrest him or her, thereby abandoning his streetcar in the middle of the road while he went in search of a police officer or called the local station. Mills therefore directed the police to enforce the order, letting conductors off the hook.26

The result was much the same. Despite the presence of police officers on busy street corners checking to make sure streetcar passengers were wearing masks, and threats of fines ranging from $10 to $200–a hefty fee in 1918–for those who were not, the majority of Denver residents still refused to wear their masks. Most complained that they were too uncomfortable to wear and interfered with normal breathing. Others argued that gauze masks were useless against influenza.27 In the face of such opposition, there was little city hall could do to enforce the order. As Mayor Mills put it, “Why, it would take half the population to make the other half wear masks. You can’t arrest all the people, can you?”28 It appeared that Denver residents understood that the answer all too well. Mills and Sharpley therefore revised the mask order yet again, this time merely recommending that the general public wear masks while in crowds and aboard streetcars.29

The new ruling appeased the Tramway Company and the public, but it still did not mollify conductors, who bristled at the ridiculousness of having to wear uncomfortable masks all day while their passengers did not. Conductors threatened to go on strike and to let every single streetcar sit idle in the barn unless the mask order was further modified. The walk-out was narrowly averted at the eleventh hour only when the mayor and Sharpley revised to mask order yet again, this time requiring conductors to wear masks only during the morning and evening rush hour commute and when passing through the busy downtown business district between Broadway and Union Station.30 Mills announced that police would now strictly enforce the new order–now in its third iteration–and would arrest scofflaws.31 Even if the highly porous surgical gauze masks of the day were effective against influenza, Denver’s order was so watered down by this point as to make it practically meaningless.

By this time, however, the second spike in cases was on the decline, and it appeared as if Denver was emerging at last from the far side of the epidemic. Mills and Sharpley met on November 30 and annulled the mask order completely, effective at 6:00 pm on Saturday, December 1. Isolation and quarantine orders were made more stringent, however, and only nurses and physicians were allowed to enter sick rooms. In addition, all houses with suspected cases were to be placarded.32 Save for these two points, however, no further restrictions were ordered and none were considered by the mayor or the board of health.


While new cases continued to develop in the following weeks, and many still resulted in death, the worst was now over. Slowly, Denver life began to return to normal. It occurred in fits and starts. Several traditional end-of-the-year social events were cancelled by organizers out of fear of spreading the dreaded disease. The Salvation Army, for example, cancelled their annual Christmas parties for poor children, as did the Denver Women’s Press Club its New Year’s Eve ball.33 Much to the chagrin of students and to the joy of parents, the public schools at last re-opened on January 2, 1919. The time missed was hardly vacation, as children learned when they returned to their classrooms: the missed time was to be made up by extending the school year into July. Schoolteachers came close to not receiving pay for the weeks their schools were closed. The heads of the school districts maintained that the epidemic was an “act of God,” and therefore the school system was released from the bounds of its contracts. It took the intervention of Colorado Attorney General Leslie E. Hubbard to rule that the contracts were binding on both parties, and that teachers were entitled to their pay so long as they were willing and able to carry out their duties.34

Then, of course, there were those whose lives were directly touched by the epidemic. For Denverites–and indeed all Americans–who lost friends and loved ones to the deadly plague, life would never be the same. Across the nation, the epidemic left countless widows, widowers, and orphans, and Denver was no exception. The epidemic may even have taken the life of Dr. Erlo Kennedy, the 38 year old executive secretary of the Colorado board of health, who died on February 4, 1919 of pneumonia due to a “severe cold” that may have been influenza.35


1 “Denver’s First Death from Flu Reported,” Denver Post, 27 Sept. 1918, 8. It is likely, of course, that influenza was already circulating in the city. There were already nearly 100 cases in nearby Boulder, for example. See, Erlo F. Kennedy, “Report of the Colorado State Board of Health, 1917 and 1918,” Box 26958, Folder H, Governor Julius C. Gunter Collection, Colorado State Archives, Denver, CO.

