How poisoned politics set up Kansas City’s disastrous response to the Spanish flu epidemic

Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas. Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine.

“In the time of the flu, Kansas City was divided fifty-fifty between Joe Shannon, who was a Democrat, and Tom Pendergast, who was also a Democrat. They divided up the police department, the health department, the firemen. Everything that was a patronage job, they each got fifty percent. So when the flu starts, they aren’t able to get a good quarantine going.

“Tom Pendergast owns a lot of saloons. When you tell the police you’re going to close down the saloons, they go, ‘I’m not fighting Pendergast, he’s my guy.’ They ignore it. The Metropolitan Street Railway was owned by a big Democratic political leader and he didn’t want to shut down the railway. The more people you have crowded on that railway car, the more money you make. So everything that they tried got sidetracked by the fifty-fifty compromise. We had one of the worst responses in the country.

“When they talk about a response to a pandemic, they come up with a score—it’s kind of technical but basically it’s the number of excess deaths over what you would expect in that time period. And they express it as a number above a hundred thousand. Kansas City was seven-hundred-and-nineteen. St. Louis actually managed to get a quarantine going and it was effective. St. Louis’ excess death rate was three-hundred-and-forty-seven. So hugely different.

“The head of the KC Chamber of Commerce was Bernard A. Parsons, and he worked for one of the big pharmaceutical companies. He was passionate about this—that they had to get a quarantine going, they had to shut everything down. He got together with business leaders and they tried to force the city to do something. Even with that effort, they just couldn’t get anything effective done.

“Kansas City, Kansas, actually did a fairly good job. The city government together and other departments donated money to help the health department. But you could just walk across the state line and find an open saloon, an open movie theater, whatever. People who don’t feel sick and want to go out and have a beer just did that. Yes, quarantines work, but quarantines are a drastic measure. With COVID-19, I’ve been really impressed with what Quinton Lucas has done. I was super impressed when the NBA and the baseball leagues all started closing. That, to me, said that they are taking it seriously.”

Susan Sykes Berry, author of “Politics and Pandemic in 1918 Kansas City,” a master’s thesis for the University of Missouri-Kansas City, as told to Kansas City magazine

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