With the flu season approaching, I thought it would be worth telling the story of an unusually virulent disease that marched into our town nearly 100 years ago – the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919. (An epidemic is the widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community; if it spreads to a really large area, say several continents or worldwide, it’s called a pandemic).
We’ve had epidemics of contagious diseases in Clarkson before and since – scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles, mumps, and the continuing annual visits of the flu viruses. But none was as devastating as the Spanish Influenza pandemic, which killed 20-40 million people worldwide (more than the number killed in World War I), as many as 7,500 Nebraskans, and quite a few people in the Clarkson area. More people died of the Spanish Flu in a single year than in four years of the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) that swept the globe from 1347 to 1351.
Victims of the Spanish flu exhibited the usual flu symptoms of fever, nausea, aches and diarrhea. However, the symptoms were often extreme, and for some in a day or two were accompanied by nasal hemorrhages, signaling the development of a severe secondary infection – pneumonia. Dark spots would appear on the cheeks and patients would turn blue, suffocating from a lack of oxygen as lungs filled with a frothy, bloody substance. Onset of the serious symptoms was often very rapid – many incidents of people dropping in the streets were recorded.
The other unusual thing about the Spanish flu was the age of the people it killed. The highest mortalities in most influenza epidemics occur among the very young and the very old. In the case of the Spanish flu pandemic, an unusually large number of young, healthy adults also died – the very people who are supposed to have the highest survival rate. Their lack of immunity had particularly dire consequences in 1918, the fourth year of The Great War. Many thousands of young men were facing each other in the trenches or closely quartered in military training camps around the world (one of the largest was Camp Funston/Fort Riley in Kansas). In addition, millions of civilians in Europe and elsewhere were malnourished because of the hardships of war. All of these people were especially vulnerable to a contagious disease.
Death rates by age from epidemic diseases from 1911-1917 and in 1918. Notice the high death rate among 20- and 30-year olds in 1918. Source: Taubenberger and Morens (2006).
[Incidentally, the Spanish Flu did not originate in Spain. Because the disease broke out in wartime, information on the seriousness of the disease was censored in the U.S., Britain, France, and Germany in order to keep public morale high. Neutral Spain published stories about the seriousness of the epidemic in their country, and for their honesty they were awarded the name “Spanish Flu” for all time. In fact, it is still not known where the global contagion originated, but one of the leading contenders is a much closer locale… Kansas.]
Soldiers being treated for Spanish flu in a hospital ward in Camp Funston, Kansas
Like most contagious diseases, the Spanish flu thrived and spread where humans are densely crowded together – in military camps, large cities, tenements, subways, schools, etc. Naturally it was big problem for New York and Chicago. But did the pandemic find our quiet little village and the surrounding pastoral scenery, dotted with widely separated family farms? You bet! The last time I was in town I spent a couple of hours in the library, poring over their microfilm collection of old issues of The Colfax County Press and The Clarkson Herald Consolidated (CCP), to ascertain the course of the disease in Colfax County. In the last three months of 1918, the paper devoted a lot of ink to informing their readers about the ravages of the Spanish flu epidemic in the area.
The first report of the disease in the CCP was a brief note in the October 3, 1918 issue that Robert Coufal of Schuyler had died of Spanish flu while serving at the Great Lakes Training School (the U.S. Navy’s boot camp in Illinois). Otherwise, life went on as usual – the greatest concern in the pages of the Press was the status of our young men training and going overseas to fight in the Great War.
Then, a week later, the seriousness of the hometown pandemic was becoming clear. The October 10, 1918 CCP had 7 stories on the front page, including: “Clarkson Declares War on the Spanish Flu,” “Failing to Report on Flu Subjects to a Fine,” “Fourth Colfax County Boy Victim of Flu,” “First Victim of Spanish Influenza Dead at Howells,” and “Influenza Claims Another Colfax County Soldier Boy.” Here are a few excerpts from these stories.