2 “Spanish Flu Fails to Reach Denver and Health Bureau Takes Steps to Ward It Off,” Denver Post, 29 Sept. 1918, 1.

3 “Denver’s First Death from Flu Reported,” Denver Post, 27 Sept. 1918, 8.

4 “Health Bureau Denies Spanish ‘Flu’ Report,” Denver Post, 28 Sept. 1918, 7.

5 “Influenza Cases found in Denver; Citizens Warned,” Rocky Mountain News, 4 Oct. 1918, 1

6 “Denver Closes Churches and Theaters,” Denver Post, 6 Oct. 1918, 1.

7 “Denver Closes Churches and Theaters,” Denver Post, 6 Oct. 1918, 1, and “Precautions Are Taken To Stop Spread of Epidemic,” Rocky Mountain News, 6 Oct. 1918, 1.

8 “’Flu’ Cases Gain in Denver, Relaxed Care New Danger,” Denver Post, 11 Oct. 1918, 1.

9 “Business Hours Changed in Order to Fight Plague,” Rocky Mountain News, 18 Oct. 1918, 1, and “Influenza Wave in City Believed Nearing Crest,” Rocky Mountain News, 19 Oct. 1918, 1.

10 “State Flu Ban Can’t Be Lifted Now or Date Set,” Denver Post, 25 Oct. 1918, 17. For the state board of health’s orders, see Erlo F. Kennedy, “Report of the Colorado State Board of Health, 1917 and 1918,” Box 26958, Folder H, Governor Julius C. Gunter Collection, Colorado State Archives, Denver, CO.

11 “Brief Service in Each Church,” Rocky Mountain News, 10 Nov. 1918, 9, “Health Proclamation,” Denver Post, 7 Nov. 1918, 3, “Denver Will Lift Flu Epidemic Ban on Monday Morning,” Denver Post, 7 Nov. 1918, 4, and “Big Increase in New Flu Cases Recorded in Denver As a Result of Fete and Ban Lifting,” 14 Nov. 1918, 1.

12 United States Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920, vol. 1, Population, Table 16, 52. The famous Dillingham Commission labeled Italian immigrants in the West as “slow to learn English” and “clannish,” at the time considered to be two of the most critical markers of an unwillingness to assimilate. Concluding its section on Italian immigrants in the Denver area, the Commission wrote, “as the number of Italians increases the standards of living are gradually lowered, the good influence of the higher types of races being absent.” See, United States Department of Justice, Immigration Commission, Reports of the Immigration Commission, vol. 24 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1911), 553-554. The staunchly anti-Catholic American Protective Association was active in Denver in the late-19th century, later replaced by other equally xenophobic groups, and, in the years after World War I, by the newly resurgent Ku Klux Klan. Poor, unable to speak English, and Catholic, Italian immigrants were vilified by Protestant Anglo-American Denverites, who considered the newcomers to be prone to excessive drinking and violence. Starting in 1875, Denver witnessed several high-profile crimes involving Italians that would help cement the notion that Italian immigrants were excessively violent. In October 1875, the bodies of four Italians, their throats slashed, were found in a basement of an abandoned shack. Their killer(s) were assumed to be Italian as well. In July 1893, an Italian barkeep murdered an elderly Civil War veteran who was unable to pay his nickel bar tab. An angry mob of hundreds broke into the jail, grabbed the perpetrator, and lynched him from a nearby tree. When latecomers arrived at the scene they were disappointed to have missed the lynching, so the body was re-hanged downtown, the crowd chanting “Death to the Dago!” In 1901, a barroom fight in an Italian saloon turned to murder, once again highlighting, for nativist and xenophobic Denverites, the criminality of the Italian immigrants in the community. See Thomas J. Noel, The City and the Saloon: Denver, 1858-1916 (Lincoln, NE: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1982), 61.

