The Flu Epidemic of 1918
by Bryan Thompson
I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
Children’s Jump Rope Rhyme, circa 1919
The fall of 1918 was a very busy time. World War One was drawing to a bloody close. The fourth Liberty Loan campaign was in full swing. Women were anxiously anticipating voting in a statewide election for the first time in November and countywide prohibition of the sale of alcohol, except for the city of Ogdensburg, came into effect October 1, 1918.
The Spanish influenza was the sleeper story of 1918. 675,000 US citizens died in the epidemic. That is more people than died in any single war the US ever participated in, yet few people remember the epidemic. And even less is written about it.
Even the name, the Spanish Influenza, is a misnomer. The flu first surfaced March 11, 1918 at Fort Riley, Kansas. Some alarm was raised by the unusually large amount of deaths among healthy young recruits caused by the new strain of flu. However the nation was at war and the very existence of the disease was kept a military secret.
The influenza was soon exported on troop transports to Europe where by late spring it had mutated to an even more virulent strain. There were major out breaks on both sides along the front. The last major German offensive of the war was cut short by the severity of the flu among their troops.
The existence of the disease remained a military secret until it spread to nearby Spain. Spain was a neutral country during the war and not subject to press censorship. The Spanish press immediately took up the story of the horrifying new flu that devastated that country in May 1918. The press around the world quickly picked up the story and the Spanish influenza epidemic was born.
In 1918 viruses had not yet been discovered and there were no antibiotics to treat the secondary infections that developed from the flu. Medical personnel rightly concluded that the flu was an air borne disease, however the common practice at the time of wearing gauze masks to prevent the spread of the disease was largely ineffective due to the size of the virus.
A bulletin from the US Public Health Service at the time described the symptoms of the Spanish Flu as follows, ”In most cases a person taken sick with influenza feels sick rather suddenly. He feels weak, has pains in the eyes, ears, head or back, and may be sore all over. Many patients feel dizzy, some vomit. Most of the patients complain of feeling chilly and with this comes a fever in which the temperature may rise to 100 to 104. In most cases the pulse remains relatively slow. In appearance one is struck by the fact that the patient looks sick. His eyes and the inner side of his eyelids may be slightly “bloodshot” or “congested” …There may be running from the nose, or there may be some cough…(Plaindealer October 15, 1918)
Ordinary influenza is fatal to about .05 percent of its victims. The influenza of 1918 was fatal in 2.5 percent of all cases. While traditional influenzas were most virulent among the very young and very old, the 1918 version struck hardest at people between the ages of 20 and 40.
Deaths were not usually from influenza itself but from a host of secondary infections that accompanied the disease, most commonly pneumonia. To quote Historian Alfred Crosby, “Spanish Influenza was a flu out of some sort of horror story. It turned people the color of wet ashes, drowned them in the fluids of their own bodies and inspired names like the ‘purple death’.”
The flu returned to North America on ships carrying cargo to various North American ports in August 1918. By Labor Day a major outbreak had begun in Boston, Massachusetts. From there, the epidemic began to march inexorably towards the North Country and De Kalb. The local press took no notice of the raging epidemic in Boston until September 29th .
US Surgeon General Rupert Blue was so alarmed by the epidemic that on September 17, 1918 he called upon military officials to stop shipment of all exposed military personnel in the US and immediately stop induction of new recruits. As surgeon general, he could only recommend, not order, and his requests were ignored. On October 4 th, he asked all State health officers to “ close all public gathering places if the community is threatened with epidemic.”
The first week of October 1918, the local press was full of news of flu deaths in Buffalo, Syracuse, Oswego and beyond. Along with these deaths were news items about local relatives traveling to various southern sights to attend victim’s funerals. October third was the official kick off for the fourth Liberty Loan campaign. Massive rallies were held in each of the major towns and a small one was held in De Kalb.
On October 8 th the US press was rocked by news of the arrival of the USS Levathian in France the previous day. When the ship arrived in port 969 influenza victims were sent immediately to hospital. Another 200 soldiers were unloaded in body bags. The same day it was announced that the federal government was rationing coffins. The next day, October 9th New York State Commissioner of Health, Dr. M. Briggs, imposed a statewide quarantine, closing all schools, churches, theaters, clubs etc.