Clarkson Declares War on the Spanish Flu – City authorities have requested the populace to discourage all unnecessary public meetings to prevent the spread of influenza. Shows, dances, churches, and all public gatherings will be eliminated from now on until Monday, October 21. The Clarkson schools close tomorrow and will continue closed until the revocation of the restriction. Although there are only two or three cases reported in town, precautions are taken afore hand and it is expected that the malady will be under control in a very few days… Schuyler and Howells are reported to have also joined the insurgent ranks and their inhabitants are doing all in their power to prevent the spread of the epidemic.
A Proclamation by the Chairman of the Village Board of Clarkson, F.W. Noh, closed all places where people congregate for 12 days, beginning October 11, 1918 at 6 PM and lasting until Monday, October 21 until 7 PM. This included churches, picture shows, dance halls, city hall band practices, and the public library. Soft drink parlors (remember, this was during Prohibition) were allowed to stay open if they insisted that people leave as soon as they had been served.
Failing to Report on Flu Subjects to a Fine – Dr. F.J. Kalal, member of the Board of Health, is in receipt of a communication from the State Department of Health, which in part reads as follows: … While it is not compulsory that people call a physician, still if no physician is employed, it is the duty of the family to report the disease to the local board of health, and anyone failing to report is to be prosecuted, and upon conviction, fined not less than fifteen nor more than one hundred dollars.
Fourth Colfax County Boy Victim of Flu – John McClary is the fourth boy from Colfax County to lay down his life for his country through that German ally Spanish flu. McClary died at Great Lakes, Ill, October 5.
First Victim of Spanish Influenza Dead at Howells – Mrs. Henry Schlautmann passed away at the family home north of Howells early Saturday morning, having been ill but a few days with influenza… [Her marriage] was blessed by nine children… The deceased is also mourned by seven sisters…
Howells Village Chairman Hrabak issued a proclamation this week whereby he declares all places where people congregate in numbers to be closed until Saturday, October 12. The order includes picture shows, churches, Sunday schools, city hall band practices, and all other places where people collect in buildings. In closing the schools, the Board of Health wants the parents to keep the children at home and in their own yard during this week; however, boys large enough to shuck corn or to do manual labor may use this week to good advantage.
Influenza Claims Another Colfax County Soldier Boy – Mr. and Mrs. Anton Stepanek, farming the Frank Bazata farm place northeast of Howells, received a telegram from Camp Funston, Kansas which conveyed the sad news of the death of their son, Frank, aged 24, who died from Spanish influenza.
The next week’s issue of the CCP (October 17, 1918) announced the deaths from Spanish flu of six Colfax County people– Charles Floyd Sucha (in Camp Custer, Michigan), Milo Horak (in Camp Joseph E. Johnston, Florida), William Engel (of Richland), Walter Ernst (of Shell Creek, who died at Fort Sheridan, Illinois), Martin Heavican, Jr. (at Camp Funston, Kansas), and Miss Emily Luxa (in Omaha). All were young adults when they were stricken by the flu, quickly developed pneumonia, and died. In addition, Mrs. Mary Tomes of Clarkson died while staying with her children in Boulder, Colorado; her children were unable to accompany her body back home for the funeral because they were all laid up with the Spanish flu.
Although no new cases of flu were reported in Clarkson, public meeting places were closed for another week, until October 28, because many new cases were being reported from the rural districts. By Monday, October 23, the state board of health had an order quarantining the entire state of Nebraska for Spanish influenza. Because of the large numbers of deaths, and the refusal of people to go to bed soon enough and attempting to get out of bed too soon, the board ordered that “all gatherings of people be dispensed with, within doors and without, that the schools of the state be closed, and that, so far as practicable, the children be kept at home… until November 2, 1918 or further notice.”
The State of Nebraska had been shut down.
