Looking Back: Spanish flu pandemic focus of July 22 Walk Back in Time at Edmonds Memorial Cemetery

Ascene from the 2017 Walk Back in Time event, highlighting five local Spanish American War veterans.

The board members of the Edmonds Memorial Cemetery & Columbarium — and some friends — invite you to join them in person at the cemetery for their annual Walk Back in Time event at 1 p.m. Thursday, July 22.  Following a virtual tour last year, it seems we can now move ahead toward a more normal life.  However, it is requested that visitors follow the current state and local guidelines for the use of face masks.

The accompanying photo shows a scene from the 2017 Walk Back in Time event, when five local Spanish American War veterans buried at the cemetery were highlighted.  One group of visitors gathered around the grave of Spanish American War veteran George Bolduc (1878-1905) and listened with interest as Larry Vogel, Edmonds’ resident, photographer and writer, in appropriate costume, told Mr. Bolduc’s story.

This year, the theme for the Walk Back in Time program is based on the 1918-1920 Spanish flu pandemic, and will feature the stories of five local residents who became victims of this deadly influenza outbreak.   Join the hosts as they enact the life stories of influenza victims: Luther Martin Freese, Betsey Anderson Johnson, John Gustave Lambe, Mattie Cornelia Welbourn Otto and Christopher Tuffield “C.T.” Roscoe.  Wear comfortable shoes, and be prepared to encounter some uneven ground as you walk from grave to grave.  The tour usually lasts about an hour.

Much has changed since my Aug. 1, 2020 column Looking Back: 102 years ago – 1918 and the Spanish Influenza Pandemic was published. At that time, I conveyed my surprise at the silence regarding the Spanish flu pandemic. From the lack of coverage by the local newspaper, it appeared that this influenza outbreak mostly bypassed Edmonds. However, I soon discovered that Edmonds had not been that lucky.

In the fall of 1918, in Seattle, just over 15 miles to the south, the newspapers reported that the authorities were concerned and taking steps to protect its residents from an extremely contagious influenza virus. The same in the city of Everett to the north. With no vaccine to protect against this influenza infection, and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections, control was limited to isolation, quarantine, face coverings, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and the limiting of all public gatherings. In both Seattle and Everett, restrictions were set in place to facilitate methods to control the disease. However, elsewhere, protection seemed to be hit and miss—possibly because of the lack of communication to the small outlying communities.

A Seattle streetcar conductor tells a potential rider that he cannot board without wearing a face mask. (Photo courtesy National Archives)

Since this was a time before radios were available to the general public, the residents of Edmonds probably relied on the small weekly newspaper for their news. The local newspaper seemed to keep up on the war news, which they published, but for some reason the news seemed silent on the events surrounding what had become a major health crisis. There appeared to be no mention of wearing face masks or shutting down public gatherings. The movie theater, the churches, and public events continued as always, and except for a three-week closing of the schools in the late fall of 1918, everything seemed normal. Even the local Boy Scouts were scheduled to go on a camping trip.

Four days following the Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice ending WWI, the Edmonds newspaper, The Tribune-Review, on its front page, reported that the town’s residents had publicly celebrated the end of the war. The article, titled “Peace Has Come,” described a happy and noisy celebration on the streets of Edmonds.  

Amid the blowing of whistles, the clanging of bells, and the hundreds of different kinds of noises invented by the small boys, and girls beating tin cans, ringing cow bells and dragging various articles of kitchen ware after bicycles, Edmonds celebrated the signing of the peace armistice, as did probably every village and hamlet in the United States.

Just below that article was an announcement from the Federated Church of Edmonds:

Churches all open; let’s all pause to worship.” Plus, “Peace has come. The germs have fled. And we still live. We trust the experience has enriched our thinking. 

There was silence about the influenza peril still facing the Edmonds community—and, in reality, the worst was yet to come.

When I first tried to find some news about the Spanish flu in Edmonds, on the surface it did look as if Edmonds was isolated enough that the virus hadn’t reached them. But then, with a glance at the very noticable increase in the burials at the Edmonds cemetery and the decrease of students in the graduating classes at Edmonds High school during this time period, it became apparent that something was not right.

