The Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918 and how it parallels COVID-19
On Nov. 19, 1918, Joe Nagler left his home in East Farmington and headed northeast, traveled through Hayward and on to Cable.
An easy two-hour drive today, the trip likely seemed a much bigger adventure in 1918. When Nagler reached Cable he turned straight east, and just outside of town reached the deer hunting camp that was his destination. Two days later he celebrated his 21st birthday.
Nagler had lived in Farmington all his life. He was the eldest son of Adolph Nagler and had spent his time helping his father on their farm outside town.
Adolph had lost his wife to illness in 1917 and Joe’s little brother Frank was killed in the spring of 1918 after the car he was riding in was hit by a train. Tragedy seemed to follow the family, and would call again before it was satisfied.
Sometime shortly after his birthday, Joe came down with influenza. The Spanish Influenza outbreak was raging across the world in the fall of 1918 and had already killed millions by the time Joe was infected. His flu quickly evolved into pneumonia and less than a week later on Thursday Nov. 26, 1918, Joe Nagler died at deer camp east of Cable.
“The boy was well known and well liked by all,” read the Osceola Sun on Dec. 5, 1918. “The bereaved father has had more than his fair share of trouble the past year and a half. He has the sympathy of the entire community.”
Small obituaries like this dotted the Sun’s front page regularly in the fall of 1918, as did public safety precautions and notices of canceled events. Together they warned the nation of an invisible enemy — and told the story of an epidemic not dissimilar from that the world faces today.
“Although the present epidemic is called ‘Spanish influenza,’ there is no reason to believe it originated in Spain,” read an article in the Sun in October 1918. “Some writers who have studied that question believe the epidemic came from the Orient.”
Scientists now know an H1N1 virus caused Spanish influenza, although the exact location of its origin is still debated. It was first identified by troops fighting overseas in World War One in the spring of 1918, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), although the same Sun article from October of that year states “the Germans mention the disease as occurring along the eastern front in the summer and fall of 1917.”
It’s estimated the epidemic killed over 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the United States. The virus peaked in October 1918 and killed an estimated 195,000 Americans that month alone, according to the CDC.
Coverage of the pandemic in the Sun was sporadic at best, sometimes completely nonexistent. A far cry from the media overload the country is experiencing today, most of the newspaper was still filled with the regular goings-on in the county — which ranged from news that “Mrs. Lewis Wurst of Farmington was a shopper in the village on Saturday” to advertisements by Mazer’s Tooth Specialty Department, offering $35 cash for old false teeth.
Obituaries were the most common reminder of the epidemic in the Sun. Between October and early December of 1918, the paper noted at least 11 deaths from influenza, including Joe Nagler. It’s interesting to note most of these deaths came in November and December, as the Midwest felt the full force of the outbreak after it’d had already peaked in October, something middle America is bracing for right now.
“Osceola Girl died Monday at Prentice,” read a headline in the November 21 edition of the Sun, noting the death of Mrs. Vern Gilland.
Gilland was 22 years old when she died on the morning of November 18. Just like COVID-19, certain age groups were more vulnerable to the outbreak, only in the case of the Spanish Flu, 20-40 year olds were most likely to be killed, especially expectant mothers or those who’d just had a child.
Of the 11 deaths noted in the Sun, 10 were confirmed to be under the age of 30. Four of those were under the age of ten, including the newborn baby Gilland had just given birth to.
“She was ill from the time the child was born,” read the obituary. “And grew worse in a short time. The two bodies were brought to Osceola yesterday by the parents and will be laid to rest in the Lutheran Cemetery at Oak Grove.”
The parallels in how the disease was prevented are eerily similar to today. In a lengthy article titled “Uncle Sam’s advice on flu,” residents are urged to “keep out of crowds and stuffy places as much as possible” and to “spend some time outdoors each day.”
Spread of the flu within the home seemed a much bigger concern than it is today, as “overcrowded homes” are regularly referenced as being a major problem. The average size of a family was much larger than it is today — Mrs. Gilland’s obituary lists four brothers and seven sisters as surviving her.
Social distancing practices were put into place in 1918, but with much less regularity than today. Cities like New York and Philadelphia shut down completely, but many residents of Wisconsin seemed unwilling to stay home, or more likely unaware just how dangerous social interaction could be.
The Sun mentioned the meeting of the Odd Fellows, whatever that was, had been postponed “on account of all public gathering being suspended with the order to check the epidemic of Spanish Influenza,” but the paper continued to be filled with tidbits of news about visitors to town and folks traveling to Minneapolis and as far as Chicago.
The most egregious offender was Mr. Fred O. Barrett, who was of all things the editor of the newspaper. He set off in the middle of October 1918 on a week long vacation via train to see the sights of Eastern Wisconsin.
“It was the longest vacation I’ve had in seven years,” Barrett bragged in typical newsman fashion.
The final destination of his journey was Marinette, Wisc. and the article is filled with stories of sharing dining cars along the way, plush hotel rooms and some rather strange kind of military ball complete with two hours worth of dancing.
There’s a very distinct smell given off by old newspaper clippings. It’s the same smell old books in dusty antique stores have, except much, much stronger. The pages are coarse but incredibly fragile and sometimes feel almost like ash, ready to turn to dust in-between fingertips.
Yet the words remain the same, as poignant now as they were 102 years ago. In 1918 the country dealt with a pandemic and a world war at the same time. The suffering dealt by both is still on those pages and in those words today — a stark reminder to a country that had all but forgotten how quickly life can change.