Spanish Influenza and how it changed Family History Part 1

By Michael S Sheaffer

Researching family history one is highly likely going to come across two events that coincided with one another to change many families histories. The Spanish Influenza outbreak 1918-1919 and WWI 1916-1918. As we research our trees some will notice plenty of deaths during this time frame. Some of these were soldiers in camps and overseas, others were ordinary citizens that in certain parts of the country hundred of its citizens were dying daily at it’s peak (Oct-Dec 1918} Not all deaths were classified as death due to the Spanish Flu, rather some just say pneumonia, La grippe, lingering illness, and I have come across one that just said “sick 2 weeks and died from too much coughing” which I assumed was another way to say pneumonia……The Spanish Flu.

It’s been nearly 100 years since the outbreak of Spanish Influenza of 1918 and I will be doing a 2 part article  that I have put together from several resources from around the web to describe the devastation it had on families, its origins, it’s aftermath, and finally how we as family historians can write this into our own family history’s. -Enjoy!

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The Devastation of the 1918 Spanish Influenza Outbreak

The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than the Great War, known today as World War I (WWI), at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351. Known as “Spanish Flu” or “La Grippe” the influenza of 1918-1919 was a global disaster. Source 1 

Early in the morning of March 11, 1918, a young private reported to the Army hospital at Fort Riley, Kansas, complaining of fever, sore throat, and headache. Then, another sick soldier appeared, then another and another. By noon, the hospital had more than one hundred cases; in a week, there were five hundred. Forty-eight soldiers died at Fort Riley that spring. No one knew why.

Influenza 1918 is the story of the worst epidemic the United States has ever known. Before it was over, the flu would kill more than 600,000 Americans — more than all the combat deaths of this century combined.

“For the survivors we spoke to,” says producer Robert Kenner, “the memory is one of horror and fear — which may explain why many Americans were willing to let those few terrible months fade into obscurity. Schoolchildren know more about the Black Plague from centuries ago than they do about this episode in our recent history.”

America in 1918 was a nation at war. Draft call-ups, bond drives, troop shipments were all in high gear when the flu epidemic appeared. American soldiers from Fort Riley carried the disease to the trenches of Europe, where it mutated into a killer virus. The disease would later be dubbed, inaccurately, Spanish influenza. Spain had suffered from a devastating outbreak of influenza in May and June of 1918. The country, being a non-combatant in the war, did not censor news of the epidemic that was cutting through its population and was therefore incorrectly identified as its place of origin.

Meanwhile, returning American troops were bringing the flu back home. First hundreds, then thousands of soldiers were lining up outside infirmaries and hospitals at army bases across the country, falling ill with a swiftness that defied belief. Dr. Victor Vaughan, Surgeon General of the Army, was stunned by what he saw at Camp Devens just outside of Boston. “Every bed is full, yet others crowd in,” he wrote. “The faces wear a bluish cast; a cough brings up the blood-stained sputum. In the morning, the dead bodies are stacked about the morgue like cordwood.” On the day Vaughan arrived, 63 men died at Camp Devens.

In September, the disease spread to the civilian population. It moved swiftly down the eastern seaboard to New York, Philadelphia, and beyond. Anna Milani remembers sitting on her front step one day: “Diagonally across from us a fifteen-year-old girl was just buried. Toward evening, we heard a lot of screaming going on. In that same house, a little eighteen-month-old baby passed away.” That month, 12,000 Americans died of influenza.

It was a flu unlike any other. People could be healthy in the morning and dead by nightfall. Others died more slowly, suffocating from the buildup of liquid in their lungs.

Thanks to advances in microbiology, researchers had developed vaccines for many bacterial diseases: smallpox, anthrax, rabies, diphtheria, meningitis. But doctors were helpless to stop the influenza of 1918. Though they knew the disease spread through the air, medical researchers were unable to see the tiny virus through microscopes of the time and incorrectly identified its cause as a bacteria. Vaccines they developed didn’t work; the virus was too small, too elusive.

With medical science powerless, many people turned to folk remedies: garlic, camphor balls, kerosene on sugar, boneset tea. Public health officials distributed masks, closed schools; laws forbade spitting on the streets. Nothing worked. The war was at cross-purposes with the epidemic: the war effort brought people into the streets for rallies and bond drives. They coughed on each other, infected each other. Soldiers traveled in crowded transport ships. The disease spread everywhere.

