How to methodically theorize and conclude an ancestor died from the Spanish Influenza Outbreak of 1918
Original Content written and researched by Michael S Sheaffer
Even funerals were quarantined!
Harrisburg Telegraph, 4 Oct 1918, Fri, First Edition
During height of the Spanish Influenza pandemic there were periods where official had to ban gatherings of large amounts of people. Schools, churches,conventions,football games, Social Clubs, Public meetings and even funerals were tightly regulated so as to take all precautions against the deadly virus.
Knowing the times and area
When researching an ancestors life and death it is always a good idea to learn from newspapers or other sources what the big news items were locally. We can better form an opinion on the probability of whether in this case the Spanish Influenza was a probable cause. We will look deeper into an actual ancestor of mine Grace Poorman whose name was nothing but a name on a piece of paper along with a birth and death date. When you look at it from this perspective nearly 100 years later you start to logically form an opinion once you know the entire history of the time and events surrounding her death.
Verifying a Possible Spanish Influenza Death of an Ancestor
Grace Poorman 1887-1918
Her name was Grace Poorman and the only thing I knew about her was from an old family history sheet. All that it had was her name, birth year, and death year. Looking at the dates I figured she was fairly young and possibly died during the Spanish Influenza outbreak in 1918. When I see someone had died in 1918 the Spanish Influenza outbreak automatically comes to my mind. With know known family stories about her, I set out to see if indeed this was the cause. I will show you how an ordinary family historian like myself can methodically use what resources are available, in this case an obituary and death certificate, and confirm my theory that it was indeed the Spanish Influenza. Let’s begin!
Obituary: Harrisburg Telegraph Tuesday December 10 1918
In this obituary we see Grace died at home from pneumonia resulting from “influenza” contracted two weeks earlier. The first thing that jumps out to me is her age of “30” a large percentage of deaths from the “Spanish influenza” were young adults. There is no mention of “Spanish Influenza’ only reference to an “influenza: Influenza was a common cause of death so the vague term doesn’t solidify our theory of the :Spanish Influenza” outbreak in 1918. We must dig further by going on to her death certificate
Death Certificate At first glance we notice we do not see the word “Spanish Influenza”. As we dig deeper inside this death certificate we will see evidence in the words that can lead us into the assumption she likely died of the “Spanish Influenza”
We see she died in the tiny borough of Royalton, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. Since I am from this general area and know the geographic region intimately I know there was another wave of “Spanish Influenza” outbreak in December 1918 in what I assume was most like the second wave of the outbreak. Royalton which is in the southern part of Dauphin County which in an article dated 5 December 1918 in the Harrisburg Telegraph noted there was an increased outbreak of the virus see article here
So we now know that the virus was breaking out again in the general area where she was living at the time.
Age at time of Death
If we can zoom in on Grace’s age at death we can notice her age as 31 years and 5 days. This was in the typical age range of it’s victims especially in the second wave of the this outbreak.
Date of Death and Primary Cause of Death
Here it shows Grace had been suffering with this virus since November 28th 1918 and succumbed to its effects on December 9th 1918 at 9:45am. The primary cause of death is listed as Double Lobar Pneumonia (also commonly known as Double Pneumonia) This was also a leading factor in death of a person suffering from the “Spanish Influenza” as it went in and attacked the lungs. With this diagnosis it is all looking like a probable Spanish Influenza case. But if we just look a little more closely we can make the final conclusion.
Contributory Cause of Death
Lastly we look at the contributory cause of death and we can see she was diagnosed with the La Grippe and Influenza. La Grippe was an old medical term for the flu but is now commonly associated with the “Spanish Influenza” outbreak in 1918
As family historians we do not need a medical degree to diagnose an ancestor’s death from “Spanish Influenza” A little sleuthing, and putting all the facts together can lead to an accurate and highly probable cause of death in a Spanish Influenza case.