Sunday, March 15, 2020

The 1918 Flu Epidemic



With all the buzz of the coronavirus reaching every corner of the world, I thought I'd post one of my first posts on this blog and add more detail. The 1918 flu epidemic has always been of great interest to me due to the stories of my great-grandmother who died at age 20 from that very flu.

The 1918 flu pandemic officially began in January of 1918. This was the first of two pandemics involving the now familiar H1N1 influenza virus. 500 million people all over the world were infected by this virus including the Pacific islands and the Arctic.



To give you an idea what the 1918's were like, let me give you some highlights about the time. 


America was in a world war, but despite that, they had more leisure time than their previous generation. They flocked to dance halls, pool halls, movies, roller skating rinks, and saloons. Fans swarmed into the nation’s many movie theaters. America’s love affair with Hollywood celebrities was already a permanent part of the culture.



From 1896 to 1918 the number of passengers traveling by rail tripled. Only a few Americans could afford cars. Henry Ford with his new innovations was about to change all that.

The use of telephones up to 1918 was extremely expensive. The phone companies were working hard to expand their limited lines too much of the country where service                 was unavailable.





Newspapers were the form of 'getting the news out'. Even small towns often had more than one newspaper. Breaking news that needed to get out was done so by printing another newspaper. These papers were called 'extra'. So now you know why we hear, "Extra, extra, read all about it!" The lad yelling that was letting people know there was breaking news.

Okay now that you have some 1918 background, lets get back to the flu epidemic.




With entertainment big business and all those people getting together, it became a huge concern for public health experts. At the height of the epidemic government officials rushed in and closed many of these entertainment places, fearing the spread of the influenza virus.




Some of the earliest victims of the flu were the American soldiers stationed here in the United States. As the epidemic spread the disease wasn't partial to US soil and quickly spread to military hospitals not only here but abroad. By November of 1918 the whole world was affected by the growing pandemic.



The rail systems being so popular became an easy channel for the spread of the influenza virus. During the epidemic, cities became concerned about how easily the virus spread, causing some cities to limit and even close their transportation systems. Many cities that remained opened had people wearing masks to reduce the risk of infection.




Between nine and sixteen million people died during the war. But the influenza pandemic would take a staggering fifty million lives, which at the time was approximately one fifth of the world's population. These high mortality rates made this one of the deadliest natural disasters in history. The 1918 flu killed more people than all the wars of the 20th century combined.


So who died in this epidemic? You might think the young and old. If you guessed that you'd be wrong. The 1918 disproportionately killed the healthy young adults. The reason wasn't known why then, but in modern research, researchers have discovered the virus killed through an overreaction of it's immune system. The stronger the immune system, the stronger the reaction. So the young adult body was ravaged, where a child or middle-aged adult had a milder reaction.


Death came quickly. Victims had such a violent immune response that there are stories where people died within hours of showing symptoms of the flu. Their lungs would fill with fluid and they would suffocate. Doctors were helpless to stop the toll that the influenza took on the young adults.

Basha Bay Veatch Davis


On a personal note, my grandmother was one year old in 1918. Her Aunt Icey (her mother's sister) died of influenza. Ten days later my grandmother's mother, Basha Bay Veatch Davis contacted the flu and died, leaving my grandmother an orphan.

Sisters: Icey May, Basha Bay, and Rachel who was deaf

The two sisters, though they didn't live near each other at the time of their deaths, were best friends. They wrote many letters back and forth to each other, some of which we still have today. My great-grandmother, Basha Bay left one child, Delitha Vivian Gilbert to be raised by her grandmother Mahalia. My grandmother was told her mother asked her family to help her sit up and sing 'Church in the Wildwood' with her. When they finished she laid back down and took her last breath. Her best friend and sister, Icey May had lost her only child and at her death left her husband childless. If you'd like to read the lyrics to 'Church in the Wildwood' I will post it at the end.

Mass Graves being dug


My husband's father was a young man in 1918. He told us about the flu epidemic. The memory embedded in his mind was looking out the window and seeing them stack bodies like cords of wood because the morgues couldn't keep up with them.







World War I added to the complications of the 1918 flu. Many doctors and nurses were overseas helping save our soldiers from sickness and wounds leaving the United States shorter on clinicians. In Philadelphia Hospital it is said up to 75% of the doctors and nurses were overseas leaving a large deficit. Struggling to keep up with the growing need, retired doctors were requested back to work and medical students were summoned from their studies to help aid the sick.

Hospitals were so overwhelmed and overloaded with the sick that schools, buildings, church parish houses, armories, and even private homes were used as makeshift hospitals.

In attempts to slow the virus schools, theaters, and churches were ordered closed in many cities. Some communties imposed quarentines as well as demanded people wear masks.

