Spanish influenza killed hundreds in Santa Cruz in 1918

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When the news of the end of the World War reached Santa Cruz in the early morning hours of Nov. 11, 1918, the city erupted with the sounds of bells and whistles.

Awkwardly, the war ended in the midst of the largest epidemic in modern history.

The shooting and killing may have stopped, but the influenza continued to suffocate its victims, filling their lungs with fluid and strangling them in their bunks. Named the Spanish influenza though public health officials said it probably originated in Asia, it spread quickly through tightly packed groups of soldiers across Europe in the spring and summer of 1918, and onto the East Coast by September. The influenza claimed its first victim in Santa Cruz County on Oct. 15 when a healthy, active 31-year-old woman named Loula Jones died in her sister's home on Pacheco Street.

As more people got sick, the Red Cross set up temporary hospitals in Watsonville and Santa Cruz, and volunteers visited the sick at their homes. Immigrants from Japan, Italy and Croatia were hit particularly hard by the influenza, and the disease targeted people between the ages of 20 and 40. At one point every Italian fishing family in Santa Cruz was stricken by the disease and no fishing boats went out.

Despite the public health measures, there seemed to be no correlation between the masks, staying away from crowds and coming down with the flu. Maybe that was the scariest part of the epidemic -- it seemed to wander willy-nilly across the landscape, strangling its victims at random.

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