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Grandma and the 1918 Flu Epidemic

Posted on: August 28, 2011

Grandma told me about the terrible Flu that nearly killed them all in October of 1918. (The picture was taken in 1916.) She and Pop, along with my dad (5yrs) and his brother Harry (2yrs) lay on pallets around the coal stove, too sick to do any more than add a lump of coal to the fire when needed. A couple of hired hands, stricken with the illness, lay in the room also. One hired hand, Red Mallory, didn’t get it and left. Every day Aunt Em came in her wagon pulled by a white mule and left a pot of soup on the doorstep. Grandma described crawling around and spooning it to everyone. Grandma said Aunt Em’s daughter, Margaret, (19yrs) died of the flu and they were all too sick to attend her funeral. Grandma said you couldn’t get anyone to come and help, because they either had it too, or were so afraid of contracting it. It’s had to imagine being so sick and having to pump your own water and heat it, chop wood, and feed coal into a stove. The doctor came to the house and said Grandma might live, but would probably never walk again. When it finally passed, Grandma could walk but was completely bald. She crocheted white lace caps  to wear until her hair grew back. She said one day, a year or two later, they were all having Sunday dinner, and Red Mallory came to the door. He opened it and threw his hat into the room, a way of asking if he were welcome. Grandma said she got up, picked up his hat, threw it out the door, and called to him: “You’re not welcome here anymore, Red. You left us when we needed you so bad.” And that was the last they ever saw of Red Mallory.

Military Hospital in KS

I decided to do some research on the flu of 1918 and was shocked to find it recorded as the worst global disaster in history, killing an estimated 50-100 million people, mostly young adults. It was called “The Spanish Flu” because it started in  Spain in May, killing 8 million. WWI enabled it to spread and diffuse. Men from across the nation came together and brought the flu with them. It struck first in Kansas in a military camp. Symptoms were hemorrhage from nose , stomach, and intestines. The majority of deaths came from bacterial pneumonia, a secondary infection caused by influenzia. Pres. Wilson had just given his 14pt. address. and was sick at the time. An estimated  675,000 Americans died from it. One quarter of Americans were infected and one fifth of the world population, from Alaska to Africa and islands of Japan. 17 million died in India. The government required mailmen to wear gauze masks. Railroads and streetcars wouldn’t allow unmasked passengers. Cities dug mass graves without coffins for victims. Funerals were limited to 15 min. and stores were not allowed to hold sales. Some cities closed all stores and required customers to leave orders outside. Health care workers and grave diggers were too ill to work. The Indiana State Board of Health issued an order closing schools, churches, libraries, and theaters. No public meetings were allowed. Homes with flu patients were marked with placards and Indianapolis required those who left home to wear masks.
I interviewed some seniors in my community and learned that some local churches only allowed outdoor funeral services. One man told me the local funeral home had so many bodies they actually stood them up against the walls until they could get caskets ready.
I wonder if history books brushed lightly over this part of our country’s story, or if I were asleep when it was taught.

NYC Mailman


4 Responses to "Grandma and the 1918 Flu Epidemic"

I didn’t know about it, but my husband claims he remembers hearing his grandparents talk about it. Think I’ll ask my grandma next time I see her.

My maternal grandmother, Elva Wray, talked about the 1918 Flu Epidemic. Her entire family was very ill. I don’t know how many children there were at this time, but there were a few. She did have 13 brothers and sisters living in a log cabin in the Missouri Ozarks. Anyway, she lost one brother to the flu, who was around 13 years old. Grandma was very close to that brother and talked fondly of him often.

Someone emailed me that his dad suffered from the flu of 1918 as a 13 yr. old in Maryland. He said all the schools in Maryland closed for the year.

A woman in my community emailed me that her parents spoke of it and that a family near them lost all five of their sons to the Flu of 1918.

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