#tbt Local History Blog - Influenza, like WWI, brings death and sadness to local citizens, military
On November 11, 2018, when Americans paused to reflect upon the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I, they probably envisioned courageous soldiers fighting the enemy on the ground, at sea, and in the air.
Chances are they weren’t thinking about the invisible enemy that had already begun to kill millions and would kill more people than the entire war. It was an enemy that knew no boundaries of space or time, carried no guns yet spared no mercy on its unsuspecting victims of all ages.
That enemy was influenza.
Back home in Southwest Ohio, the local citizenry became all too aware of the stealth and the stranglehold of this dreaded epidemic. The sad state of affairs was just another emotional burden for those whose loved ones were fighting and dying in a faraway land.
The numbers said it all.
According to the National Archives, World War I, which ended on November 11, 1918, “claimed an estimated 16 million lives. The influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. One fifth of the world’s population was attacked by this deadly virus. Within months it had killed more people than any other illness in recorded history.” (1)
Sadly, the act of war itself was an apparent factor in the spread of the disease, claims a report from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (U.S. National Library of Medicine):
“...The war fostered influenza in the crowded conditions of military camps in the United States and in the trenches of the Western Front in Europe. The virus traveled with military personnel from camp to camp and across the Atlantic, and at the height of the American military involvement in the war, September through November 1918, influenza and pneumonia sickened 20% to 40% of U.S. Army and Navy personnel…”
The last sentence is stunning:
“...Influenza and pneumonia killed more American soldiers and sailors during the war than did enemy weapons.” (2)
Like the fighting men in trenches far, far away, citizens, business and industry grappled with the devastating illness on the homefront.
A front page article in the October 28, 1918, Middletown Journal summed up the sad news : “Twelve die during week-end as epidemic result -- Influenza toll now reaches 74; Still new cases -- Malady fails to relinquish grip on city and whole families are stricken -- Largest death list in days.”
The article reported that “Twelve deaths have occurred since Saturday noon to swell the toll taken in Middletown by the Spanish influenza epidemic...This number brings the total since the malady began its course in Middletown to 74…”
Two local households were particularly hard hit, the newspaper wrote. The home of Emerison (sic) Walker “was visited for the second time by death from pneumonia…” and “The three sisters of Miss Irene Kane, who died from pneumonia, are all bedfast with influenza...”
A sampling of local headlines told the sad stories:
October 21, 1918 -- “Epidemic claims 14 more lives; Total is now 33”
October 26, 1918 : “Crest of influenza epidemic is now believed passed” ; “Death toll now is 62 ; Two deaths since yesterday”-- “Fatalities resulting from epidemic in past week number 30 -- A few new cases reported” and “Generous spirit shown in sending food to patients.”
October 28, 1918 :“Twelve die during week-end as epidemic result -- Influenza toll now reaches 74; Still new cases”
October 30, 1918 : “Five additional deaths -- Epidemic situation, however, at both hospitals seems improved”
October 31, 1918 : “Epidemic is on decline -- “No new cases of pneumonia at City Hospital -- Two deaths”
November 4, 1918 (seven days before the signing of the Armistice that ended WWI) : “Epidemic toll is 102 -- Three additional deaths reported -- only eleven cases at Elks’ Temple” (See FYI below)
Like individuals and families, local businesses were not immune to the dangers of influenza.
Armco Steel in Middletown was among them. According to the “Armco Bulletin” of November 1918, Armco and its employees “suffered greatly from the epidemic of influenza, which like a pall settled down on our community. Nineteen Armco men and many wives and children of Armco people have died from it. The heart of every member of the organization goes out to those who have suffered the loss of a dear one…”
Although the invisible enemy took its toll, Armco employees stepped up and fought back:
“Never before has Armco spirit shown to better advantage than during this time…In order to keep up the production of material on Government orders, many men worked a second turn in the place of a ‘buddy’ who was sick or called home on account of sickness. That is service -- that is Armco Spirit exemplified.” (3)
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, servicemen from this area were kept apprised of the latest news back home thanks to letters they received from friends and relatives. Sadly, sickness and death were frequent topics.
Such was the case with a letter written by then-Armco President and Founder George M. Verity to Sgt. Newman Ebersole, who was serving in France as a member of the Armco Ambulance Corps. The Corps consisted of Armco employees who volunteered to assist the wounded in war-torn France.
Verity’s letter, dated September 28, 1918, reported the “sudden taking away of our dear little Peggy Ames Gardner” (Mrs. Colin Gardner), who contracted “cold and grippe [influenza]” after caring for her sick child.
“You will soon begin to think that tragedies are as frequent at home as in war-ridden France…,” Verity wrote.
[To read more correspondence from George M. Verity and the Armco Ambulance Corps regarding influenza go to : http://www.midpointedigitalarchives.org/digital/collection/p16488coll15/search/searchterm/influenza ]
Those who died of pneumonia/influenza circa World War I were listed in a special Middletown Journal column entitled “These Dead of Malady.”
The column provided a quick way to learn the identities of the flu’s latest victims. It represented just another way Americans coped with the sad, difficult hand they were dealt.
After all, confronting tragedy head-on has always been the American way.
(1)The Deadly Virus : The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/
(2)The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919”. Published in 2010 by The National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2862337/
(3) Armco Bulletin, November 1918. Available for reading at MidPointe Library-Middletown by request or on www.ohiomemory.org.