Between January 1918 and December 1920 the Spanish Flu pandemic infected some 500 million people worldwide, It is estimated that 27% of the world’s population got the illness. In the U.S. alone between 500,000 and 600,000 died. A look at the nation’s newspapers of that era gives us a hint at how Americans reacted to a worldwide pandemic 100 years ago.
We’ve all got news pushes on our phones in recent days that read a lot like this report in the Anadarko, Okla., American-Democrat (Oct. 19, 1918):
“Mayor Duncan, after a consultation with the physicians and board of education, decided, in view of the conditions brought about by the invasion of the Spanish influenza, that it would best conserve the public health if the schools and theatres, churches and other places of gatherings, be closed until the epidemic is checked or entirely wiped out. It is probable they will remain closed until the danger is past.”
Bars were apparently the last to go. That raised some eyebrows at a time when the temperance movement was growing in the U.S. The Akron (Ohio) Evening Time of Oct. 18, 1918, made note of that:
“Cigar stores, poolrooms, clubs and churches are rigidly obeying health orders on holding meetings. The feeling against permitting saloons to remain open is daily growing stronger since people cannot see the justice of permitting them to remain open when churches are forced to be closed.”
When a celebrity catches the illness it is news. In 2020, we’ve got Tom Hanks. In 1918, the Wilmington (Del.) Evening Journal (Oct. 17) reported even bigger news:
“George (Babe) Ruth, batting ace of the World’s Champion Boston Red Sox, is a sufferer with Spanish influenza at his home in Baltimore. At the close of the baseball season, Ruth accepted essential employment at the Lebanon plant of the Bethlehem Company, and became a member of the Lebanon team, Bethlehem Steel League. Called to Baltimore on a business mission, he fell a victim of the scourge. His condition is reported as not serious.”
Much as we hear today, there were concerns about the capacity of hospitals to handle the pandemic. The Daily Oklahoman on Oct. 11, 1918 expressed that:
“On account of the overcrowded conditions the management of several local hospitals have requested the residents of the city, whenever possible, to keep Spanish ‘flu’ victims in their own homes for treatment. Several serious emergency cases that have come up within the past few days have from necessity been turned away.”
Here’s a remedy that most of you probably haven’t tried. On Oct. 10, 1918 the Knoxville (Tenn.) Journal and Tribune offered this advice from “one of the city’s leading (albeit unnamed) physicians:”
“Let everybody once or twice daily eat a little dry sulphur, not drinking any fluid for an hour afterward. Sulphur is an age old, and simple antiseptic.
“For taking care of discharges from the nose and mouth, nothing is so good as tissue paper, which should be collected in paper bags and burned.”
The Enid (Okla.) Daily News on Oct. 3, 1918 had another suggestion. (This was not identified as an ad, maybe an early version of native advertising.)
“Wilcox’s Cherokee herbs will put you in fine condition to ward off this new epidemic. It takes the coat off the tongue, knocks that bad cold out of the system; sweetens the breath; relieves biliousness, making the liver active; and for a bloating, sour stomach it has no equal; it acts on the blood, liver, stomach and kidneys.”
The Spanish flu had its deniers as well. The Wichita (Kan.) Beacon on Oct. 8, 1918 published this report:
“A Wichita physician (unnamed) says that what is known as ‘Spanish Influenza’ is nothing more nor less than a severe cold. ‘The present epidemic of so-called Spanish Flu would have been called bad or severe colds thirty years ago and it was then properly named
‘The present trouble very likely would have passed unnoticed if the again new name of Spanish Flu had not been heralded to the people.’”
I think Rush Limbaugh said roughly the same thing. By the way, Spanish flu is believed to have originated in Kansas.
And while Trump initially dismissed the coronavirus as a Democratic hoax, the Logansport (Ind.) Pharos-Tribune of Dec. 18, 1918, seemed to imply that the Bolsheviks were behind the pandemic:
“These pandemics are contemporary twins. Bolshevism is a mental malady just as Spanish Flu is a physical malady. These two, jointly and severally, have defied the wisdom of the wisest.
“Before either can be cured, the habitat, the fundamental cause, the breeding place, the condition which causes them must be located, cleansed and purified, and until this is done, Bolshevism will continue to send forth its mental miasma and Spanish Flu will pour forth its death dealing physical poison to trouble humanity.”
We have all read the stories of grass-roots capitalists looking to score a profit by hoarding disinfectant and other supplies. There were opportunists in 1918 as well. This so-called “personal ad” appeared in the Oct. 25, 1918 Spokane (Wash.) Chronicle:
The doctors have advised you And told you what to do In case you have the symptoms Of the grippe or Spanish "flu" You must avoid all kissing And sneezing in the air. But keep your hankie ready For the microbes that you spare. Before you get the Spanish "flu" Remember you'll save more On each fall SUIT, COAT, DRESS and HAT At the Florence Upstairs Store, 300 to 328 Fernwell
While the pandemic in Italy has given rise to a lot of music, the American newspaper industry in 1918 seemed to turn to poetry.
This is an excerpt from a poem that appeared in the Greenville (S.C.) News on Nov. 23, 1918. There’s no mention of an author, but it was “edited by Tramp’s Alley.”
The Spanish flu has got us going Oh what will happen next? For the Infirmary we go on just a slight pretext Of Spanish Flu, oh Spanish Flu The nursie says "oh come on girls And spray your nose," she says And when I turned around again There stood a germ by me 'Twas Spanish Flu, oh Spanish Flu Oh, we are quarantined, I guess For 'bout a million years But if we don't get out of here We'll burst right out in tears.
This poem appeared in the Knoxville (Ky.) Journal and Tribune on Oct. 13, 1918. It was written by Joe Bogle who is described as a “Knoxville negro.”
“Listen here, children,” said Deacon Brown, There's something new just struck dis town; And it's among the white and colored too, And I think they all call it de Spanish Flu. Dey say it starts right in the head; You begin to sneeze and your eyes turn red. You then have a tight feeling in your chest. And you cough at night and you just can't rest; Your head feels dizzy when you are on your feet; You go to your table and you just can't eat. And this ever happens to you, You just say you got the Spanish flu.