Echoes of a past pandemic
1918 articles show parallels between Spanish flu, COVID-19
The word “unprecedented” is used a lot these days to describe the current state of affairs under the grips of the coronavirus pandemic, but a quick read of the
in 1918 shows that’s not really the case.
“ALL PLACES OF ASSEMBLAGE CLOSED” declared a front-page headline in the Oct. 17, 1918, edition of the Phonograph.
“Influenza epidemic prompts health board to take drastic action as preventative measure,” the subhead stated.
The 1918 flu pandemic, known at the time as “Spanish influenza,” had already claimed the lives of at least two local service members, one from Colby and the other from Unity, before the public health order was announced.
Just like the Safer at Home order first instituted in March of this year, the 1918 order by state health officials banned most public gatherings, including those at churches, schools, libraries, theatres and “all place of amusement, lodges, dances, meetings, etc.”
And, just like the orders given 102 years later, exceptions were made for certain businesses.
“Saloons will continue open but no loitering will be allowed. This also applies to shops, stations, club rooms, etc.,” the article states.
Unlike today, however, information on the number of confirmed cases was not readily available. Instead, the newspaper could only report that “there are several cases in and about the city thought by the physicians to be the dreaded disease.”
Still, the message was the same then as it is today: community members were asked to do their part in stopping the spread of the virus.
“This of course means that every citizen must help in checking the disease,” the Oct. 17 article states.
“Keep the children at home; it does no good to close the schools if they are allowed to run the streets and mingle with other children,” the article concludes.
Two months later, on Dec. 12, 1918, a new set of 10 “rules and regulations” was published by Colby’s city clerk. These focused more on quarantining people who had the flu and requiring households with flu victims to print the word “influenza” on a placard (at least four inches high) on the outside of their homes.
The placards could not be removed until seven days after the flu patient had registered a normal temperature, and after that, the house had be “thoroughly aired” and washed with soap and water, while the patient’s clothes and bedding had to be boiled or fumigated.
Violations of this order were punishable by a fine of up to $20 (over $300 in 2020 dollars), with failure to pay resulting in as much as 30 days in jail.
The main difference between 1918 and 2020 is that today’s readers are not also being inundated with reports from the “The Great War” raging in Europe. The Spanish flu often had to compete for front page space with the latest updates on what became known as World War I.
In fact, the first confirmed flu casualty reported in the Phonograph was that of Herman J. Spitzenberger, a 21-year-old draftee who contracted the disease while training to be a military truck driver at the Sweeny Auto School in Kansas City.
Spitzenberger had married his wife, Mayme Vanderhyden, just one year earlier, in October of 1917. She was called down to Kansas City when he first fell ill, but he died before she arrived, so all she could do was accompany his body back to Colby to be buried.
One week after his death was announced, the Colby newspaper reported on another service member, Edgar Lawrence Patrick of Unity, who succumbed to the disease while training at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. The Oct. 17 article about his death began like this: “The casualties are coming home to Clark county stronger every day, but the victims have not been slain by shot or shell, but taken by the dread disease Spanish influenza.”
The 26-year-old Patrick, referred to as “one of Unity’s best young men,” was employed as an assistant cashier at the Unity bank before being called up for military service.
In an eerie echo of today’s social distancing precautions, the news of Patrick’s funeral at St. Mary’s Catholic Church said “only immediate relatives were allowed inside the church to lessen the risk of further spreading influenza.”
Several local soldiers were serving overseas when they perished from the disease, including 23-year-old Private Oliver J. Langjahr, who died at a military hospital in England, and Private Benjamin G. Meyer, also 23, who died under the care of a nurse in France who wrote to his mother, telling her about her son’s “great bravery and patience during his illness.”
On the home front, some of the flu victims were even younger.
The Oct. 25 death of a 14-year-old boy from the town of Green Grove, Ronold Rosin, was attributed to the disease, and on Nov. 14, three more flu deaths were announced, including that of an eight-yearold girl in Curtiss.
The Phonograph also carried national news about the flu pandemic, including an Oct. 24, 1918, article about the U.S. general surgeon general advising citizens on how to properly care for influenza sufferers at home.
“With influenza continuing to spread in many parts of the country, and with an acute shortage of doctors and nurses everywhere, every unnecessary call on either physicians or nurses makes it so much harder to meet the urgent needs of the patients who are seriously ill.”
The surgeon general even went so far as to say that the generation living at that time was “spoiled” by having “expert medical and nursing care readily available.”
“It was not so in the days of our grandmothers, when every good housewife was expected to know a good deal about the care of the sick,” the nation’s top doctor said, before issuing a slew of advice, such as avoiding the use of handkerchiefs and making sure to burn any rags or tissue paper used by the sick.
The article also advises caretakers on how to make their own gauze masks and how to wear them properly to keep from “breathing germ-laden matter sprayed into the air by the patient coughing or even in ordinary breathing.”
However, the Colby newspaper also ran stories downplaying the seriousness of the disease, including a promotional piece from the Vick’s corporation that said the current flu virus was “nothing new,” and that most cases could be treated by taking a laxative, eating “plenty of nourishing food,” and letting the virus run its course. The article slipped in a shameless plug for VapoRub, a new product at the time, as a way to treat the deadly flu virus. The writer also advises readers suffering from the illness to “stay quiet” and “don’t worry.”
Just as there is now, there were also signs of a restless American public wanting to return to normal. An Oct. 31 article reported that huge crowds of Philadelphians surged into neighboring Camden, N.J., after a three-week shutdown of saloons was lifted. Worried about public health, Camden officials immediately reinstituted the closures.
After news of Germany’s surrender was reported in November of 1918, it became clear that local residents were more interested in celebrating the end of the war than abiding by public health guidelines. The Nov. 14 edition of the Phonograph gleefully reported on an impromptu parade in downtown Colby, as “joyous faces thronged the streets” to mark America’s victory overseas.
“People from the surrounding country flocked to town and, in a short time, the streets were a perfect jam,” the article stated.
Giddy residents strung up an effigy of Kaiser Wilhelm, Germany’s defeated leader, and eventually doused it in gasoline and lit it on fire to send “his stinking soul hellward.”
In the next week’s edition, buried toward the bottom of an inside page, was a three-sentence blurb carrying the headline “Flu more deadly than war.”
Based on an investigation by the U.S. Census Bureau, the deaths caused by the flu epidemic “greatly outnumber the casualties among American troops in the world conflict,” the article stated.
Deaths from the flu continued to be reported in the following weeks’ papers, but as 1918 drew to a close, the large ads for local stores made it seem like people were more concerned about Christmas shopping than avoiding the flu.
According to a 2000 article written by history professor Steven R. Burg and published in the Wisconsin Historical Society’s quarterly magazine, 74 flu deaths were reported in Clark County and 93 in Marathon County. Statewide, the death toll was nearly 8,500 — far surpassing that of other, more well-known events.
“Surprisingly, however, the influenza epidemic lacks a place in the collective memory of Wisconsin similar to other notable local disasters, such as the Peshtigo Fire of 1871 or the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975, or even such national tragedies as the Great Depression or the Civil War,” Burg wrote. “In part, this can be attributed to the elusive nature of the disease and the way it slowly and quietly spread across the Wisconsin landscape. No great ship sank, no armies clashed, no conflagration consumed a community.”