The same day the editor of the Plaindealer warned, “Bear one thing in mind. Under no conditions cough or sneeze without holding a handkerchief before the mouth and nose, and if persons do cough or sneeze in your presence without using these precautions “call them down” and do it severely. They deserve it and know it and no offense will be given.” (Plaindealer, October 1918)
At least some of the local population was becoming alarmed.
The Flu epidemic of 1918 was not the first epidemic to hit the area. In 1832 and 1850 Asiatic cholera ravaged the county. The new epidemic, as usual, hit isolated rural areas well after urban centers.
As chaos reigned in many American cities, the local community remained oblivious to the looming health menace. Schools in the township were closed October 10, “by order of the State Commissioner of health." As this went on, De Kalb Junction hosted the annual county WCTU convention and the play “Cousin Timmy” was performed at Cole’s Hall October 11 th to a large crowd.
All eyes were on the Liberty Loan Campaign. Its premier event for the North Country was a “Victory Special” War Bond train which was traveling north from Syracuse with two flat cars filled with captured enemy armaments, a coach car of other smaller relics and a traveling chorus made up of wounded war veterans. The train arrived in Gouverneur on Saturday, October 12 th . Originally, a parade was planned, but at the last minute the Gouverneur Board of Health canceled it and the coach was ordered closed to visitors. Still, the chorus performed to a large outdoor crowd. The next day over 2000 people gathered in Canton to view the entire war relics show. This was a perfect environment for spreading an air borne disease.
On Monday, October 14 th, the Rural Committee, under the leadership of Earl Laidlaw, began a door-to-door campaign to all farmers in the area to raise Liberty Bond subscriptions. By weeks end, they had surpassed the target for the region. (And passed germs along as they went!)
On October 1 th, the De Kalb Junction reporter to the Plaindealer reported, ”Our schools and churches are closed until after the Spanish influenza epidemic has abated, fortunately we have no cases here yet.” This was the last weekly column to appear in the Plaindealer from De Kalb Junction for six weeks.
The influenza or ”La Grippe” as it was locally known, had arrived in town. The first influenza death in the town was recorded on October 18th.
The graph shows the rapid onset of influenza deaths in the town in October 1918. The first death occurred on October 18th and the last on November 7th . In that time period twenty-four people died in the town, eighteen of them (or 75%) employees of the St Lawrence Pyrites Company at Stellaville. Newspaper accounts of the epidemic mention the large number of war bonds found with the effects of some of the deceased miners.
The miners were mostly young men who had recently emigrated from Eastern Europe. They lived in barracks near the Stellaville mines. An emergency hospital was set up there. Legend has it that Dr. Cole blamed the high death rate among the miners on their not having wives to take care of them. In conferring with several medical professionals, it seems more likely that the deaths were caused by pneumonia in patients whose lung capacity was already impaired from working in the mines. Airborne diseases spread easily in crowded living conditions such as barracks. This theory is further supported by the fact that one of the other six deaths in the town at that time was of a teenager who had been afflicted by tuberculosis for several years before contracting the flu. Tuberculosis would have had impaired his lung capacity as well.
As the epidemic raged in Stellaville and De Kalb Junction, it struck in the nearby countryside. On Pooler Rd at the Smith farm Lena Smith found herself tending her Mother-in-law, Brother-in-law and Husband. Doctor Cole would often stop there to check on them. He was especially concerned about Lena because she was pregnant and the flu had shown itself to be especially serious when contracted by pregnant women. Dr. Cole was exhausted by the epidemic and would often linger for an extended period of time at the Smith farm seeking refuge. Ironically Lena was the only one in the household who didn't contract the flu.
The recorded influenza deaths are most certainly not the total for the township, as individuals who died at hospitals outside of the township are not recorded here. There was an emergency hospital at Pyrites staffed by St Lawrence University theology students where many residents from the eastern part of the town went. Another emergency hospital was set up in the Masonic lodge in Gouverneur for victims from the western part of the town. There are also deaths of other locals residents listed in the local newspapers but not recorded in the town clerks office.