October saw the epidemic’s full horror: more than 195,000 people died in America alone. There was a nationwide shortage of caskets. In Philadelphia, the dead were left in gutters and stacked in caskets on front porches. Trucks drove the city streets, picking up the caskets and corpses. People hid indoors, afraid to interact with their friends and neighbors.

“Everybody was living in deadly fear because it was so quick, so sudden, and so terrifying,” says William Sardo, the son of a funeral director whose home was stacked with caskets of flu victims. “It destroyed the intimacy that existed among people.”

Surgeon General Vaughan reached a frightening conclusion. “If the epidemic continues its mathematical rate of acceleration,” he announced, “civilization could easily disappear from the face of the earth within a few weeks.”

Then, just as suddenly as it struck, the calamitous disease abruptly began to vanish. By mid-November, the numbers of dead were plunging. “In light of our knowledge of influenza,” says Dr. Shirley Fannin, a Los Angeles County public health official, “we do understand that it probably ran out of fuel. It ran out of people who were susceptible and could be infected.”

Over time, World War I and painful memories associated with the epidemic allowed many people to forget about it. But for the survivors, the influenza of 1918 changed their lives forever. Source 2


Military institutions witnessed the first wave of influenza.

Military institutions witnessed the first wave of influenza.

Fort Riley, Kansas was a sprawling establishment housing 26,000 men and encompassing an entire camp, Camp Funston, within its 20,000-acre boundaries. Soldiers often complained about the inhospitable weather to be found at the site: bone-chilling winters and sweltering summers. Sandwiched in between these two extremes were the blinding dust storms. Within the camp were thousands of horses and mules that produced a stifling nine tons of manure each month. The accepted method of disposing of the manure was to burn it, an unpleasant task made more so by the driving wind. On Saturday, March 9, 1918, a threatening black sky forecast the coming of a significant dust storm. The dust, combining with the ash of burning manure, kicked up a stinging, stinking yellow haze. The sun was said to have gone dead black in Kansas that day.

Some, looking for a point of origin of the so-called Spanish influenza that would eventually take the lives of 600,000 Americans, point to that day in Kansas. Shortly before breakfast on Monday, March 11, the first domino would fall signaling the commencement of the first wave of the 1918 influenza. Company cook Albert Gitchell reported to the camp infirmary with complaints of a “bad cold.” Right behind him came Corporal Lee W. Drake voicing similar complaints. By noon, camp surgeon Edward R. Schreiner had over 100 sick men on his hands, all apparently suffering from the same malady.

Any evidence of an influenza epidemic in the spring of 1918 was furnished by those institutions that kept a close eye on those under their watch: the military and prisons. In April and May, over 500 prisoners at San Quentin in California came down with the same condition that had struck soldiers at Camp Riley, as well as camps Hancock, Lewis, Sherman, Fremont, and several others. Influenza spreading amongst men living in close quarters did not particularly alarm the public health officials of the day. Little data existed at the time to indicate a sizable spread among the civilian population. Besides, the nation had bigger matters on its mind. There was a war to win.

In the spring of 1918, it appeared that America’s involvement in the fight against Germany was beginning to make a difference. In March, 84,000 American “dough-boys” set out for Europe; they were followed by another 118,000 the next month. Little did they know they were carrying with them a virus that would prove to be more deadly then the rifles they carried. While sailing across the Atlantic, the 15th U.S. Cavalry incurred 36 cases of influenza, resulting in six deaths. By May, the killer flu had established itself on two continents, and was still growing.

The influenza of 1918 showed no bias in its approach to the combatants in World War I: men from all sides were sickened and killed. Great Britain reported 31,000 influenza cases in June alone. The flu proved such a leveler of men that war plans were altered. Attacks that had been painstakingly planned had to be postponed due to a shortage of healthy men. By early summer, the flu extended its reach beyond the U.S. and Western Europe. Numerous cases of influenza were reported in Russia, North Africa, and India. The Pacific Ocean provided no protection as influenza spread to parts of China, Japan, the Philippines, and down to New Zealand.

By July, the influenza of 1918 had left its mark globally. Tens of thousands had fallen ill and died. This first wave was a mere prelude, however, to the perilous path the flu would cut when it reappeared in full force that fall. Source 3

Deadly second wave

American Expeditionary Forcevictims of the flu pandemic at U.S. Army Camp Hospital no. 45 in Aix-les-Bains, France, in 1918

The second wave of the 1918 pandemic was much deadlier than the first. The first wave had resembled typical flu epidemics; those most at risk were the sick and elderly, while younger, healthier people recovered easily. But in August, when the second wave began in France, Sierra Leone and the United States,[64] the virus had mutated to a much deadlier form.

