As the coronavirus pandemic continues in its unrelenting strangle-hold on people’s lives, from the confines and comforts of home, I recalled a program I researched and presented years ago about the Spanish influenza epidemic in Greeley and Weld County. Although that information is filed in my currently inaccessible office, between memory and research, it is interesting to reflect upon Greeley’s response to the flu epidemic of 1918-1919.
Many years ago, I perused the Burial Registers at Greeley’s Linn Grove Cemetery, which list the cause of death of the deceased. As I recall, from October 1918 through March 1919, there were ca. 250 individuals who had died of influenza or “influenza-pneumonia”. The victims of the epidemic buried at Linn Grove were from Greeley or other Weld County towns.
The Greeley Tribune reported on the death of John Beem, October 12, 1918. Beem was born in Greeley in 1897, graduated from Greeley High School in 1915, married Ruth Gray on April 17, 1918, and was “receiving technical training for national army service” in Lincoln, NE where he died of influenza. He, too, is buried at Linn Grove Cemetery.
C. H. Wolfe, a reporter for the Greeley Tribune, and the Chairman of the Weld County War Council, submitted regular reports about the gauze and bandage work done by Red Cross volunteers in its rooms at the Weld County Courthouse, and later, Wolfe’s columns provided details about the influenza in Greeley.
An editorial in the November 7, 1918 Greeley Tribune carried a bold headline: BE HAPPY – SWAT THE FLU: He Is Just an Agent of the Kaiser and Should Be Dealt with Accordingly – Feed the Hungry and Clothe the Cold. The editorialist wasn’t happy about the “shut downs” in Greeley, and had this to say: “ If the Board of Health of the City Council had the nerve today to lift the ban on public meetings, if churches and theaters were permitted to reopen, and as much effort put in on relieving the people of their fears as is now put in on frightening the people, and then people would go and perform the simple humanitarian services for those who became helpless for a time, the whole epidemic would steal away as quietly and more rapidly than it came. In the same paper, C.H. Wolfe’s article, “Foolish Fear of Flu Shuts Out Sympathy–There is Really But Little or No Danger If a Few Common Sense Precautions Are Observed, Says Red Cross Head,” provided additional perspective. Wolfe feared that people were dying in Greeley from lack of care by neighbors, and that he himself was unexpectedly recruited as a pallbearer when neighbors refused to carry a woman’s casket from the “hearse to the grave.”
A Red Cross emergency hospital opened in Greeley by mid-October to deal with the influenza crisis, where 35 women served day and night as nurses, cooks, and helpers. The hospital was primarily reserved for women and children, and men ill with the flu were placed under the care of Mrs. Emma Knutson, the county hospital matron. Weld County Commissioner, Elmer Rowe, on one occasion, assisted a male patient throughout the night at the Red Cross facility. Concerning the health of the hospital staff, Wolfe said: “With a single exception, not one of these women has contracted influenza and it is pretty sure that this case (most likely Rose Dean) was contracted outside. These nurses all wear masks and hospital aprons, and take other health precautions. And what is as much to the point, they are not afraid.” Wolfe listed all who were working at the hospital and gave a “shout out” to Mrs. Ed Roberts, “the angel of the East Side,” who made daily visits to the homes of residents, many of them immigrants (Germans-from-Russia, Japanese, Mexican nationals). Wolfe said on Nov. 6th, Mrs. Roberts had visited 22 homes where she cooked, nursed, tidied up and offered encouragement to residents. At this time, individual homes were placed on quarantine if occupants had the flu. Mrs. Roberts proclaimed no fear, and said, “. . . if I’ve got to die, I’d rather die fighting than to sit down and let folks suffer.” Although today’s PPE (personal protective equipment) in the time of coronavirus is perhaps more technologically advanced, tight-fitting masks and “hospital aprons” were being used effectively in Greeley in 1918.
Wolfe stated the urgent need for nurses in the rural areas of Weld County, and the need for volunteers with home nursing experience to visit homes of flu victims, spend a half-day or whatever time was necessary to help with the sick and relieve exhausted mothers.