13 “Schools Will Remain Closed Until Danger of Influenza Passes,” Denver Post, 9 Nov. 1918, 1.

14 “Epidemic Continues to Rage Thru Italian Section of Denver,” Denver Post, 17 Nov. 1918, 4.

15 “Denver Will Lift Flu Epidemic Ban Monday Morning,” Denver Post, 7 Nov. 1918, 4, and “Flu Death Rate Drops, Slight Improvement Shown Throughout City,” 8 Nov. 19189, 14.

16 Leonard and Noel, 168.

17 “Big Increase in Flu Feared as Result of Packed City Streets,” Denver Post, 11 Nov. 1918, 17. The relative importance of Armistice Day as compared to the influenza epidemic can even be seen in the placement of this article in the Post. Whereas flu articles regularly occupied the front page, this one was relegated to page 17, the front page being taken up by news of the end of the war.

18 The daily newspaper reports are indicative of this. See, for example, “Delayed Flu Reports Responsible for Big Raise in New Cases,” Denver Post, 19 Nov. 1918, 5, and “Flu Cases Doubled Over Wednesday and 14 Deaths Reported,” 21 Nov. 1918, 5.

19 “Flu Cases Doubled Over Wednesday and 14 Deaths Reported,” 21 Nov. 1918, 5.

20 “Denver Again Closed Tight in Determined Effort to Halt Spread of Influenza,” Rocky Mountain News, 23 Nov. 1918, 1.

21 See, for example, “Flu Cases Doubled Over Wednesday and 14 Deaths Reported,” Denver Post, 21 Nov. 1918, 5, and “Flu Cases Decrease and Outlook is Better Health Officers Say,” Denver Post, 22 Nov. 1918, 23.

22 “Theater Men Protest Ban,” Rocky Mountain News, 23 Nov. 1918, 7.

23 “Flu Ban Is Off, Masks Are Ordered,” Denver Post, 23 Nov. 1918, 1, and “Health Proclamation,” Denver Post, 24 Nov. 1918, 2, “Epidemic Closing Order Revoked; Masks Urged To Stop Disease Spread,” Rocky Mountain News, 24 Nov. 1918, 1.

24 “Epidemic Closing Order Revoked; Masks Urged To Stop Disease Spread,” Rocky Mountain News, 24 Nov. 1918, 4.

25 “Masks Not Popular, Many People Ignore Health Board Rules,” Rocky Mountain News, 24 Nov. 1918, 5.

26 “Police Will Enforce Flu Masking Order,” Denver Post, 25 Nov. 1918, 1.

27 “Fighting the Flu,” Rocky Mountain News, 26 Nov. 1918, 6.

28 “Police Will Enforce Flu Masking Order,” Denver Post, 25 Nov. 1918, 1, and “Health Regulations to Be Observed,” Denver Post, 26 Nov. 1918, 5.

29 “New Orders Are Issued by Officials in Flu Fight,” Rocky Mountain News, 26 Nov. 1918, 5.

30 “Flu Epidemic Shatters All Records,” Denver Post, 27 Nov. 1918, 1.

31 Rigid Enforcement of Flu Regulations Ordered by Denver’s Health Officials,” Rocky Mountain News, 27 Nov. 1918, 1.

32 “Mask Order Cancelled But Quarantine Rules Are Made Stricter,” Denver Post, 30 Nov. 1918, 1,” and “195 Influenza Cases Reported on Saturday, Masking Called Off,” Denver Post, 1 Dec. 1918, 15.

33 “Usual Denver Holiday Festivities Are Called Off for Flu Epidemic,” Denver Post, 18 Nov. 1918, 10.

34 “State Teachers to Draw Full Pay for Flu Period,” Denver Post, 20 Nov. 1918, 17.

35 “Pneumonia Kills Dr. E. E. Kennedy, Health Official,” Denver Post, 5 Feb. 1919, 3.