Giving the subject more thought, I decided to do some personal research. This was mostly done by checking burial records at the cemetery for 1918 through 1920, and most relevant, scanning a plethora of death certificates for Snohomish and King counties.

My research told a completely different story. I was able to confirm that 22 local residents had perished as a result of this infectious disease. Fourteen of the victims were reported as buried at the local cemetery, and the other eight in other cemeteries, and it seemed very possible that there were at least 10 more victims. There was no way to determine how many had been infected by the disease and survived.  Something to remember, during this time frame, the number of Edmonds residents was small—only a little over 1,000 people.

Worldwide, it is estimated that at least 500 million people, both military and civilians, became infected with this virulent strain of influenza. At first identified as a three-day fever, it caused more than 50 million deaths around the world—including more than 675,000 in the United States. The pandemic appeared in three waves and lasted from 1918 until well into 1920. The source of this influenza was an H1N1 virus with genes of Avian origin.

Just so there is no finger-pointing as to the origin of the disease, Spain was never considered as the source of the virus, even though this pandemic became known as the Spanish flu. During this time, even though the war was nearing an end, censorship was still in force. Spain, as a neutral non-combatant country, was free from any censorship, and in the fall of 1918 when it was obvious that civilians in many places were becoming ill and dying at an alarming rate, the country’s leaders took the initiative to get the news out to the public. Thus, as the harbinger of bad news, Spain would forever become associated with this deadly influenza outbreak.

Service members, both overseas and in the states, were especially susceptible to this influenza—not only those on the battlefields, but also wherever the troops were stationed and living in close quarters.

James Nathan Otto, well-known Edmonds’ butcher, merchant and proprietor of the Home Store in downtown Edmonds, appeared to be one man who did seem to be aware of the inherent dangers from this particular influenza. His Home Store’s advertisement in the local newspaper  advised residents: “While the flu is still in our midst, use your telephone.” Mr. Otto’s butcher shop and grocery store provided delivery service for those who placed their orders by phone from the safety of their homes. It seems rather ironic that in December of 1918, James Otto’s wife Mattie became one of the victims of the dreaded disease.

Learn about the life of 50-year-old Mrs. Mattie Cornelia Otto, and four of her neighbors, as you join the hosts to take a Walk Back in Time at 1 p.m. July 22, 2021 at the Edmonds Memorial Cemetery. Rain or shine, we hope to see you there.

Event: Walk Back in Time

Theme: Local victims of the WWI Spanish influenza pandemic, 1918-1920

Place; Edmonds Memorial Cemetery & Columbarium

Location: One block north of Westgate’s QFC—entrance 820 15th St. S.W.

Time: 1 p.m. Thursday, July 22

— By Betty Lou Gaeng

Betty Gaeng is a former long-time resident of Lynnwood and Edmonds, coming to the area in 1933. Although now living in Anchorage, she occasionally writes about the history and the people of both early-day Lynnwood, Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace. She is also an honorary member of the Edmonds Cemetery Board.





  1. Betty is the best writer. From what I read, it is a scientific consensus (ironically mentioning consensus) that masks did not work in 1918.

    During Walkable Mainstreet I’m seeing something I can’t un-see now that I’ve noticed it – the only people still wearing masks are most often little kids, either scared or for reasons of security. Children under 10 seem to be the most conditioned to mask wearing even when their parents aren’t.

  2. Matt,
    Gotta love the link. Despite the author’s obvious expertise in this arena, colanders are and always will be horrible drinking devices. It’s just the size of the holes, not the user’s fault. How about society learn that?

    1. Glen, right on. I wore military chem gear in the military (MOPS). Even that was not effective 100%.

      I shouldn’t post this here because this belongs on the Edmonds Dads Facebook group…
      A friend read this, said to me that he thinks there are parents mandating kids wear mask even though they aren’t wearing one because their kid can’t get vaccine [yet]? Is that better or worse?

  3. The last four people I personally know who got Covid were all vaccinated. I gave up on this virus logic last year.

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