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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

November 1918: Opponents attempt to unveil mask order as illegal and unsafe

H. Paul Prigg was the kind of man who liked to live on the edge.

In 1914, he joined the ranks of early automobile innovators when he opened a factory in Elwood that manufactured cyclecars, a type of tiny, lightweight car that could travel up to 50 miles on a gallon of gas.

In 1934, he set a world speed record of 38.54 miles per hour in a stock runabout motorboat of his own design.

And in November 20, 1918 - during a second wave of the deadly Spanish flu - he boldly defied local health authorities and stepped into the lobby of the Brevort Hotel in downtown Indianapolis without wearing a face mask.

Although Prigg's decision to flout the flu mask would not prove fatal - in fact, he would live for another 56 years - he and his two companions were promptly arrested, joining a handful of local scofflaws who were charged with profanity and other offenses after refusing to don a gauze "flu mask" as ordered by the Indianapolis Board of Health.

The Indianapolis Star, November 19, 1918

The mask mandate was imposed by board secretary Dr. Herman G. Morgan in November 1918 as a last-ditch effort to avert another wholesale shutdown of the city. Throughout most of October, all schools, theaters, movie houses, churches, poolrooms, bowling alleys, skating rinks, and “dry” beer saloons had been closed as the deadly flu swept through Indianapolis. Groceries and drug stores were allowed to remain open, but other retail shops in the downtown area were required to implement a staggered schedule in order prevent rush hour crowds on the streetcars, which were mandated to open their windows to improve ventilation.

These measures apparently worked their magic. Reported cases of the flu sharply declined, and on October 30, the shutdown order was lifted. Schools were set to reopen the following Monday. A semblance of normal life returned to the city, although Dr. Morgan - who was gaining a reputation as a bit of a killjoy - did urge residents to stay home on Halloween and avoid the downtown crowds.

But when the armistice with Germany was signed 11 days later, even the doctor's orders could not keep indy residents in their homes. Upon learning that the War to End all Wars had finally ended, a jubilant Mayor Jewett issued a statement asking the entire population of Indianapolis to gather on Monument Circle at 8 p.m. on November 11 to celebrate world peace.

And gather they did. Based on news reports, it appears that mostly everyone in the city chose to ignore Dr. Morgan's advice and instead headed to Circle to celebrate. According to The Indianapolis Star, cars were backed up for several blocks on each street leading to the Circle, which was packed with "thousands upon thousands of joy-mad pedestrians" in a "pandemonic pot-pourri."

The Indianapolis Star, Nov. 12, 1918

One week later, however, panic set in when local health authorities realized that the pandemonic potpourri surrounding the Circle on November 11 was actually a giant petri dish for the flu pandemic.

Nearly 700 new cases and nine flu-related deaths were reported in Indianapolis on November 18. The Board of Health acted swiftly to issue a mask mandate. According to Dr. Morgan, the board hoped that another "absolute closing order" could be prevented if the people of Indianapolis would simply mask up.

The Indianapolis mask mandate went into effect on November 19, 1918. Schools were also shut down, along with public libraries. Theaters, however, were allowed to remain open.

The following day, the Indianapolis Star reported that the mask order was "observed generally by the citizens of Indianapolis, so far as observation could show." Most streetcar passengers wore masks, although conductors made no effort to enforce the mandate. Businesses largely appeared to be in compliance, except for theaters, where most patrons declined to cover their faces.

Still struggling to recover from the October shutdown, theater owners promptly vowed to take action to enforce the order. At the Park Theater, for example, each patron received a free Red Cross flu mask with the purchase of a ticket to the featured movie, "The Other Man's Wife." Twelve other theaters - including the Circle, Lyric and Alhambra - ran a huge ad in the November 20 Indianapolis Star reminding patrons that they were required to wear their masks continuously throughout the entire performance.

