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100 years ago, ‘Spanish flu’ swept through city

December 2, 2018
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Lori Wolfe/The Herald-Dispatch Museum curator Edward Dzierzak talks about treatment methods for the 1918 influenza outbreak during a tour of the Touma Medical Museum on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, in Huntington.

HUNTINGTON - The aftermath of World War I still dominated the headlines in the United States exactly 100 years ago, but reveling in the glory of American dominance a world away belied the unprecedented suffering at home.

Huntington’s two daily newspapers in 1918 - The Herald-Dispatch and the Huntington Advertiser - played the same formula mimicked across the country; the front pages screamed with the final days of the German “hun” in bold-faced type.

But the clear and present danger for the American public - the reason for all the dirt moving at Spring Hill Cemetery that autumn - was Spanish influenza, and the Tri-State’s portion of the world’s worst global pandemic since the Black Plague.

From January 1918 through 1920, an estimated 500 million people were infected with the disease worldwide. It reached every corner of the globe, decimating even the most isolated settlements in the Pacific and in the Arctic.

It’s estimated the virus contributed to the deaths of between 50 million and 100 million worldwide, representing between 3 percent and 5 percent of the world’s population.

In the United States, the flu may have struck as many as 30 percent of the nation’s population, killing more than 500,000 people. It is the second deadliest event in American history, behind only the Civil War, and alone dropped the nation’s life expectancy by 12 years.

“Spanish” flu is a misnomer, and the strain is theorized to have actually developed in Kansas. Because newspapers on both sides of World War I censored most early news of the outbreak for the sake of public morale, Spain, which remained neutral, freely reported on influenza, giving the impression it had originated there.

America’s troop mobilization in World War I spread the disease across the country and eventually into Europe once deployed. Stateside military encampments, with their crowded and often unsanitary quarters, became hotbeds of disease.

The first cases were thought to have developed among soldiers at Fort Riley, Kansas, around March 1918. Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio, suffered an astonishing 1,777 deaths due to influenza that year - the bodies of soldiers grimly “stacked like cordwood” outside the morgue. In Maryland, Camp Meade reported 77 deaths in just one 24-hour period, including 19 soldiers from West Virginia.

An estimated 43,000 U.S. soldiers died due to the virus, roughly half of those who were killed in action in Europe.

Pandemic at the doorstep

On Oct. 2, 1918, Huntington’s newspapers reported three soldiers from the city had died of the virus while stationed elsewhere. Authorities at the time suspected the disease was being spread along the railroad, from town to town.

Two days later, Mrs. Kyle Testament died at her home on 135 E. 4th Ave. - the first reported flu death in Huntington. The next day, 23-year-old Kennedy Baumgarner died at his home in Pea Ridge, outside Barboursville.

On Oct. 8, the city health commission acted on an order by the West Virginia superintendent of health, closing “the public schools, Marshall College, all theaters, revival meetings, billiard parlors, dance halls and other crowded places.” All cases were to be recorded, and all affected individuals were to be quarantined.

The virus grabbed its first headline in the Huntington papers on Oct. 12: “Influenza As Yet Unchecked.” At this point, hundreds of new infections were happening in the city each day.

Still, news of the epidemic was mostly pushed behind the front pages - reserved for the waning days of World War I. It was relegated to social and personal pages inside the paper, precursors to today’s obituaries. The daily death toll read with last names and addresses familiar to any current Huntington resident:

“Stanley. 708 8th St.

Davis. 1722 4th Ave.

Chapman. 2948 8th Ave.

Ferguson. 126 6th St.”

The Huntington Advertiser’s social pages also kept up and reported which citizens were sick and which were recovering from the disease:

“J.D. Boone, who has been among the many ‘flue’ victims, is able to be out.”

“Miss Gatha Sharp is ill at her home, 416 8th Ave., with influenza.”

Deaths and circumstances often became stories themselves. One article from the Huntington Advertiser told of Lyle Mahan, a 26-year-old soldier from 646 Washington Ave. Drafted from the family’s home in the West End, Mahan died at sea en route to France on Oct. 15.

His sister, who had just returned to town from wishing Mahan off in New York City, died of the flu on Oct. 19 in Huntington.

That same day, The Herald-Dispatch reported the death of Huntington Mayor Leon Wiles, who had been nursing his wife and two children when he himself became ill. The virus led to pneumonia, which led to his death that week.

Even the advertisements in the paper told of the times. Local “druggists” warned the pandemic had cleared their stock of Vicks VapoRub. Local markets advertised their meats, particularly pork, had been properly inspected for the virus.

The disease spread, and the city’s hospitals and clinics were quickly at capacity, pressing the Salvation Army’s Citadel into service to house patients.

Red Cross volunteers made and passed out gauze face masks to be worn by doctors and nurses. Boy Scout troops pitched in, running medicine from pharmacies to patients.

The Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. asked the public to reserve phone calls for emergencies only - much of their operators had contracted the flu themselves. Nurses were promised free meals for their extended service. Early automobiles were volunteered to help transport patients and physicians.

Many of the dead were buried at Spring Hill Cemetery without funeral rites due to the highly contagious nature of the disease, as was the case during a smallpox outbreak in 1903. It’s possible some of the victims were buried there in mass graves.

Physicians and nurses were overwhelmed, and accurate records were not kept, but an estimated 3,000 people in Huntington became infected.

Nearly 200 had died before the pandemic phased out of the city’s roughly 50,000 citizens five weeks later in mid-November.

In all, more than 71,000 West Virginians contracted influenza between Oct. 15 and Nov. 15, and 2,818 are reported to have died - accounting for one-fourth of all deaths reported in the Mountain State in 1918.

Understanding the outbreak 100 years later

Though stocked with a hospital’s worth of medications and instruments - a testament to the medical capabilities at the time - nothing in Marshall University’s Touma Medical Museum would have been able to prevent or cure the Spanish flu outbreak, curator Edward Dzierzak noted. The physicians at the time had limited resources and even less understanding of the virus.

“They did best-guess things, and their best guess was not much,” Dzierzak said.

What made the disease particularly terrifying at the time was it infected a disproportionate number of otherwise healthy, younger people, rather than the very young or the very old.

Nearly half of all deaths were of those between ages 20 and 40 years old, contributing to the “Lost Generation” killed during World War I.

There’s no single reason the 1918 outbreak was so deadly, but the key factor is that particular “Type-A” strain of influenza had no immunity in certain sectors of the worldwide population, said Dr. Terry Fenger, professor emeritus at Marshall University and former director of the Forensic Science Center.

That particular strain, H1N1, reappeared very publicly in 2009 as the “swine flu,” affecting millions across the country.

The virus made victims vulnerable to a severe secondary bacterial infection of pneumonia, which likely killed a number comparable to the flu itself.

But what set the 1918 outbreak apart from anything in modern times is the current availability of vaccinations, Fenger said. Though modern vaccines are still a bit of guesswork on which strain will hit that year, most shots include serums for two Type-A strains and at least one Type-B strain.

“The real problem was there were no vaccinations back in those times,” Fenger said. “Nowadays we have the influenza vaccines, and that’s critical in curtailing these infections.”

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