Like today, there were numerous, and often contradictory strategies offered for avoiding or eliminating the flu. Ads for drug store remedies were plentiful, such as this example from the Greeley Tribune, December 11, 1918: Spanish Influenza – Do Not Fear When Fighting a German or a Germ. Dr. A. I. Cook’s advice was, “Do not become panic stricken. Avoid fear and crowds. Exercise in the fresh air and practice the three C’s: A Clean Mouth, a Clean Skin and Clean Bowels. To carry off the poisons that accumulate with the body and to ward off an attack of the influenza bacillus, take a good liver regulator to move the bowels. Such a one is made up of May-apple leaves, aloe, root of jalap, and is to be had at any drug store and is called Pleasant Purgative Pellets.” Another preventive flu elixir was Hills Cascara Quinine Bromide.
Two months after the influenza appeared in Greeley, conditions began to improve, according to an article in the December 13, 1918 Greeley Tribune, “Flu Situation Shows Signs of Growing Better –Vaccinations and Clean-up Urged by Health People – More People Released from Quarantine Than Were Put Under Restrictions —Free “Shots” Saturday and Monday.” According to Mrs. Hubert Reynolds, supervisor at the emergency hospital, conditions had improved in Greeley and throughout Weld County, and only five cases had been reported to City Hall for quarantine on December 12th, and eight homes had been released from quarantine. During the same 24 hours, Macy’s Mortuary had reported only five deaths—one each from Hardin, LaSalle, and Gill and two from Greeley. People were constantly reminded that World War I was over but the flu wasn’t—Swat It! The Germans were “blamed” for the flu in 1918, just as China is cited today as the source of the coronavirus.
As the 1918 pandemic raged on, so did the quest for a “cure.” By mid-December 2,000 Greeleyites had received flu vaccinations and of those who were inoculated, nobody had developed the flu or pneumonia. City of Greeley officials jumped on the prevention band wagon and a large ad, “Get Vaccinated and Kill the Flu” appeared in the December 12, 1918 Tribune. In part, the ad stated, “Ninety percent of the deaths of influenza and pneumonia are preventable when a properly prepared vaccine is used, according to an address by Dr. Rosenow, the Mayo Bros. laboratory [Rochester, MN] expert, in an address to the American Public Health Association in Chicago.” The City of Greeley had obtained a supply of the best vaccine available and the first of three “free shots” were available to citizens who came to the first floor of the Weld County Courthouse or the East Ward (a.k.a. Lincoln) School on Saturday, Dec. 14th or Monday, Dec. 16th between 12:00 – 3:00 p.m.
What did a “return to normalcy” look like? It was a cautionary tale, at best. The epidemic seemed to have “peaked” but “secondary” outbreaks were not uncommon. This was stated in a School Notice published in the December 23, 1918 Tribune: “Parents are strongly advised to have all school children inoculated against influenza and pneumonia, before the opening of the city schools on Dec. 30. This is not made compulsory, but in view of the great danger of a recurrence of the influenza epidemic here as in other places, and the further fact that in other cities the children have been most seriously affected by the second outbreak, and the excellent record of vaccination in preventing or lightening the attacks, we feel that the school children ought to have this protection.” The notice was signed by C. F. Mason, President of the School Board and G. E. Brown, Superintendent of City Schools.
By December 23, 1918, there were other announcements. Quarantine restrictions were lifted. Churches reopened for the first time in two months. Greeley schools, clubs, and lodges were preparing to reopen. The Industrial High School and Training School, closed since the first week of October would also reopen. Superintendent Brown announced a new school schedule to make up the time lost to education during the flu epidemic in Greeley. Three school holidays were cancelled—New Year’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, and Arbor Day, and the school days were lengthened for the remainder of the school term.
Pandemics are about people, specifically, those who are lost and those who survive to tell the tales. My concluding thoughts are about Rose Dean. She was stricken with the flu on Friday morning, Oct. 26th and passed away at noon on Oct. 27th. Buried in her Red Cross uniform and cape, her body placed in a white casket with silver handles, Rose was laid to rest at Linn Grove Cemetery on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 1918. Due to health regulations enacted because of the flu epidemic, services were brief and included only immediate family members and a few intimate friends, including her best friend, Margaret St. Vrain Sanford, who sang a hymn in her honor. My prayers and praise are sung for each and every emergency responder, doctor, nurse, pharmacist, and the countless medical specialists and staff who place themselves on the frontline of public health care and services during this extraordinary time.
Stay tuned for the next installment of “A Cautionary Tale.”
Peggy A. Ford Waldo
April 14 (AT HOME), 2020