Denver County Hospital. Click on image for gallery. Denver County Hospital.
Denver’s Manager of Health and Charity, William H. Sharpley, who handled the city’s response to the influenza epidemic.  Before becoming Denver’s health officer, Sharpley served as the city’s police surgeon, superintendent of the county hospital, and even mayor. Click on image for gallery. Denver’s Manager of Health and Charity, William H. Sharpley, who handled the city’s response to the influenza epidemic. Before becoming Denver’s health officer, Sharpley served as the city’s police surgeon, superintendent of the county hospital, and even mayor.

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Denver, Colorado

Timeline of Events

Excess Death Rate (per 100,000) Daily EventsClick day to view details. Selected Event
200Excess Death Rate (per 100,000)
Total Excess Death Rate 631
Total Deaths per 100,000 population over duration of epidemic (roughly 1918 September 14 through 1919 February 22).

September 22, 1918

Twelve cases of influenza are reported in the Student Army Training Corps unit at the University of Colorado in nearby Boulder. These are the first cases reported in the area.

September 25, 1918

The number of cases in the Student Army Training Corps unit at the University of Colorado has increased to 75. Cadets are confined to the campus and are not allowed to enter the town. Dr. William H. Sharpley, Denver’s Manager of Health and Charity, does not believe these cases are influenza.

September 26, 1918

Dr. Sharpley says that nothing can be done to prevent influenza from sweeping through Denver. He urges everyone to cover his or her mouth and nose with a handkerchief when coughing and sneezing.

September 27, 1918

Dr. Sharpley appoints a committee of twelve physicians to advise him if and when an influenza epidemic breaks out in Denver. He warns residents of the dangers of pneumonia complications stemming from influenza.

September 28, 1918

Miss Blanche Kennedy is the first Denver resident to die from influenza. She became ill while visiting Chicago and died upon her return to Denver. The Kennedy home is placed under quarantine as a precaution. To prepare for a possible epidemic, Dr. Sharpley convinces movie houses to start their shows with a warning to cover mouths and noses when coughing and sneezing.

September 29, 1918

Several cases that are suspected to be influenza are reported to Dr. Sharpley, but he dismisses them as grippe and says that influenza is not present in the city.

October 1, 1918

Dr. Sharpley reassures the public that Denver is free of influenza.

October 3, 1918

After receiving a notice from the United States Public Health Service that influenza and grippe are one in the same, Dr. Sharpely announces that influenza is present in Denver. Sharpley asks city doctors to report all cases of influenza and advises hospitals to isolate patients whenever possible. He requests that school officials not allow sick children to attend class.

October 5, 1918

William R. Kennedy, the brother of Denver’s first influenza victim Blanche Kennedy, dies from influenza. Dr. Sharpley warns the public to be on guard against influenza and to go to bed and call a doctor immediately if the symptoms of illness develop.

October 6, 1918

Dr. Sharpley and the Board of Health decide to close all places of public gathering, effective at 11:00 am. The public is encouraged to spend as much time outdoors as possible and to not congregate in stores and restaurants. Clergy and the business community voice their support for the order, stating that it will bring about a quicker end to the epidemic.

October 6, 1918

Dr. Sharpley estimates that there are 300 cases among Denver’s 250,000 residents, not yet enough to call it an epidemic.

October 7, 1918

The Denver chapter of the Red Cross begins conducting a survey of nurses in the Denver area who could help to care for victims of the influenza epidemic. The Red Cross will fund nursing services to communities or families who cannot afford the service.

October 7, 1918

Dr. Sharpley publishes a column in the local newspapers, telling residents that there is no reason to be alarmed, and imploring them to cooperate with health officials. If people do, he adds, “[W]e will have no epidemic in Denver.”

October 9, 1918

Mayor W.F.R. Mills calls for the city to “promote the welfare of the boys of Denver while public schools are closed.” He arranges for outdoor exercise activities for boys to keep them active.