Early on some of the ill went to Ogdensburg for treatment, but as the epidemic worsened the Ogdensburg hospital refused to accept patients from outside the city limits. Much to the chagrin of the County WCTU, while Ogdensburg closed all its schools and churches they never closed the 30 saloons in the city during the epidemic!
On October 17 th the editor of the Advance and St. Lawrence Weekly Democrat went to great lengths to assure their readers “Epidemic not alarming here at present!” later in the same paper he noted that, “Business of all kinds is practically at a standstill.” It was noted that there were shortages of telephone operators and many other essential personnel. The price of eggs soared to $1.15 per dozen.
October 23 rd the Northern Tribune was full of general medical advice to their readers including this recommended menu for influenza victims:
The peak of the first outbreak in the town of De Kalb centered around the weekend of October 24 th and 25 th . Local accounts show that at that time a northbound train from De Kalb Junction was forced to wait for the next train to assemble since every member of the first trains crew was sick. Newspaper accounts show that the same day a Miss Backus of Canton was filling in for Walter Enslow as First Trick Operator at De Kalb Junction and another person was filling in as second trick operator all due to the influenza epidemic. Hearses were passing all day long carrying bodies to various cemeteries. Vernon Green could barely keep up with the deaths.
There was a shortage of nursing help everywhere. Ads were run in the local newspaper, seeking volunteers. This is an example from the Northern Tribune of Gouverneur.
By the beginning of November the number of new cases was waning. The De Kalb Board of Health met in a special session on November 2, 1918 to consider lifting the quarantine in time for the November 5 election day. They decided to keep the quarantine on. Despite the epidemic, local newspapers reported that women turned out in large numbers to vote for the first time in a state election on that day. On November sixth the Richville reporter to the Northern Tribune reported, “Richville has had no church services for four weeks and we have escaped the epidemic so far.” On Saturday, November 8, 1918 the De Kalb Town Board voted to lift the quarantine on the recommendation of Town Health Officer Dr. F. B. Allen.
Church services were held through out the town on Sunday, November 10 th for the first time in one month. The next day, Monday, November 11 th, the local schools were opened. At 11 AM that day the armistice was declared and the children of Richville celebrated with “a parade all around the village headed by drums and bugle, “(Gouverneur Free Press) After a month of quarantine and two years of war everyone needed to celebrate!
The epidemic struck the town in two waves, the first in October 1918 and the second in the winter and spring of 1919. The October outbreak was centered around De Kalb Junction and Stellaville. The spring outbreak was mostly in the rural districts and Richville which were spared in the first wave.
The second wave began in late December1918 and ended in early April 1919. Carrie Cross Maine was almost nine years old in January 1919. She lived on a farm on the Old De Kalb Canton Road. On the fourth of January that year she was suffering from influenza. Carrie was taken from her home to a neighbor’s house because her mother was delivering her younger brother. She was not allowed to see her mother or her new brother until she had fully recovered from the flu. Later that month her father and older brother became so sick they could not milk the cows or do the other chores on the farm. Their neighbors stepped in for them and did the chores. Later that spring they were able to return the favor for their neighbors when they were sick with the flu.
The flu continued to strike in the Richville area until the weather broke in the spring. At one point in the spring of 1919 a news column from Kendrew Corners listed all the sick in the neighborhood. The article took up an entire column in the newspaper!
In just a few short months over 40 people died of Spanish Influenza in De Kalb and if national averages can be believed about 2000 people in the town must have suffered some milder form of the disease. As soon as the epidemic was over people began the process of forgetting. It was something so horrible it was seldom discussed.
Brown, Hortense Smith, Interview January 19, 2005
De Kalb Town Clerk: De Kalb Town Meeting Minutes Book
Iezzoni, Lynette: Influenza 1918 TV Books, New York 1999.
The Gouverneur Free Press, Gouverneur, NY September 1918 to April 1919.
Maine, Carrie Cross, Interview January 19, 2005
The Northern New York Tribune, Gouverneur, NY September 1918 to April 1919.
The Plaindealer, Canton, NY September 1918 to April 1919.
The Ogdensburg Advance and St. Lawrence Weekly Democrat, Ogdensburg, NY September 1918 to April 1919.