And children began skipping rope to this morbid little verse:
At this point, a discussion began about whether the teachers should receive pay during the time that the schools were closed for the quarantine – “Since the closing of the schools on account of the influenza epidemic, confusion has arisen among the teachers as to their salary. Some are of the opinion that since they hold themselves in readiness they should receive their full salary. The following extract from state law is self-explanatory: When the school board closes the schools teachers can draw their salaries, but when they are closed by the state board of health the teachers cannot get pay, unless the board desires to do so. It is up to the school board. This does not affect contracts which may be enforced regardless of the closing of the school.” [Although legally the school board was not required to pay the teachers for the days lost to the school closings, ultimately the Clarkson school board decided to allow the local teachers their pay for half the idle period, with an effort made to make up the lost time with longer hours, extra sessions on Saturday, and shorter vacation periods.]
In the coming days, more Spanish flu deaths were reported: 27-year-old Emil Bartos at Camp Funston, Kansas, 26-year-old Jerry Knapp at his home in the Wilson precinct, 20-year-old Rudolph Kmoch of Neligh, and Rudolph Pabian, who had just moved from Clarkson to Prague, NE. Mrs. Frank Vanicek traveled to Camps Dodge and Funston to see her sons Frank and Charles, both of whom were ill with Spanish influenza (both eventually recovered). Most heartbreaking was the death of Frank Kacin Jr. of Clarkson. When Frank received the news that his brother Joseph Kacin had died on the battlefield in France, he hurried on foot through snow to his parents’ farm home to inform them. Frank contracted the flu which developed into pneumonia. He died a few days later, leaving behind a young wife and two small children.
By late November, 1918, the epidemic appeared to be waning. Although flu cases continued to be reported, the CCP allowed itself a little gallows humor when it announced “If the flu doesn’t get us by that time, the next issue of The Press will be published a day earlier owing to the fact that Thanksgiving Day comes on Thursday.” Also, the Clarkson Hook and Ladder Co. planned to have their 21st Annual Thanksgiving ball on the eve of Thursday, November 28… “The Jirovec orchestra has been engaged to furnish music for the occasion. Do not let the flu scare keep you away.”
In month of December, the CCP reported the deaths of Ed Wolff of Monterey, 28-year-old Joseph Kasik of Leigh, 33-year-old Emil Dudek of Neligh, Henry Kolm of Schuyler, and Olga (Mrs. Jerry) Pacas of rural Clarkson, all from the Spanish flu complicated by pneumonia. Nonetheless, the CCP concluded on December 19 that the epidemic was subsiding. “One of the most encouraging items we are publishing this week is that the influenza rage at Clarkson is on the verge of a total wipe out. Owing to the strict restrictions taken by city authorities in quarantining the flu patients, the plague has been greatly subdued and we hope it is a matter of only a few days when the epidemic will be done away with altogether. It is reported at this writing that there are only six cases in town and those are only of a mild form. “
On December 26, 1918, The Press reported that “The influenza scourge in Clarkson has vanished. Tuesday it was reported that the illness was checked altogether, but later a new case was turned in, the afflicted family residing in the extreme south part of town. This is the only case in town, and the authorities are of the opinion that there is no danger of having the epidemic return in serious form. Lately it was stated by a neighboring paper that Clarkson had more flu cases than any other town of its size in the state which statement is an utter falsehood. Anything that was ever given out relative to the flu situation in this city was always based in an authentic foundation. A misrepresentation of facts by the ambitious editor if anything is suicidal to the community and a very frail incentive for seeking trade.”