October 10, 1918

Dr. Sharpley tells the public that the chief danger to Denver “is from outside towns and strangers arriving in the city from various sections of the country where the scourge is prevailing.” He is hopeful that, with the closure order in place, the city can avoid an epidemic.

October 12, 1918

Denver movie houses report a weekly loss of $15,000 due to the closure order. Many theaters employ around 25 people, at a weekly salary of $25 per week. Even closed, electric and light bills must be paid, and the large amount of printed materials that were created to announce movies cannot be used.

October 13, 1918

As the epidemic spreads across Colorado, Dr. Sharpley fears that Denver will be re-infected with influenza through visitors from elsewhere in the state or from the East Coast. He asks that people from outside Denver to stay away from the city as much as possible, and recommends that Denver residents avoid traveling outside of the city. Sharpley predicts that the closure order will be kept in place for at least another week.

October 14, 1918

Dr. Sharpley claims that the closure order has been successful in checking the epidemic in Denver. He expects the number of new cases to subside quickly in the next few days. Thus far, Denver has experienced 56 influenza deaths and 1,035 cases.

October 15, 1918

Dr. Sharpley states his belief that the crest of Denver’s epidemic will come tomorrow. The Red Cross announces that it is prepared to build emergency hospitals in Denver if the city decides they are needed. Many doctors have said that they are not.

October 16, 1918

Governor Julius C. Gunter, in consultation with the State Board of Health, issues a statewide closure order and gathering ban. All meetings in Colorado are now prohibited. People are required to wear gauze masks while in public places. Physicians are asked to placard homes where they diagnose influenza.

October 17, 1918

The influenza epidemic continues to grow in Denver. The City Health Department and police work throughout the day to ensure that public meetings do not take place and that orders are obeyed.

October 18, 1918

The Denver Board of Health orders all businesses, excepting restaurants, drugstores, and hotels, to restrict their hours in order to limit the congestion on streetcars. Downtown retail stores can open from 9am to 6pm. Other downtown businesses can open as usual but must close by 5pm.

Dr. Sharpley now believes that the crest of the epidemic is still forthcoming.

October 19, 1918

Some police officers have misunderstood the closure order, believing that it pertained to all business, or to only businesses in the downtown area. This led to many complaints to City Hall from business owners. Mayor Mills now clarifies that the order does not apply to small shops employing two or fewer clerks, nor to drugstores, restaurants, grocery stores, and hotels. As another precaution, the Board of Health orders public libraries closed and prohibits public funerals.

October 20, 1918

Dr. Sharpley believes that the crest of Denver’s epidemic has been reached, and that influenza cases will now begin to decrease. He says that the closure order will remain in place for at least another week to ten days.

October 20, 1918

The influenza situation in city hospitals is the best it has been since the epidemic began, and the threat of a shortage of nurses and lack of facilities appears to be over.

October 22, 1918

Dr. Sharpley and Mayor Mills tell residents that recent case reports indicate that the worst of the epidemic has passed and that Denver can now look towards a return to normal conditions.

October 24, 1918

Dr. Sharpley believes that the epidemic has almost run its course in Denver and states that the closure orders will likely be lifted on Monday, October 28.

October 25, 1918

Dr. Sharpley states that if out-of-towners were kept out of Denver, the plague would be over by now. The presence of out-of-towners complicates the feasibility of lifting the restrictions.

October 26, 1918

Superintendent of Schools Carlos Cole announces that once schools reopen, every effort will be made to end the academic calendar on the scheduled date. In order to make up the lost time, there will be no vacation for Lincoln’s birthday, Arbor Day, or the Friday following Thanksgiving. The spring vacation will only be two days and Christmas break will only be one week.

Because the epidemic is still raging in towns near to Denver, the closure ban in the city will not be lifted on Monday, October 28, and may not be lifted in the next week.

