Kane County History: How St. Charles Survived The Spanish Flu in 1918 — And Its Eerie Similarities To Today's COVID-19 Pandemic

Kane County History: How St. Charles Survived The Spanish Flu in 1918 — And Its Eerie Similarities To Today’s COVID-19 Pandemic

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Lindsay Judd, executive director of the St. Charles History Museum. Images are courtesy of the St. Charles History Museum.

More than 100 years ago, the world lost approximately 6% of its total population as 100 million individuals were wiped out over the course of one year.

What happened to them? Why did so many die? What did they do to be taken so soon from their lives?

They went to parades. They answered the draft. They aided those in need. They breathed in public.

The 1918 Influenza, the “Spanish Flu,” remains to this day one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.

How It Started

January 1918 saw the beginning of the influenza epidemic. At that point, the strain of influenza infected children, people who were already sick, and the elderly. It behaved like a normal flu and had the same typical symptoms we experience today. The United States had been at war for just over one month.

Because the symptoms were typical of the flu at that time, no one panicked — at first. In April 1918, as the flu began to take out more people, there was criticism that there had not been enough preventative measures to combat the virus.

In addition to children, the sick and the elderly, soldiers were the main group of people who became infected. The reason for this was that the living conditions for soldiers were ideal breeding grounds for this strain of virus. Close quarters, massive troop migrations, immune systems weakened by malnourishment, and the stresses of combat and chemical attacks caused soldiers to be highly susceptible to influenza.

Their movement across the ocean was a leading factor to the alarming rate at which the disease spread. There was a lull in the virus during the summer of 1918. But as soldiers made their way to the battlefront, many of them brought contagion with them and awakened the outbreak in Europe.

Virus Hits Home

By August, as the virus spread, it mutated, and day by day it grew more deadly, but the public was not aware of it yet. According to a headline from the St. Charles Chronicle dated Aug. 29, 1918, “QUARANTINE OFF; SCHOOLS WILL OPEN.” It was at this point that the virus began its second and deadliest wave.

In addition to the normal flu symptoms, this strain put people into bed as if they had been hit by a bus. It often turned into pneumonia, which turned people’s skin black and blue. Lungs would fill with fluid and people would essentially drown.

There were reports of people in their 20s whose fevers were so high, their hair turned white and fell out. The second wave of influenza attacked not the elderly or children, but healthy young adults. People of ages 21 to 29 were the most affected.

Because soldiers were the main group of people who were afflicted, regular civilians felt a false sense of security as they thought, “That won’t happen to us, that’s a soldier’s disease.” But then it did happen to “us.”

As the war raged on, Britain, France, Germany and the United States censored early reports of influenza and mortality to maintain morale. Spain was not involved in WWI, so leaders there did not censor their papers. When the press reported that Spain’s King Alfonzo VIII was gravely ill with influenza, it gave the world a false impression that the virus originated in Spain, thus they nicknamed it the “Spanish Flu.”

The war efforts were one of the major causes of contagion. In September 1918, 13 million men were drafted for the war. Men flocked to schoolhouses, city halls, and post offices to answer the call.

While the U.S. Health Department wanted to shut everything down, the war effort needed everything to speed up. Factories needed to keep operating, civilians needed to continue having loan drives, soldiers needed to continue being shipped to Europe. Despite the Health Department insisting on shutting down public gatherings, the country was in tunnel vision and focused solely on the war. At that time, the war was a more important issue.

Some officials in big cities refused to acknowledge the threat, insisting there was nothing to worry about and that the virus would take its course. At a Liberty Loan parade in Philadelphia, civilians linked arms and sang patriotic songs, all the while breathing on each other. In the days that followed, the influenza ripped through Philly like a hot knife.

The influenza was so vicious that patients would see the doctor and within 12 hours they would be dead. This strain spread fast and killed quickly. In September alone, 12,000 Americans died from influenza.

Nurses were needed as desperately on the home front as they were in Europe. The nurses who remained in the States were some of the most fearless people in American history. Despite the likelihood of themselves contracting the virus, they took care of the sick to the best of their abilities. Alongside soldiers, nurses were another group of people who were heavily affected.

It was insisted upon that all public gatherings be banned and all public places including schools, churches and stores be shut down to help prevent the spread of the virus. If an establishment failed to close despite the warnings, they were listed in the newspaper and forcibly shut down by the Health Department.

Theaters were one of the worst offenders in that many refused to shut down for fear of losing money, yet the atmosphere of a theater was ideal for the virus to spread.

At this point in history, science and medicine had progressed enough to where they had vaccines for diseases like smallpox, anthrax, rabies, diphtheria, and meningitis. Because of these advancements, people felt a sense of invincibility, and therefore did not heed the precautions that the U.S. Health Department advised, which exacerbated things.

Despite the monetary investment in the war, the United States government gave the Health Department one million dollars to help fight the flu. Biochemists developed a potential vaccine to combat the influenza.

However, the vaccine they created was meant to fight bacteria, not viruses. Since influenza was a virus, the vaccine was useless. Very little was known about viruses at this time, and because microscope technology was not advanced enough, they physically could not see the virus microbe.

When October came, it became apparent that seemingly nothing was available to fight and stop the influenza. There was a nightmarish paranoia and hysteria that gripped people everywhere. Where was safe? Who was safe? Nowhere and no one. People were living in fear of each other. It drove some people mad to the point of suicide. People honestly believed that the end of the world had arrived.

Hospitals overflowed with patients. Many public spaces like schools, parks, and playgrounds became emergency relief centers. Some people attempted concocting their own medicines, which did nothing except prove even more harmful.

In large cities, carts would go around collecting bodies from homes, and mass graves were dug because there was a coffin shortage. In October 1918 alone, in just thirty-one days, 195,000 Americans died from influenza. It remains the deadliest month in American history.

By early November, as the war came to an end, there was a sudden drop in influenza cases. Out of nowhere, the death toll began to decline. It was generally accepted that the virus died out because it ran out of susceptible victims. People celebrated both the war’s end and the finale of the epidemic.

St. Charles’ Death Toll

Oddly enough, St. Charles did not see many cases, possibly because it was still a “rural” town and wasn’t heavily populated. By the end of October, St. Charles saw ten deaths from influenza. There hadn’t been any deaths recorded for weeks prior to Oct. 9, 1918.

By mid-October, the St. Charles School for Boys was ravaged by influenza. There was a total of 250 cases, and seven boys ranging in age from 12 to 17 died over the course of 15 days. Dr. Kristin Johnson was the attending physician at the school on Oct. 29, and three out of the seven boys died in a single day.

There is no mistake the horrors that healthcare workers witness every single day. Six more boys died between Nov. 4 and Nov. 14, all between the ages of 14 and 16.

St. Charles saw two more deaths in December, two in January of 1919, and one death in April 1919.

By December 4, 1918, 350,000 Americans had died since Sept. 15. In 10 months, 600,000 Americans died. To this day, scientists, medical scholars, and historians still do not know what exactly caused the virus, or why it died out so suddenly.

Now, 102 years later, we are faced with another pandemic: COVID-19. The seriousness of these two viruses are the same, but the difference this time around is that we have learned from history. We can look back on history and determine what worked and what did not.

We know for certain that large crowds and public gatherings did not work. We know that downplaying the situation to maintain morale did not work. Unity; working together; building each other up and showing support to those in need: that is what works.

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