Gage McKinney: Flu pandemic led to pastor’s conviction |

Gage McKinney: Flu pandemic led to pastor’s conviction

Gage McKinney
Special to The Union

Amid the 1918-19 flu pandemic the Rev. Bert Foster of Grass Valley’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church was arrested for removing his face mask while conducting a funeral. He said he “was led away like any old drunk.”

Even before his arrest, parishioners and townspeople could see Foster was heading for trouble. The pastor and doctor of divinity had protested when the Town Council closed Grass Valley’s churches while allowing bars and pool halls to remain open for limited hours. People need churches more than ever, he told the council. In the end, he had to comply.

Throughout the fall and winter, as the virus passed through the foothills, Foster was stretched to the limits of endurance. Night and day he attended bedsides or graves. In November he buried one of the first local victims and in February, one of the last. He conducted at least 15 funerals in as many weeks. The victims ranged from a 3-month-old infant to a 90-year-old man. Foster buried a mother and two sons from one family.

Services for the young were the most difficult to bear and in Grass Valley about 17 people between the ages of 20 and 40 died. Later research suggested young adults with the strongest immune systems were victims of their robust health. In attacking the invader, their systems killed the host.

It seems Foster was arrested during a service for a teenager. He stepped in to preside at a neighboring church after the son of the Congregational pastor succumbed to flu. The constable who arrested him later had to summon a jury, and it took days. No one wanted to pass judgement on a clergyman and many citizens made excuses to avoid it.

At his trial on Jan. 28, 1919, Foster defended himself, bringing to the defense table all the skills of the pulpit. He argued the illegality of the ordinance under which he was charged. After hearing Foster and the district attorney debate all morning, the judge upheld the ordinance. In the afternoon, the judge and jury heard witnesses testify in the case against the pastor. In closing, Foster described his calling to comfort the afflicted and the strain of recent weeks.

The jury deliberated late in the day and returned a guilty verdict. The jurors asked the court, however, for leniency. Foster was facing a possible $75 fine or ten days in jail. The judge passed sentence three days later, requiring Foster to pay $15. Later in the week, Foster buried two more flu victims. By then the pandemic had run its course in Nevada County.

Foster had a saint’s faith, a prophet’s wisdom and a dervish’s energy. He spoke of “the struggle to keep God’s cause alive in an indifferent community,” and never shrank from the task. He reached beyond his parish as a civic leader and served families in outlying districts. Newspapers across the country printed his sermons on the efficacy of prayer.

Foster left his imprint on Emmanuel Church. He raised funds for the original installation of stained-glass windows and the sunlight shines through them today. He guided the parish through the First World War and the influenza, and when he left in 1920, he left it stronger than he had found it.

Yet Foster’s heroic service is mostly forgotten. He will always be remembered as the pastor who was arrested.

Author and historian Gage McKinney volunteers with the Grass Valley Downtown Association. For information on his books, visit

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