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HomeMiscellany“COVIDIOTS” gathered on Granville Mall on the anniversary of the Human Fly’s Spanish flu folly

“COVIDIOTS” gathered on Granville Mall on the anniversary of the Human Fly’s Spanish flu folly

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Bob Mackin

Long before thousands of maskless “COVIDIOTS” ignored public health orders and descended upon the Granville Mall for Hallowe’en 2020 revelry, tens of thousands of curious in Victoria and Vancouver packed streets to see Harry Gardiner, the “Human Fly.”

Scene from the Granville Mall on Halloween 2020 (Reddit)

It happened 102 years ago during both spooky season and the deadliest pandemic in human history.

American daredevil Gardiner brought his “Human Fly” act to British Columbia at the end of October 1918 to scale the outside of prominent buildings as a promotional gimmick to sell Victory Bonds, the federal government scheme to finance Canada’s First World War effort.

The Spanish Influenza claimed its first B.C. victims at the start of October. Hospitals were filling-up. Deaths were rising. Indoor events were banned.

But Gardiner’s street-packing exhibitions went ahead.

On Nov. 1, 1918 — 102 years ago today — the Daily Colonist newspaper in Victoria published an angry letter from Victoria’s medical health officer, Dr. Arthur G. Price.

In the letter, reprinted in-full below, Price admonished Victorians for attending Gardiner’s stunt and pleaded with them to follow public health orders. 

Dr. Price scores Victoria crowds

Dr. Arthur G. Price (Victoria Archives)

Medical health officer threatens more drastic measures in fighting influenza if rules are not observed

Dr. Arthur G. Price, medical health officer, has written to the Colonist charging that the people of Victoria do not yet seem to be aroused to a realization of the danger of the Spanish influenza epidemic. He scores the promoters of the Human Fly performance, as well as the spectators, for crowding the streets in disregard to his warning, and declares that it may be necessary to apply more drastic regulations here unless those are present in force or more rigorously observed.

Dr. Price writes:

Sir — Are there still some citizens of Victoria who do not realize that there is an epidemic of influenza raging through the city? Judging from the crowd which gathered in Government and View streets yesterday, one might be led to believe that there were many who knew nothing of the epidemic. Or is it that they know of the epidemic and yet are so selfish that they cannot forego the satisfying of their curiosity to see a foolhardy and useless feat — a man apparently endangering his solitary life — while they, the spectators, we’re doing a much more foolish thing and were endangering the lives of many. They were doing the very thing to increase and prolong the epidemic in our midst.

Has it not been stated over and over again that influenza is a crowd disease? Has the fact not been impressed upon them by the closing of churches, schools and theatres and are they not aware that there is a very serious check to business, grave financial loss to many and considerable loss of life through the continuance of the epidemic? Have they not been asked time and time again to cooperate with the health department in the endeavour to check the epidemic, to save life into see a business? Do they realize the strenuous work all night and all day which is being carried on by the doctors of the city and by the noble band of nurses and girl helpers who, night and day, are risking their lives and giving up their own comfort to attend to the comfort of others?

The Union Bank Building in Victoria, site of the Human Fly stunt on Oct. 30, 1918 (Government of Canada)

In some other cities much more stringent orders are made; persons are not allowed to congregate even in groups of three or four, only one is allowed to leave their home at a time to go shopping, masks are worn in the street and everywhere, and stores are closed. Will it be necessary to go to these extremes in Victoria? It may.

Blames the crowd

I blame the crowd for gathering yesterday, but I blame far more those who instigated the whole thing. Surely we, the citizens of Victoria, are patriotic enough to subscribe with the best of our ability to the Victory Loan without having to be coaxed to action with a silly sideshow which has nothing to do with patriotism. I know we are.

I would say to some citizens: wake up! Realize that there is a war on, a war in our very midst, an epidemic of influenza. Do not sneer at the enemy. Do not belittle it by calling it “flu.” Give it its full name, be serious and realize that the undertakers are busy. Remember the four rules which I published before ever a case appeared in Victoria:

Do all you can do to keep from getting the disease.

If you do get it, go to bed.

Send for a doctor.

Do all you can to prevent the spread of the disease to others.

The Human Fly packed streets below the Sun Tower on Hallowe’en 1918, despite the Spanish Flu pandemic (City of Vancouver Archives)

Accomplish the first and last rules by avoiding crowding, by washing out your nostrils and throat with a weak solution of salt and warm water or some mild antiseptic such as Glyco-Thymoline several times every day and by breathing fresh air, keeping windows open.

If every man, woman and a child will follow this simple advice, the whole epidemic will be stamped out in a few weeks and churches, schools in theatres will again be opened.

Carrying on as at present, crowding and neglecting personal hygiene of mouth, nostrils and throat is only prolonging the epidemic indefinitely. Doctors can but advise and treat their patients, nurses can shower their kindly attention upon the sick, but it depends entirely and solely upon the cooperation of individuals of the public to bring this epidemic to a speedy close.

I would further call the attention of those who are attacked with influenza to the second and third rules. It is the disregarding of these rules which has been the cause of most fatalities. It is the keeping up and about and not going to bed at the very first of the attack, or not keeping in bed until sufficiently recovered which has been the cause of nearly every case of pneumonia. The third rule, send for a doctor is of importance. It is unwise for anyone to tinker with his own health by the taking of patent medicine and advertised remedies about which they know nothing and which may do harm.

This letter is written in full earnestness in the endeavour to stamp out this epidemic, in the endeavour to save the lives of many of Victoria’s citizens and in the hope that it may call forth the full cooperation of all. This advice is not lightly given. I mean every word of it, and I thus appeal to every man, woman and child to do his or her duty.

Arthur G. Price

The Human Fly wore white to climb the Sun Tower (City of Vancouver Archives)

Gardiner climbed the Union Bank Building in downtown Victoria Oct. 30 before moving on to Vancouver the next day. On Oct. 31, he climbed the outside of the Hotel Vancouver and the city’s tallest tower at the time, the World Building, which would later become the Sun Tower. The mass-gatherings were blamed for spreading the virus.

In the Nov. 2, 1918 edition of the Daily Colonist, the opinion-editorial page included this entry: 

Dr. Price, the Medical Health Officer, is right to point out the danger that existed through the assembly of a large crowd on View and Government Streets on Wednesday last to witness a wall scaling feat; but it would have been much better had he warned the public in advance. There was considerable publicity given to the affair before it took place and there never was a doubt that some thousands of people would assemble. Dr. Price is a busy man in these days and can be given the benefit of the excuse that he has no time to read the newspapers. He had the power to have the gathering prohibited and it is regrettable that he did not exercise it. We have no doubt he would have done so had it been drawn to his attention.

B.C. did get some good news on Nov. 11, 1918, along with the rest of the world. The armistice to end the war. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars.

But the pandemic continued. There were three waves. B.C., with a population of less than half-a-million, recorded 3,404 Spanish flu deaths in 1918-19. An estimated 50 million people died worldwide. 

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