Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Lois E Johnson
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Glimpse into 1918: Flu epidemic spreads


September 20, 2018

Editor’s Note: World War I was raging in Europe in 1918 but another threat to human life was starting to rear its head in September. The Spanish Influenza Pandemic started to spread throughout the world.

A soldier burned a pile of manure in Fort Riley, Kansas, early in 1918. The wind came up and a dark cloud lifted into the air. (Other sources credited the origins of the flu in China.)

There were 100 cases of the Spanish influenza the next day and 500 by the end of the week. Soldiers died at Fort Riley but then the sickness disappeared.

The soldiers were sent to Europe to fight in the war. Some came from Fort Riley and carried the flu with them. The sickness reappeared in Europe in the American, British and French soldiers.

When the soldiers brought the flu back across the Atlantic Ocean to America, it had become a relentless killer. Sixty-three men died at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. When the doctors saw the patients, their faces had a bluish cast. Autopsies showed fluid-filled, swollen lungs. The disease was found to be influenza but it was unlike any other ever seen.

The soldiers carried the flu from base to base as they were transferred. One case became 10,000 cases. The flu spread across the country and took the lives of young and strong adults. They could be healthy in the morning and dead by night. It was happening too fast.

No one knew what had caused the epidemic. Crowds continued to gather to support the war, and, unknowingly, the disease. Hospitals overflowed, coffins were hurriedly built and graves dug.

The epidemic was now a national crisis.

People were wearing masks. They thought that they were safe but the masks were thin and porous. All public gatherings were banned but the death toll kept rising.

Congress granted one million dollars for research. One biochemist found a solution and made a vaccine but the vaccine didn’t stop the flu. It was thought to be caused by bacteria but the real cause was a virus. Not much was known about viruses at the time. And the equipment used, such as microscopes, were primitive compared to modern standards. Medical science failed to find a cure.

People turned to folk remedies and quick fixes and pursued them in desperation. They mixed turpentine with sugar or kerosene with sugar. They mixed the foul-smelling concoctions with honey to make it edible. People had the thought that it couldn’t do any harm and it might do some good. They had to do something, even if it was wrong.

In the month of September, 12,000 people died. October was the cruelest month.

The influenza epidemic became so bad that friends that you went to school with died. Relatives died. Kids played with other kids and one would get sick right after.

The flu spread to the Indian reservations. When one died, they would all gather around the body as was their tradition. And then everyone would get the flu. No one was immune.

In Europe, the flu was devastating. At one point, 70,000 American soldiers were sick. In some units, the flu killed 80 percent of the men.

People were afraid to talk to each other. They never knew who would be next. The flu destroyed the intimacy between people. Rural cohesiveness was destroyed. Morality broke down.

By November, the flu disappeared from Washington. On Nov. 11, 1918, the Armistice was signed, ending World War I.

People wore masks on the streets as they celebrated. The survivors developed immunity.

The flu had killed more than 550,000 people in the United States in 10 months, more than those killed in all wars. It had infected 500 million people around the world and resulted in the deaths of 50 to 100 million, three to five present of the world’s population.

Source: American Experience, PBS

The flu spread through the local area in October and took 106 lives.


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