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Flu in State Penitentiary


Somehow North Dakota’s State Penitentiary managed to keep the flu epidemic from getting inside for the entire year of  1918, but that didn’t last.

The flu had struck North Dakota that fall. The state prison’s warden banned visitation, acting on federal and state orders. The measure appeared to work; the prison physician reported “not a single case” of flu among the 110 inmates that year.

It was quite a bustling facility. The State Penitentiary operated a twine plant, a brickyard and many acres of farmland, growing more than 35 different crops, including parsnips, plums, cabbage, corn, spinach and squash. The prison owned and leased more than 2,300 acres for the farmland. The prison farm also had hundreds of cattle, hogs and chickens.

The twine plant could be troublesome work. The prison physician treated more than 40 cases of a skin condition resulting from oil on the men’s hands and arms.

And while the prison avoided the flu in 1918. In early 1920, a new wave of the pandemic  surfaced.
In response, Bismarck’s city health officer banned public dances for two weeks. The Burleigh County Red Cross chapter called for volunteers to serve as nurses.  North Dakota’s state health officer recommended the public avoid crowds and unnecessary travel and visits. The state’s top health official also urged local health authorities to prohibit unnecessary gatherings and public funerals, and to regulate seating in opera houses.

This time the flu didn’t spare the State Penitentiary. Twenty-five of the 160 inmates fell ill around this time in 1920. One prisoner died. He was 28 years old and technically died from pneumonia, which often developed as a complication of the flu.

But flu wasn’t the only challenge for the prison. The penitentiary had 15 escapes in two years, and only six of the prisoners were recaptured. In 1918, a man who was in prison for life for killing his boss walked out of the prison and escaped to Mexico. He even took with him $25 raised for Christmas goodies by his fellow inmates.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

Biennial Report of the North Dakota State Penitentiary 1918-1920, J.J. Lee, warden.
The Ward County Independent. 1918, October 3. Page 17
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, October 10. Page 5
Emmons County Record. 1918, October 17. Page 8
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, December 5. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, December 10. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, December 28. Page 2
The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, January 16. Page 2
The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, March 29. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1920, January 29. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1920, February 5. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1920, February 16. Page 3
History of the North Dakota State Penitentiary: https://www.docr.nd.gov/sites/www/files/documents/History%20of%20NDSP.pdf

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