Morning Coffee: The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918

winterMy next novel, “The Healing Heart”, is set in Wisconsin, 1918, against a backdrop of WWI and the Spanish Flu pandemic. My research of that time has been both fascinating and horrifying.

It came to be called the Spanish Flu because Spain was where all the initial cases were being reported. This led many to believe Spain was ground zero. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, we don’t know. It was interesting to read that at the time the Spaniards called it the French Flu. The United States and allied countries had put a moratorium on negative press. All efforts, all funds, were put toward the war first. Any news that might frighten people and lower their morale was banned. So why was Spain free to report the rapidly spreading pandemic? Spain was neutral in WWI so there was no censorship of the press. But there were cases already occurring here and abroad.

The first wave struck the United States in February 1918, with initial cases being reported from Haskell County, Kansas. It’s believed that soldiers returning home on leave, or moving freely between camps, were bringing it with them. Soon twenty-four of the thirty-six largest army camps had the flu. Thirty of the fifty largest US cities, most adjacent to military facilities, reported an epidemic of flu cases by spring. The second wave, an “explosion”, hit nation-wide in September and continued through that winter. October was the worst. A third wave hit in December and lingered into spring, affecting many schoolchildren.

Symptoms were nosebleeds, coughing up blood, bleeding from the ears and eyes, coughing so hard it tore apart the abdominal muscles and rib cartilage, headaches that felt like someone was hammering a wedge into the skull behind the eyes, body aches like bones breaking, vomiting, skin color changing to anything from a light blue tinge around the lips and fingertips to a spreading blue so dark it looked black. Sufferers writhed in agony and delirium. It was a viral disease with no known cure other than time, rest, and prayer. It could kill in two ways: a quick and direct death with a violent viral pneumonia so damaging it was compared to burning the lungs; or more slowly and indirectly by stripping the body’s defenses, allowing bacterial pneumonia to invade the lungs.

Public gatherings were forbidden. Schools, churches, dance halls, movie theaters, bars and saloons, all closed. Posters warned against spitting, coughing, and sneezing. If even one member of a household was ill they were all put into quarantine; no one was allowed to enter except the physician, until at least four days passed without fever. Some communities allowed funerals with family only. Others, like Philadelphia, experienced such an overwhelming death toll that burials were in mass graves with no coffins. Steam shovels dug the pits. There were no funerals, no graveside mourners.

Not everyone contracted the flu. Not everyone who did ultimately died. In fact, despite the high death toll a majority of people survived. There’d been another flu pandemic back in 1889-90, with recurrences through 1894. A million people worldwide died in that one. Those who contracted and survived that strain were less likely to contract this one. And, like anything you might come in contact with today, some people had a natural immunity or were lucky enough to contract a weaker version and had the strength to pull themselves through with rest.

It’s estimated that as much as forty percent of the global population was infected over eighteen months. Anywhere from twenty to fifty million died worldwide. That’s more than the seventeen million killed in the war. President Wilson was struck down in April of 1919 while in France negotiating peace. He survived but his mind was affected; he became paranoid, erratic, and confused. Just four months later he suffered a stroke that may have been linked to the illness. His wasn’t the only report of lasting brain injury.

Not the kind of backdrop where you’d expect to find love, you say. I’d argue that love and happiness can be found anywhere; that it’s love that gets us through those hard times. It’s love that will keep Alice strong when tragedy and heartbreak threaten to crush her spirit.

Here’s a little ditty from 1918, a children’s skipping rhyme: “I had a little bird, and its name was Enza. I opened the window, and in-flu-Enza.” (author unknown)

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