Sunday, April 26, 2009

Spanish Flu of 1918 – 1920


With all of the news today of the outbreak of Swine Flu, my thoughts were drawn to stories my mother told me about her experience with the Spanish Flu in 1918 – 1920. 


Flu Sanitzation 18 Oct 1918 Davis County Clipper.jpg

The Spanish Influenza or “La Grippe” (flu) was a pandemic that spread through almost every location on earth.   It was an indiscriminant killer, taking rich and poor, old and young victims.  Declared a crisis in March 1918 it continued in a pandemic state though June of 1920.  The total count of its victims ranged from 20 to 100 million people worldwide.


At my grandparents home in Utah, the family was quickly infected and were quarantined to their home.  Mom related that extended family and neighbors had to bring fresh food and milk to their doorstep and yell through the closed windows to alert the family to retrieve them after the benefactor backed away.  No face to face or touching contact could be allowed.

Their home only had two bedrooms but housed nine sick children, two sick parents and two sick grandparents.  She said that the children were put in two bed in the same room and laid out head to toe in alternating rows.  Most were too sick to stagger out to the outhouse and multiple honey buckets often littered  the floor.

Her grandparents were too ill to get up for weeks to help her desperately ill parents care for the children.  As one person would improve enough to rise from the bed, they would be replaced by one of the caretakers who was now too ill to stand. 

Their doors were marked with quarantine signs to keep people away.  Wearing masks, a few brave souls would break quarantine from time to time to clean up the home, do the washing and bring in prepared meals.  These actions violated the law and exposed the benefactor and their family to the illness too.

Fortunately, none of the family died although Mom’s description of their illness indicated that they often felt or looked like the walking dead.

Worldwide the situation was equally dire. 

Not only were the meager medical facilities stretched to the breaking point, the doctors and other medical personnel were also ill.

In almost all locations, people had to take care of themselves, neighbors, family and friends.  The medical system simply could not handle the enormity of the pandemic.

According to newspaper articles at the time, between 300,000 and 350,00 people had died in the United States in the three months spanning between September 15, 1918 and December 6th,  1918. 

An article in this posting goes on to state that the record keeping was poor and that the number probably exceeded that estimate.

The world was in a state of panic and  despair from not only the pandemic but the terrors of World War I.  A newspaper article dated 19 Nov 1918 stated that more people were dying in the United States from the flu than as U. S. soldiers fighting the Germans.

Victims were ordered by local authorities to not leave their homes.  Special deputies and health officials were authorized to enforce the orders in the hope that containment, no matter how brutal to the afflicted would help contain the pandemic.


Flu Toll 10 jan 1919 Davis County Clipper

Personnel and resources to bury the dead were stretched so severely that even small communities in rural Utah struggled to keep up. 

Public gatherings, like funerals, were outlawed.  If they were still alive, parents were frequently too ill to attend the burials of their  own children, spouses, parents, extended families and friends.  Indeed, attendance by more that a couple of family members was construed as a ‘gathering’ and hence fell under the penalty of the law.


Flu Killing More Than Germans 19 Nov 1918 Davis County Clipper.jpg

By January 1919, the death rate in the United States had increased to 19.6 per thousand individuals.  The corner had not yet been turned, but in ensuing months the number of new cases would begin to decrease.  Unfortunately, the flu frequently started to take the caretakers.  They were worn so low by exhaustion that any semblance of resistance in their immune systems was compromised.

By early March, 1919, the government inserted a constant stream of news articles alerting Americans that survivors of the flu were now coming down with Tuberculosis. 

Survivors bodies and immune systems had been sufficiently weakened to the point that yet another scurrilous disease had seized the opportunity to infect them. 

Despair and feelings of hopelessness spread around the world.  Illness upon illness afflicted mankind in addition to the terrors and destructions of war.

Of course, many flim-flam men came out of the woodwork with Patent Medicine cures.  Desperate to find anything to treat and prevent further illness drove millions to purchase and take these often toxic mixtures.

Governments told their citizens to not purchase patent medicines because they were a waste of money.  If people felt symptoms of the flu, they were instructed to have medical examinations several times a month and to “build up your strength with right living, good food and plenty of fresh air”.  “Become a fresh air crank and enjoy life” statements concluded the advice.

The U. S. Navy has created a website that details the impact of the Spanish Flu Epidemic on their branch of the military.  They noted that victims suffered from “pneumonia and fatal pulmonary complications” and that “they literally drowned in their own body fluids”.

Stanford University has written that the “Spanish Flu” or “La Grippe” was a global disaster.  They state that “the average life span in the US was depressed by 10 years” because of the extreme virulence of the flu.

Until reading the news of a possible pandemic today, I was felt far removed from the terrors that Mom described in her stories.  I had few to no reference points in my experience that allowed me to appreciate the scope and impact of the experience in her life.

Today, the CDC, calls the 1918 Influenza pandemic “The Mother of All Pandemics”.  No wonder the survivors were so abraised by the experience.  Quite frankly, I’m surprised that I haven’t read more references to it in my ancestors surviving notes and journals.  No doubt they were too busy working on their farms and in their homes to take time to record something that was such ‘common knowledge’ among everyone on the planet.


Spanish Flu victims Spanish flu ambulance


Flu Closures 18 Oct 1918 Davis County Clipper.jpg

When we are researching our lineage, we have to study their environmental and societal events and  conditions to really have any many of us have looked at our appreciation of their lives.   How many of us have looked at our records and quickly spotted an inordinate number of deaths in the families of our ancestors during the four years of the Spanish Flu pandemic?

Have we even considered the causes of the deaths and tried to envision combined impact of illness, war, stress and family deaths in the lives of our ancestors?

Lesson learned again.  Event timelines overlaid on the life spans of our ancestors should be studied in detail to aid in the creation of our research plans.  Failure to do so will severely impact our research success.


Flu Victims Not Leave Homes 13 Dec 1918 Davis County Clipper.jpg

In our own lives, let’s hope that the current Swine Flu outbreak won’t turn into the life altering event that will be overlooked by our descendants.   We need to regularly write in our journals and include the events of our lives with some supporting news articles and related information so our they have the reference points needed to envision our lives and times.


Flu Advice 7 Mar 1919 Davis County Clipper.jpg

Flu Deaths Sep to Dec 6 1918 Davis County Clipper.jpg

Flu No Gatherings 22 Nov 1918 Davis County Clipper.jpg








my Heritage Happens said...

I am not sure if I have ever left you a comment or not, but I wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your blog! Truely! I get the posts in my email, and I love that! You have a great story telling personna! I am hoping I am learning something from you! Thank you for blogging!