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> Spanish Flu
post Oct 20 2007, 02:08 PM
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Tolbert,Seagraves, Adams, McElroy, Bowden, Thrasher, O'Dillon, Downing, Bradley, Inman, Swanger, Barnett, Morrow

Several long years ago, I wrote a piece for a book I made of my family history. Several things have come up lately that made me think of it again. I am reprinting it here for the benefit of those who may not know anything about this massive pandemic and have no twinges when they see a death in 1918. First printed in Paper Plates, Napkins and Other Musings

In Flew Enza
I had a little bird
It's name was Enza
I opened the window
and in flew Enza.

A simple little jump rope rhyme to commemorate the worst epidemic this country has ever seen. One quarter of the population was wiped out in this outbreak. I have no records which of our family members succumbed to Spanish Flu, but there were a number who died in this time frame. It was devastating enough to merit a few paragraphs in any family history.

There has never been absolute proof where the epidemic started. Evidence seems to indicate it began at Fort Riley, Kansas in early Spring 1918. Soldiers burned tons of cow manure. As this was being done a gale sprang up unexpectedly. It became a virtual dust storm. The sun went black. Two days later on March 11 a private reported to the infirmary with a fever, sore throat and headache. Less than a minute later another soldier reported the same symptoms. By noon there were 100 cases, by nightfall, 500. Forty-eight men died in this initial onslaught. Then it seemed to disappear.

This was a good time in this country. Women had the vote, we had airmail, smallpox, anthrax, diphtheria and rabies had all been identified and cured. The country was behind the war effort 100%, celebrating with parades and parties-breeding grounds for an airborne virus. Something no one could hope to identify. Virus were not visible until the invention of the electron microscope, still far in our future.

One and a half million American boys went to war that summer and fall. Some carried the virus. It resurfaced in Europe and mutated- becoming far more deadly. When the doughboys brought it back home it had become a relentless killer. At Camp Devins, Boston, hundreds were sick. Their faces were blue, they coughed up blood. Autopsies showed their lungs were swollen, blue and filled with fluid. Influenza quickly became bloody pneumonia. And the boys died. The soldiers carried it from one base to another dozens dying along the way. It followed the railroad lines, moving relentlessly south and west, killing with appalling speed.

Rumors were as rampant as bogus cures. Some were sure the Germans had invented the disease and infested us in retaliation. Evangelist Billy Sunday was sure it was caused by unrepented sin and could be prayed down. On September 11, Babe Ruth led the Red Sox to victory in the World Series and three people collapsed on the streets of Quincy, Massachusetts. Influenza was now among the civilian population. That month 12,000 died in the United States of the flu.

A million dollars was allotted by the government to develop a cure. Hundreds of vaccines were produced. The most promising was produced in Massachusetts. The mayor of San Francisco ordered a huge shipment. It was sent by special envoy. Over 18,000 people were inoculated. It was no more effective than the kerosene or turpentine people were putting on sugar and ingesting, or the bags of camphor balls people wore around their necks. Some smeared onion plasters on their bodies, others cavorted naked in the sunshine. These remedies, at least, had the advantage of keeping others out of your face. A necessity with an airborne virus. Doctors continued to search in the wrong direction, believing that masks would protect them. It was like stopping dust with chicken wire. Whiskey was being touted as a cure and/or preventative. It was sold for $55 a bottle, and bars were running out. Caskets were also in short supply. Funeral homes hired armed guards to watch over them.

Every family lost someone. 600,000 people in this country died-one out of every four. People awoke healthy in the morning and by nightfall were dead. It killed in twelve hours. More Americans died that year of the flu than have been killed in all our wars combined.

200,000 people attended a parade for the war effort linking arms and singing. Flu tore through Philadelphia. And October was still to come.

Victor Vaughn, U.S. Health officer made the horrifying discovery this strain did not choose the usual victims: the young, weak and elderly, but instead chose the healthiest most vital. Those between 21 and 29. Our fighting men. Flu was devastating both sides in Europe. 70,000 men were sick. 80% of some units died. General Pershing was begging for reinforcements. President Woodrow Wilson had an impossible decision to make. He knew confining those men on troop ships would be a death warrant for many of them, but knowing the war was lost if he didn't, he signed the order to do so.

In October 851 died in New York City in one day. The toll in Philadelphia was seven hundred time higher than normal. Everyone was required to wear the masks; police, firemen, doctors, nurses, civilians in all walks of life. Farms, factories, churches, schools, bars and theaters were all closed. Public gatherings were outlawed. Orphaned, homeless children roamed the streets. Parks and playgrounds became relief centers. Unfortunately most of the doctors and nurses had been sent to Europe for the war effort. What few remained, and remained on their feet were swamped. When the sick checked into hospitals they were immediately wrapped in winding sheets and toe tagged in preparation for their certain death. They had raging fever, nosebleeds and quickly drowned in their own fluids. More ill were placed on floors beside the cots waiting for the death of the occupant and their turn at the bed. Every door had crepe hangings; white for youth, black for middle aged and grey for the elderly. Death carts paroled the city streets in a scene reminiscent of the black plague in the middle ages. Dead lay in gutters. Coffins were stacked on sidewalks. Steam shovels were used in potters field for mass graves.

11,000 people died in Philadelphia that fateful October. 195,000 in the United States. Violence broke out. A health department worker in San Francisco shot a man for refusing to wear his mask. A father in Chicago screamed he'd kill his family his own way and slit the throats of his wife, four children and himself. Half of the Native American population of this country died from the tribal tradition of sitting around a dead body and chanting it to the Happy Hunting Grounds. Victor Vaughn came to the devastating conclusion if the flu continued it's mathematical rate of progression civilization could disappear.

As mysteriously as it came, it left. in November the death rates were falling. The Armistice was November 11. 30,000 people felt comfortable enough to attend a celebration parade in San Francisco-wearing masks. Doctors now believe the flu ran out of victims. Those still surviving had developed an immunity.

As soon as the dying stopped, the forgetting began. Thirty million people died worldwide and yet when it disappeared it did so completely. Most especially from peoples minds. Unlike the black plague, so well covered in history books, Spanish Flu almost never rates an honorable mention. Like any horror too terrible to comprehend and for which there seems to be no explanation it has been blocked from the psyche.

Only recently have doctors begun to examine the causes of this epidemic and the reasons for its devastation. They believe this country is now ripe for another such outbreak Analyzing this flu might help control the next.
Dr. Johan Hultin went to an Alaskan village nearly wiped out by the flu of 1918. After getting permission from the village elders he exhumed the bodies of victims. One, affectionately named Lucy by the scientists, had been so overweight at the time of her death that even after 80 years the frozen ground had preserved enough of her vital organs, they were able to take tissue samples. These were sent in four separate shipments for to protect against loss to a lab in Washington D.C. Scientists believe they have isolated the virus and can now begin to understand it. Scientists in several other parts of the world are going to frozen regions to exhume bodies for the same type of research.

With luck, time and research the forgotten flu of 1918 will not be the unspoken mystery any longer.
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