The threat of Spanish flu was not quite over, but in fact the incidence of flu-related mortality in Clarkson seemed to follow the same pattern as the rest of the world – there was a sharp spike in deaths in late October and November 1918 which tapered off by Christmas:
Area people were still dying from the Spanish flu, complicated by pneumonia. In early January, 1919 Carl Reinnecius, 21, eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. William Reinnecius, living northwest of Leigh, died after a brief illness with Spanish influenza. On January 9, 1919, it was reported that Dr. H.D. Myers placed the following homes under quarantine, the families being afflicted with influenza: Louis Vrtatko, Louis Vondruska, Anton Kucera and Lada Prazak. These all lived in the northward section and that section has not yet had a visitation of the disease. The January 23, 1919 issue of the CCP reported that 35-year-old Anton Kander of the Haymow locality (12 miles northeast of Clarkson) died of Spanish flu/pneumonia, leaving behind a grief-stricken wife and four small children. A young wife, Mrs. Aaron Henry, died in her Leigh home. And Charles Drabe, a pioneer of Stanton County and once a wealthy land owner of that county, was found dead in a house which he occupied alone in the east part of town. It was believed that he died of complications of influenza, from which he suffered some weeks earlier.
But for the most part, life began to return to normal – articles in the Press focused on celebrations for our returning victorious servicemen; disbanding of the home guards and other war-related activities; land, crop, and livestock sales; the proposal to erect a new grain elevator in Clarkson; and the prosecution of moonshiners and bootleggers… “Two Schuyler anti-prohibitionists faced the obdurate Judge Wells charged with imbibing too much flu medicine of a preventative nature. His Honor, knowing the exigencies of the epidemic, was inclined to be lenient. But a whiff of the tainted rye reached His Honor during arguments which bore the label ‘Not Bottled in Bond.’ The joy of the wet disciples was turned to prohibition sorrow by the Judge’s sad remarks, ‘Ten and costs!’ … Seven Schuyler and Colfax County lads drank the dregs of prohibition Saturday evening last and paid the price thereof. For months there has been a steady flow of ‘Old Taylor,’ ‘Crow Clarks,’ and ‘Yellowstone’ into Colfax County in such quantities and to such an extent that the city and county authorities decided on a cleanup. Alias John Doe drew the modest penalty of $111.85 before Judge Fiala Monday morning for selling one pint of this fiery craze producer and man-killer for $6, according to the tale of John McCready who turned states evidence. The concoction sold him had a kick unknown in the days of old, when All. K. Haul was king, as he knew no more after one draught of his priceless flask. From reports, this new satanic beverage has all the powers of TNT and would place dynamite on the discarded pile. Two drew fines of $32.50 for being slightly under the weather and two who were up as second offenders were given the choice of 35 days or squealing.” (Colfax County Press, January 23, 1919).
Our Town has been visited by epidemics and even pandemics since then, e.g., the Asian flu in 1957-58 (2 million dead globally) and the Hong Kong flu in 1968-69 (1 million dead). You remember polio, don’t you? But none has had so grievous an effect as the Spanish flu. In 2009, a swine flu virus similar to the Spanish flu emerged in North America. This time, public health officials were knowledgeable and ready – a variety of measures (vaccinations, travel limitations, improved treatment of sick patients), stopped the pandemic before it fully developed, and estimated deaths worldwide were less than 15,000. Similarly, an outbreak of avian flu in 2015 was halted by quick action. Modern medicine and public health interventions have put a lid on contagions that could be as devastating as the one we experienced a century ago. Thus far.
So, have you had your annual flu shot yet? Don’t wait too long, or you may be singing the blues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nrl0-PYnOiI
Reconstructed Spanish Influenza virus
Much of the general information and pictures were taken from the Wikipedia articles related to the 1918, 2009, and 2015 influenza pandemics. Also, see
Taubenberger, J.K. and David M. Morens 2006. 1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics. Reviews in Biomedicine 17:69-79.
Watkins, K. 2015. It Came Across the Plains: The 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Rural Nebraska. University of Nebraska Medical Center Theses & Dissertations, Paper 42. 99 p. http://digitalcommons.unmc.edu/etd/42/ (This interesting paper summarizes the effects of the Spanish flu in Nebraska, and describes the experience of five small- to mid-sized Nebraska cities, including Wayne)