Want to start an argument in 1910? Surefire ways to pick a fight included expressing strong views in favor of socialism, women’s suffrage or school vaccinations.

By that year the anti-vaccine movement had been smoldering in the U.S. for a decade, fueled in equal measure by fears about the safety of vaccination and opposition to the principle of the government requiring perfectly healthy children to get the shot. In California, it was a significant political issue; twice the state legislature passed bills repealing the vaccination law and specifying vaccination “shall be practiced only when smallpox exists” but the governors at the time declined to sign it. Even when the state Supreme Court upheld the law in 1904 and the U.S. Supreme Court said the same thing the following year, the naysayers kept forming local chapters of the Anti-Vaccination League, signing petitions to have the laws repealed, and writing letters to the editor, often claiming that vaccines were “superstition” or “fanatic faith” that didn’t prevent smallpox. Oh, and this was part of a conspiracy by doctors trying to bamboozle people by using “cooked-up statistics,” all in order to perform a large scale experiment on the public and/or make themselves rich on fees from giving injections. (For more on this history, see this excellent study of the anti-vaccination movement. UPDATE: Sadly, this fine scholarship is no longer available on the internet.)

The press fanned the flames of distrust by printing all sorts of nonsense; an article in the 1904 San Francisco Call claimed, “Any person who eats a small quantity of lettuce twice a day, morning and evening, is as well protected against smallpox as it is possible for any one to be.” Also, the newspaper noted, it would be smart to “avoid contact with people who have smallpox.”

The papers were  irresponsible in printing stories concerning the most popular conspiracy theory – that the smallpox vaccine could (somehow) cause fatal lockjaw. A vaccinated child who steps on a rusty nail can contract tetanus just as anyone else, but rarely did the papers suggest the cause of dying could be something other than contaminated vaccine. A hallmark of these articles is also to claim doctors were “puzzled” by the death or were insisting they could not be blamed for it, making them sound villainous. In a particularly egregious bit of yellow journalism, the San Francisco Call reported the 1904 lockjaw death of little Myrtle Conklin with a lengthy quote from the doctor who gave her the shot, including “My duty ends after I have applied the virus…I fail to see just how I was responsible for this death.” The article was accompanied with a picture of beautiful baby Myrtle – who was actually eight years old when she died.

Some Santa Rosa parents were among those protesting the compulsory vaccinations, as described in the earlier item from 1907. But it was Berkeley that was at the vanguard of the “anti-vaccinationist” movement in the Bay Area, with some type of showdown nearly every year in that decade. One year 249 children were ousted from school for failing to have proof of vaccination when classes began in September, and their parents vowed to raise money for an injunction to force the school board to admit them. Another year they obtained a six month waiver from the district because they insisted the state would repeal the vaccination law by then. Another time the Berkeley parents swore they were gonna start their own private school for all their little special snowflakes to attend, as the law only mentioned vaccinations for public school students.

Whether it was an unintentional loophole or a carve-out in the law, the “private school” exemption made big news in 1910, when a Superior Court judge in Santa Cruz ruled it made the vaccination law unconstitutional because it was discriminatory – and besides, there was no need for enforcement as there was no epidemic at the time, revealing his bias for the anti-vaccinationists.

The judge’s decision caused excitement statewide; the Press Democrat printed the story below at the top of the front page, directly below the paper’s nameplate. Other papers added local color by interviewing their Superintendent of Schools, which as a group disliked the law because it forced them into the awkward role of being the vaccination police. “Parents have said to me frequently that they would take their children out of the public schools and send them to private schools rather than have them vaccinated,” the San Francisco Superintendent told the papers.

Vaccine foes redoubled their efforts, forming new Anti-Vaccination League chapters and collecting thousands of signatures on repeal petitions. There was further buzz when the Alameda County Deputy District Attorney sent a letter to the school board stating vaccinations should be suspended until the state Supreme Court heard the appeal (the board ignored him and ordered vaccinations to proceed).

Nothing came of it all, but the fuss made 1910 the last hurrah of the anti-vaccine movement. There were no further reports in the papers of parental mutinies against the state school systems, nor lurid reports of children dying of vaccine-linked lockjaw. The issue remained settled until chiropractors revived it as a cause about a decade later, as  discussed earlier.

(UPDATE, 2019: Since writing this article, more newspapers and historic documents have become available digitally revealing a deeper story for the 1910s and 1920s. See: “THE ANTI-VAXXERS OF 1920“)


Class Legislation, Which Favors the Wealthy Over the Poor, Declares Judge Smith of Santa Cruz Superior Court in Refusing Mandate

Santa Cruz, March 22 — Judge L. S. Smith rendered a decision against the State Board of Health here today in an action brought to compel the pupils of the Watsonville schools to be vaccinated. The Watsonville trustees had refused to enforce the law on vaccination and a petition for a writ of mandate to compel them to bar from the schools all children who had not been vaccinated was applied for by the State Board of Health. The action affected about 250 children.

The Court held the law was unconstitutional in that it exempted children attending private schools making it class legislation. The law as framed, he held, particularly favored those who were able to send their children to private schools, while the great majority were unable to do this and would have to suffer the consequence if the law was sound. He declared every one would favor the enforcement of the law if there was a demand for it, but as there was no epidemic there was no reason for its enforcement.”

– Press Democrat, March 23, 1910

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