At the same time, however, the theater ad also urged patrons to try the "Laugh Cure" while somewhat speciously asserting that "Clean, Wholesome Amusement is the World's Most Effective Antidote for All Ills."

The Indianapolis News, November 20, 1918

The seeming incongruity of an order that allowed movie theaters to remain open while shutting down public schools was not lost on the IPS School Board, which promptly wrote the Board of Health urging the reopening of city high schools. In response, Dr. Morgan pointed out that students are compelled by law to attend school whereas moviegoers have the option to decide whether to risk their lives by going to the theater.

Over the next few days, the number of flu cases continued to rise. Opposition to the mask mandate was also growing. Some Indianapolis residents complained that the masks impaired their ability to breathe and also exposed them to the risk of "self-infection." Others questioned the efficacy of gauze masks in preventing the spread of the deadly flu. And the comical effect on one's appearance of a huge piece of gauze likely dissuaded some of the more fashion-conscious locals from wearing a mask.

The Indianapolis Star, November 20, 1918. It's unclear from the text of the ad whether Ayres is promoting the chiffon veil as a covering for the mask, or as an actual mask.

The Board of Health attempted to use science and reason to assuage these concerns. Dr. Morgan pointed out that gauze masks - which had long been utilized by medical professionals - had been proven to be successful in preventing the wearer from both spreading and contracting infectious diseases.

A study published in the Oct. 12, 1918 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association backed up Dr. Morgan's assertion. Plates were placed in front of masked subjects at distances of up to 10 feet. No bacteria cropped up after five minutes of talking in loud tones, and only one plate at a distance of two feet showed two colonies of bacteria after five minutes of violent coughing. Conversely, plates as far as 10 feet away from unmasked subjects showed multiple colonies of bacteria after five minutes of coughing.

Despite the local Board of Health's efforts to persuade the so-called "mask knockers" that the face coverings were safe and effective, even the Indiana State Board of Health chose to ignore the mask mandate. When the State Board met in Indianapolis on November 20, none of its members were wearing masks. The State Board's secretary, Dr. John N. Hurty, later explained that the epidemic had grown to such proportions that wearing masks or shutting down schools and businesses would have little effect.

According to Dr. Hurty - who would later be revered as the "Father of Public Health in Indiana" and reviled as a proponent of eugenics - the epidemic just needed to run its course. As an example, he pointed to New York, where everything remained open, yet the flu did far less damage than in Washington, D.C., where the city shut down.

Following the Indiana State Board of Health's brazen refusal to comply with the Indianapolis mask mandate, a group of prominent citizens urged the local health department to enforce the order against scofflaws at the Statehouse and the courthouse.

As the letter made clear, however, their objective was not the protection of public health, but the invalidation of the mask order. Prosecution of high-ranking public officials for failure to wear a mask would quickly lead to a challenge of the order, the letter reasoned, which in turn would unveil the fact that Dr. Morgan lacked any authority to require the city to mask up.

One of the ringleaders of this effort was attorney Robert I. Marsh. This was not Marsh's first go-round with the local health department. Two years earlier, he represented local parents who were fighting a Board of Health order that required all school children to be vaccinated against typhoid fever. In an appearance before the IPS School Board, Marsh argued that the vaccine was ineffective and the order was illegal.

The Indianapolis Star, September 10, 1927

Two days after Marsh and his co-complainers submitted their letter to Dr. Morgan, the Board of Health rescinded the mask order. This decision, however, was not prompted by the letter but instead was based on a steep decrease in infection rates since the order had gone into effect.

In lifting the mask order, Dr. Morgan noted that "some opposition" had developed over the past few days but nonetheless praised Indianapolis residents for their spirit of cooperation, at least initially. "The wearing of masks enabled the city to continue business along at least partly normal lines," he told The Indianapolis News. "It prevented a large number of persons from being deprived of employment, a situation that would have developed if a closing ban on all forms of business had been established."

The Indianapolis News, November 25, 1918

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