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Dr. John Butin had the last word

Madera County Historical Society

Jasper Lewis is shown here with his wife, Adelia, in 1896. Twenty-two years later, as Madera County Sheriff, he was enforcing an order that Maderans had to wear masks in public to fight the flue epidemic.


Dr. John Butin was a worried man in Oct. 1918. The flu epidemic had hit Madera with the same ferocity with which it had struck the rest of the country. As a result, in the performance of his duty as County Health Officer, he had to take action to protect the public from itself. He issued two orders that drew immediate resistance from the people.

In the first one, he ordered that all of Madera’s schools be closed. Keeping the kids at home would reduce the spread of the disease. In his second order, Butin decreed that everyone wear a mask when out in public. The reaction was both immediate and negative. The people decided to fight. The county’s top doctor had gone way too far this time. When he ordered the schools closed and the people to wear masks in public, he stretched his authority way beyond the limits the Constitution had fixed, or so the people thought. This was America, and Maderans were going to push back.

The Madera Mercury published Butin’s orders, but to his chagrin, very few paid any attention. Only an occasional mask was seen in town; it was as if the order had never been given.

Then there was the matter of the school kids. They might just as well have left the schools open. Closing them didn’t keep the children from congregating and playing together on the streets. It was business as usual; Maderans went on with their lives, and the flu continue to spread. That’s when Dr. Butin brought the sheriff into the picture.

Sheriff Jasper Lewis was a no-nonsense lawman, and he was on the doctor’s side. Now it was Lewis’ turn to give the orders. On Oct. 25, he set forth new rules and let it be known they would be enforced.

First, Lewis narrowed Butin’s mask order just a bit. Masks would still be required, but only by those who were serving the public in any capacity. By “those serving the public” he meant, all clerks, store proprietors, book-keepers, cashiers, deliverymen, messenger boys, solicitors, and in fact everybody who carried on business of any character. Sheriff Lewis announced that any violations of this order would result in the arrest of the offenders. Everybody else was urged to wear masks for his own protection, if for no other reason. What this meant was that nearly everybody in town had to wear a mask, for there were very few who weren’t connected in some way with a business.

Sheriff Lewis went on to make the school closing order a bit more efficacious. He ordered that any child under the age of 16 had to remain at home unless he was on an essential errand, and in that case, he had to wear a mask. This put an end to kids congregating on the streets, and Lewis put some teeth into this one too. Violations of this order would land the parents in jail.

Just as Dr. Butin’s orders had produced defiance, quick compliance had followed Sheriff Lewis’ directives. Once the law had grabbed everyone’s attention, Dr. Butin was able to reason with the people.

“If we are to stop the spread of this disease, we have got to take every precaution possible, and the wearing of masks is the only real way to put a stop to its spread,’’ said the health officer. He went on to point out that masks could be purchased at the Rosenthal-Kutner store or from the Red Cross at a cost of ten cents.

So, with the help of Sheriff Lewis, Dr. Butin got the people ready for the deadly influenza fight that lay ahead. Along with the mitigation efforts such as wearing of masks and closing schools, Butin offered some additional safeguards. “Don’t sneeze or cough without covering your mouth; do not spit promiscuously; avoid persons who do those things; avoid persons having colds; keep out of crowds as much as possible; walk to and from work if you can; avoid common drinking cups or glasses; open bedroom windows; take frequent baths, and drink lots of water.”

Then Butin had the last word. “If you are not concerned about the flu, it will pay to observe these suggestions just the same. The flu doesn’t care anything about your opinions.”

Sounds like good advice for those of us today who are facing a threat of our own.

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