At its peak in Philadelphia, 1000 people died each day. Morgues were overloaded, caskets where in short supply, and secondary diseases were cropping up due to the lack of dispoising of bodies quickly. Cities everywhere were running into the same problems. Casket companies were told they couldn't make ornate coffins, they all had to be plain. They were limited on coffin size.

In some places public funerals were banned. All coffins had to remain closed unless they were identifing a body and then they had to cover their mouth and nose.

The flu was world wide and didn't spare our soldiers overseas. But it also hit the enemy forces equally.

There were two waves of the flu in spring and fall. Though called the Spanish flu it didn't originate in Spain. They really don't know for sure where it did originate. Three suggestions are East Asia, Europe, or even in Kansas. Why Kansas? It was March 9, 1918 at Fort Riley, Kansas, 26,000 troops were stationed there. They had several thousand horses and mules who deposited large amounts of manure. The problem arrose of disposing of it. They decided burning it would be a good idea. March 9th brought a harsh dust storm, the combination of sand, dust, and manure ash stung the skin and offended the nose. The storm was so bad it nearly blocked out the sun. Two days later on March 11th 100 men reported to the infirmary all complaining of the same ailments of a bad cold. Whether or not this was the point of origin of the 1918 influenza that took over 600,000 American lives we will probably never know. I wasn't able to find the reasons for the mention of East Asia or Europe as perhaps being the origination of the flu epidemic.

The 1918 influenza also known as the Spanish Flu and now known to be a type of H1N1 flu ran its course from March of 1918 until June of 1920.



Church in The Wildwood

There's a church in the valley by the wildwood,
No lovlier place in the dale,
No spot is so dear to my childhood,
As the little brown church in the dell.

(Oh! come, come, come, come,)
Come to the Church in the wildwood,
Oh, come to the church in the dale,
No spot is so dear to my childhood,
As the little brown church in the dell.

How sweet on a clear Sabbath morning,
To list to the clear ringing bell.
It's tones so sweetly are calling,
Oh come to the church in the dell.

(Oh! come, come, come, come,)
Come to the Church in the wildwood,
Oh, come to the church in the dale,
No spot is so dear to my childhood,
As the little brown church in the dell.

There, close by the side of a loved one,
'Neath the tree where the wild flowers bloom,
He sleeps, sweetly sleeps 'neath the willow,
Disturb not his rest in the tomb.

(Oh! come, come, come, come,)
Come to the Church in the wildwood,
Oh, come to the church in the dale,
No spot is so dear to my childhood,
As the little brown church in the dell.

(Oh! come, come, come, come,)
Come to the Church in the wildwood,
Oh, come to the church in the dale,
No spot is so dear to my childhood,
As the little brown church in the dell.



Debbie Lynne Costello is the author of Sword of Forgiveness, Amazon's #1 seller for Historical Christian Romance. She has enjoyed writing stories since she was eight years old. She raised her family and then embarked on her own career of writing the stories that had been begging to be told. She and her husband have four children and live in upstate South Carolina with their 5 horses, 3 dogs, cat and miniature donkey.

Penelope Beatty made up her mind long ago she would live and die a Scottish warrior not a wife. But when nearly all her clan is killed and she is betrayed, she loathes doing the unthinkable, but must seek the help of an Englishman who owed her father’s his life.

Thomas Godfrey never married, but when a Scottish warrior lass shows up needing his aid, he finds her both annoying and irresistible. But the last thing he wants is to marry a woman who fights alongside him. If he was going to marry—which he isn’t—it would be to a soft, submissive woman. But when the Lady Brithwin meets the Scottish lass, she’s sure she’s found the perfect match for Thomas and nothing is going to stop her from seeing a summer wedding.


6 comments:

  1. So good to see you here, Debbie Lynne! Thanks for this timely post. Very, very scary to read these descriptions of the overwhelming work load of the health systems that were in place at this time.

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    1. It really is sad. I know my grandmother was just one of many who became orphans. Thanks for coming by, Connie!

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  2. Fascinating, Debbie Lynn. While this is a hard read, it's also a good lesson on studying the past to determine and prepare for the future. Thanks for researching this!

    And, goodness, the 1918 flu epedemic hit as close to home for you as it possibly could. Such a sad time for your family. What a blessing that your infant grandmother survived and gave us you!

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    1. Thanks Pam. I've always been drawn to the history of that flu due to my great-grandma. My grandmother was such a beautiful person that loved the Lord so much that everyone who knew her called her grandma.

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  3. History does have a way of repeating itself. This was an interesting post. I was especially surprised to hear that people in their prime were the most affected. That's sad that you lost two relatives to the flu. I'm glad your grandma made it. In times like these, we need to trust our Lord. Only he knows the number of our days. Freaking out over this flu will only distress us. So rest in the Lord. He's got this.

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  4. Yes, God knew this all would happen just like He did in 1918. Nothing is a surprise. We have to trust in Him as my gr.great-grandmother did on her dying breath.

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