October 27, 1918

Denver theaters prepare to enter their fourth week of being closed due to the epidemic. Owners and theaters are eager to reopen, but they do not expect to be allowed to for at least another week.

October 28, 1918

Governor Julius Gunter is confined to his home with a case of influenza. He is reported to be improving and is expected to be recovered within a few days.

October 29, 1918

Dr. Sharpley complains that city officials are having trouble enforcing precautions against public gatherings in the “foreign settlements of the city.” In one case, police had to be sent to the Italian quarter to break up a public funeral.

October 30, 1918

The State Board of Health states that it will not lift the closure order before November 4. Denver officials do not expected that it will last beyond that date.

October 31, 1918

Halloween parties are forbidden because of the gathering ban still in effect.

November 1, 1918

Unlikely that the closing order in Denver will be lifted this week because there has not been much improvement in epidemic conditions in the city or surrounding areas. It might not be lifted for another week.

November 5, 1918

The State Board of Health meets and grants Executive Secretary of the State Board of Health Dr. Erlo Kennedy the authority to lift the ban on public gatherings whenever he feels the situation has improved enough. Kennedy states that he will confer with local authorities before taking any action.

November 7, 1918

Denver officials meet and decide to lift the closure order and gathering ban on Monday, November 11. Some restrictions will remain, however. Movie houses will be allowed to open only after receiving permission from the Health Department. Churches will be permitted to hold one Sunday service between 11am and noon on November 10. Public funerals will still be prohibited. Stores may not hold bargain sales. Lastly, “No school will be allowed to open where it is attended by pupils from a district where the influenza still prevails to any extent. I expect tomorrow or Friday to announce the schools that will be allowed to open, and those schools that do not open Monday will open as soon as possible, and when there is absolute safety in their opening.”

November 8, 1918

Nine schools (Bryant, Webster, Smedley, Garden Place, Globeville, Elyria, Swansea, Ironton, and Hyde Park) still have significant numbers of influenza cases in their neighborhoods, and therefore will not be allowed to reopen on November 11.

November 9, 1918

Officials decide that none of Denver’s public schools will reopen on Monday, November 11as originally planned.

November 10, 1918

Denver’s churches open for services.

November 11, 1918

Denver’s closure order and gathering ban are removed. Private schools and business colleges reopen today, but public schools and the University of Denver remain closed this week (except for Student Army Training Corps students). Large crowds gather in the streets and in the civic auditorium to celebrate the armistice.

November 12, 1918

Dr. Sharpley worries that last night’s Armistice Day celebrations might cause of new spike in influenza cases.

November 13, 1918

The School Board votes to allow Denver public schools to reopen on Monday, November 18, except in sections where influenza is still present. Teachers are authorized to send home any children who show signs of sickness. Sharpley comments that the epidemic is essentially over in Denver except in the Italian quarter, where officials have had trouble enforcing precautions.

November 14, 1918

Churches are now allowed to hold as many mid-week and Sunday services as they like.

November 15, 1918

State Board of Health votes to remove the gathering ban on Sunday, November 24.

November 16, 1918

Public dances are once again held in Denver’s dance halls.

November 17, 1918

City churches reopen and hold regular Sunday services after being closed for six weeks.

November 18, 1918

Denver schools reopen.

November 19, 1918

School officials report approximately 20% absenteeism in the city’s elementary schools and near average attendance in high schools. They attribute the problem not to illness but to fearful parents.

November 21, 1918

New influenza cases are on the rise. Dr. Sharpley says this was to be expected as a result of the Armistice Day celebrations and that there is no cause for alarm.

November 23, 1918

Mayor Mills and Dr. Sharpley issue a new closure order. All precautions in place during the first closure (from 10/6 to 11/11) are in effect again. Movie house and theater owners strongly protest this second closure order, arguing that the order is discriminatory and disproportionately impacts their businesses. Sharpley tells residents that they “brought it on themselves by the Victory celebration, but that couldn’t have been prevented and should have been. People are required to wear masks when in public (in church, movie houses and theaters, on streetcars, in stores, in elevators, and in all public meetings). Wearing masks on the streets is not compulsory but is recommended.