This increased severity has been attributed to the circumstances of the First World War.[65] In civilian life, natural selection favours a mild strain. Those who get very ill stay home, and those mildly ill continue with their lives, preferentially spreading the mild strain. In the trenches, natural selection was reversed. Soldiers with a mild strain stayed where they were, while the severely ill were sent on crowded trains to crowded field hospitals, spreading the deadlier virus. The second wave began and the flu quickly spread around the world again. Consequently, during modern pandemics health officials pay attention when the virus reaches places with social upheaval (looking for deadlier strains of the virus).[66]

The fact that most of those who recovered from first-wave infections were now immune showed that it must have been the same strain of flu. This was most dramatically illustrated in Copenhagen, which escaped with a combined mortality rate of just 0.29% (0.02% in the first wave and 0.27% in the second wave) because of exposure to the less-lethal first wave.[67] On the rest of the population it was far more deadly now; the most vulnerable people were those like the soldiers in the trenches – young previously healthy adults.[68]  

Devastated communities

A chart of deaths in major cities.

Even in areas where mortality was low, so many were incapacitated that much of everyday life was hampered. Some communities closed all stores or required customers to leave orders outside. There were reports that the health-care workers could not tend the sick nor the gravediggers bury the dead because they too were ill. Mass graves were dug by steam shovel and bodies buried without coffins in many places.[69]

Several Pacific island territories were particularly hard-hit. The pandemic reached them from New Zealand, which was too slow to implement measures to prevent ships carrying the flu from leaving its ports. From New Zealand, the flu reached Tonga (killing 8% of the population), Nauru (16%) and Fiji (5%, 9,000 people).[70]

Worst affected was German Samoa, today the independent state of Samoa, which had been occupied by New Zealand in 1914. A crippling 90% of the population was infected; 30% of adult men, 22% of adult women and 10% of children died. By contrast, the flu was kept away from American Samoa when GovernorJohn Martin Poyer imposed a blockade.[70] In New Zealand itself, 8,573 deaths were attributed to the 1918 pandemic influenza, resulting in a total population fatality rate of 0.74%.[71]

Placing Blame

Red Cross nurses attempt to shield themselves by wearing masks.

That America was engaged in a World War provided a convenient target upon which to heap suspicion: the reviled Kaiser and his German countrymen. As thousands of Bostonians fell under the flu’s deadly spell, rumors began to spread almost as fast as the flu itself. One widely accepted notion — outside of the medical profession, that is — had German spies deliberately seeding Boston Harbor with influenza-sprouting germs. Such innuendo was lent credence by statements of individuals who should have known better. On September 17, 1918, Lt. Col. Philip Doane, head of the Health and Sanitation Section of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, forcefully voiced his opinion that the epidemic might have been started by Germans put ashore from U-Boats. Said Doane, “It would be quite easy for one of these German agents to turn loose influenza germs in a theater or some other place where large numbers of persons are assembled. The Germans have started epidemics in Europe, and there is no reason why they should be particularly gentle with America.”

Other notions of this strain of influenza’s origin contained less-politically charged, but equally specious logic. According to one theory, poison gases used in the war, air charged with carbon dioxide from the trenches, and gases formed from decomposing bodies and exploding munitions had all fused to form a highly toxic vapor that flu victims had inhaled. Among the other causes advanced were air stagnation, coal dust, fleas, the distemper of cats and dogs, and dirty dishwater. Source 4

End of the pandemic

After the lethal second wave struck in late 1918, new cases dropped abruptly – almost to nothing after the peak in the second wave.[11] In Philadelphia, for example, 4,597 people died in the week ending 16 October, but by 11 November, influenza had almost disappeared from the city. One explanation for the rapid decline of the lethality of the disease is that doctors simply got better at preventing and treating the pneumonia that developed after the victims had contracted the virus, although John Barry stated in his book that researchers have found no evidence to support this.[24]

Another theory holds that the 1918 virus mutated extremely rapidly to a less lethal strain. This is a common occurrence with influenza viruses: there is a tendency for pathogenic viruses to become less lethal with time, as the hosts of more dangerous strains tend to die out.[24]-Wikepedeia

End Part 1

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