Fact check: During Spanish Flu epidemic, refusal to wear a mask led to jail time for some

·4 min read

The claim: Photo shows person with sign reading 'Wear a Mask or Go To Jail' amid 1918 Spanish flu

With a few exemptions, travelers on public airlines, trains, metros and buses can face fines between $500 and $3,000 for refusing to wear a mask properly.

Such mandates have generated intense controversy and, at times, face-to-face aggression. Disputes over federal mask requirements have been cited in thousands of unruly passenger reports to the Federal Aviation Administration.

However, if a photo circulating in a popular Facebook post is to be believed, even stricter mandates existed during the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918 and 1919.

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In the black-and-white image, a sign reading "Wear a Mask or Go To Jail" is pinned to a young woman's coat. She stands next to two young men, white cloth masks and brimmed felt hats obscuring all but their eyes.

"1918, Spanish Flu," the photo is captioned in a Dec. 14 post. "Wear a mask or go to jail."

Over 1,300 users shared the Facebook post with the image. However, some commenters were skeptical, writing that the masks, the sign or both had been photoshopped into the image.

They weren't. The photo is authentic. and the sign's warning is accurate, too. Historical records show some "mask slackers" faced weeks of jail time and hefty fines in some cities with mask mandates.

USA TODAY reached out to the Facebook page that shared the picture for comment.

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Photo taken in California in 1918, where 'mask slackers' could indeed face jail time

The popular photo gives us a window into regulations around mask-wearing during the Spanish influenza epidemic, which stretched from fall 1918 into 1919.

The original photo was taken by local photographer Raymond Coyne in November 1918 at a train station in Mill Valley, California, according to Natalie Snoyman, library supervisor and archivist at the Mill Valley Public Library's Lucretia Little History Room.

The image cited in the post is a cropped version of the original, which shows seven people in masks. They're members of a hiking group called "Hash and Eggers" that had stopped for breakfast in Mill Valley.

The sign worn by the woman on the right, reading "WEAR A MASK OR GO TO JAIL," reflects local and state mask ordinances that had gone into effect that fall.

"That wasn’t just an empty threat," Snoyman said. "Newspapers show that there was a mask ordinance in effect in Marin in the fall of 1918, when the pandemic was at its first peak."

Right around the time when the photo was taken, four local men had been arrested and fined $30 each – equivalent to $570 in today's dollars – for refusing to wear masks in public, she said.

In nearby San Francisco, more than a hundred men were arrested on a single day for the same offense. Courts gave them penalties ranging from $5 fines to sentences of a month in jail, the San Francisco Examiner reported in October 1918.

Members of "Hash and Eggers" hiking group pose for a group picture at a train station in Mill Valley, California, briefly removing their cloth masks. The photo was taken by fellow member Raymond Coyne during the first peak of the Spanish flu, November 1918.
Members of "Hash and Eggers" hiking group pose for a group picture at a train station in Mill Valley, California, briefly removing their cloth masks. The photo was taken by fellow member Raymond Coyne during the first peak of the Spanish flu, November 1918.

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Our rating: True

Based on our research, we rate TRUE the claim that a photo shows a person with a sign reading "Wear a Mask or Go To Jail" during the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak. The photo was taken in November 1918 and comes from the archives of the Mill Valley Public Library. Newspaper and other historical records show that several localities had implemented penalties that included jail time for people who refused to wear masks.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: During Spanish Flu, some 'mask slackers' faced jail time

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