Only a few hours after being put in place, however, the closure order is cancelled after pressure from the wider business community. Schools will remain closed, however, and the mandatory mask order will remain in effect.

Three emergency hospitals are being established in Denver at El Jebel temple (for men), the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Club (for women), and the Children’s hospital (for children). This decision is meant to counteract the shortage of nurses and make sure that all residents of Denver have proper care, to prevent fatalities.

November 24, 1918

The new mask order causes a rush on Red Cross mask supplies. Thousands of masks were handed out yesterday and today, causing the Red Cross to run short. Despite the rush on masks, local newspapers report that residents seemed very resistant to wearing masks in public places.

November 25, 1918

An estimated 75 to 100 influenza patients were turned away from hospitals because there were no more available beds.

November 26, 1918

Mayor Mills and Dr. Sharpley modify the mask order. All people who work with the public (e.g., movie theater ushers, street car operators, bank operators, etc.) must wear influenza masks. Churchgoers no longer need to wear masks. According to Mayor Mills, “The wearer is not only protecting himself, but is protecting others. It is the moral obligation of every person to wear the mask in a streetcar or in a store. The one who fails to do so is not only endangering his own health, but the health of others.”

November 27, 1918

Dr. Sharpley believes that Denver has passed through the second peak of the epidemic and that the situation will now improve. Three emergency hospitals are now fully open and able to care for influenza patients.

The Denver School Board decides that schools will not reopen until January 2, 1919, and will run for an extended semester ending on July 1, 1919 to make up for the lost days.

November 29, 1918

Nurses are badly needed at the three emergency hospitals. All who are qualified are urged to apply.

November 30, 1918

A group of ministers meet with Mayor Mills and state their support for cancelling all public gatherings until the danger of influenza has passed completely. They have decided to cancel Sunday school services for the time being.

November 30, 1918

Unconvinced of their effectiveness and facing opposition in their use, Dr. Sharpley repeals the mask order. Only medical personnel and those tending to influenza patients are required to wear masks. The general public may attend theaters, ride public transit, go to stores, etc. without them.

December 2, 1918

Movie houses and theaters see a drastic increase in audience sizes, which they attribute to the removal of the mask order.

December 4, 1918

The emergency hospitals are receiving more calls than they can fulfill due to the nursing shortage. The Red Cross urges any available nurse to apply to help them.

December 11, 1918

The number of new influenza cases in Denver starts to decrease.

December 12, 1918

Dr. Sharpley clarifies the quarantine rules. Some doctors have been falsely telling patients that only the room containing a sick person needs to be quarantined. In fact, the whole house should be placed under quarantine.

Mayor Mills is ill with influenza. He’s been confined to his home for the past several nights.

December 15, 1918

New case reports indicate a significant decrease in the epidemic. In addition, emergency hospitals are receiving fewer calls for patients for the first time since they opened. The good news leads Dr. Sharpley and Mayor Mills to lift the closure order. Theaters reopen, but can only seat patrons in alternate rows. Poolrooms open but for playing customers only – all seating is removed. Churches may hold one Sunday service, and Sunday school is still canceled.

December 18, 1918

Dr. Sharpley declares that Denver’s influenza epidemic has run its course. He warns the public, however, that influenza will likely remain in the community in some form for the rest of the winter.

December 26, 1918

The men and children’s emergency hospitals close as a result of the rapidly dwindling case loads.

December 27, 1918

The women’s emergency hospital closes.

January 3, 1919

The Denver Health Department releases some statistics from the recent epidemic. Some 12,718 cases were reported in the city, resulting in 1,218 deaths.

January 6, 1919

Dr. Sharpley tells the public that influenza no longer poses a risk to the community. He expects only a few cases to be reported each month through May or June.