1918-1919 Influenza and Your Ancestors

There it was all around, no escaping the newspaper headlines, the talk on the neighborhood corner or family dinners at the table. It was the early fall season of 1918 and not a tremendous amount to be very cheerful about by citizens across America. The nation had been “over there”, in Europe fighting the Germans since the United States declared war in April 1917 in support of the Allies. A year since that declaration had seen Americans switch manufacturing in support of the war effort and many hometown sons had died in that last year.

By March of 1918 unusually high numbers of soldiers were dying while in their training camps in the States. There appeared an outbreak of influenza starting in Kansas among the soldiers in their close quarters at the military camps. Not much was written in the big national newspapers, just a few articles in the smaller papers close to the military encampments but no one seemed very concerned. That apathy and indifference quickly changed a mere four months later.

The newspaper headlines of September through October of 1918 did not really speak of was foremost on individual’s minds, the one actual event that was striking close to home. Newspaper headlines covered what was happening with the war and the efforts by President Woodrow Wilson to end the fighting in Europe. Throughout the cities, the small towns and the rural habitats across America there was genuine fear, anxiety and near panic among men and women, young and old alike. Their trepidation was not for the war an ocean away, but for something in their own backyard.

Beginning in Boston in September of 1918, soldiers, returning from earlier fighting in Europe, were becoming ill due to another outbreak of influenza and this time the civilian population was coming down with the illness in huge numbers. The incubation period and length of the course of disease appeared relatively short; many times it was only a matter of hours from the first symptoms to a person’s death. The disease appeared to spread extremely quickly along the major railroads lines; from Boston to New York City to Philadelphia and beyond.

By October 1918, the epidemic was full blown across America. It was named the “Spanish Flu” or “Spanish Lady” due to uncensored reports from Spain of the massive number of deaths earlier in the year of their citizens due to this uncontrollable disease. The medical community was overworked and shorthanded with little or no provisions from the Federal Government. Even the newspapers only seemed to be interested in reporting on the war rather than what was happening in their own communities. However, ordinary citizens knew they now had their own “war” at home to combat to save their friends, their family and themselves. America had suddenly become a nation griped with fear with seemingly very few resources to turn to for assistance.

Many people died within the first few days after infection, and others died of complications later. Most deaths occurred in the young and healthy persons between ages of 15 and 35 including some 40,000 young healthy US soldiers. In October 1918 alone some 200,000 Americans died (about 25% – 28% of population). The disease was in 46 states with Philadelphia, PA being the hardest hit with 4,600 people dying in the month of October, 1918.

This major event must have had an impact on most or all of your ancestors, whether they lived in the United States or elsewhere. If you have a relative you can’t seem to locate after 1918 or 1919, this may be the reason. Don’t expect to locate an OBIT or even death records. With so many deaths in a short time the government, churches, funeral homes and newspapers could not keep up.

The University of Michigan has created an Influenza Encyclopedia (available online) with some 16,000 documents and photos to give you a clearer picture what it was like for our ancestors during that period. There is a search or follow the topics of people, cities, places and subjects. Reviewing the news articles and documents of the day can provide you with a sense of their fear. Near the top right is a gallery of photos to view also.

Photo: A New York City police officer wears a flu mask while on duty, October 7, 1918.

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