Gratiot County and the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, Part I: “It Was Unlike Anything Gratiot Had Ever Experienced Before”

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Above: October 1918 newspaper advertisements.

        What happened in Gratiot County in the fall of 1918 was both an epidemic and a pandemic. It was the county’s worst encounter with influenza, but it was also a worldwide problem.  In all, approximately one-quarter of all Americans got the flu, a total of 25 million people. More Americans would die from the Influenza Epidemic than did soldiers and sailors who died in the World War.

       Some people knew it as “the grippe”, a term that had been in use for the frequent waves of influenza that seemed to come seasonally to places like Gratiot County.  Others called it “The Spanish Influenza.” In the fall it was the second of three waves. The first invasion came in the spring of 1918 and left little indication of how deadly it would be. Even after the terrible events of the fall of 1918, in the spring of 1919, influenza visited again.

        It was in September 1918 that the virus reached Gratiot County and by early October many became sick. Still, life was going on and patriotism was very much in swing. The fall of 1918 saw intense Liberty Loan (bond ) sales, drives, meetings, and parades. People in Gratiot County were expected to contribute heavily to the war effort by buying bonds. There was a feeling that the war could end soon as the Germans were on the retreat in France. Loyalty and support for the war effort seemed to approach a fever pitch –and people who did not appear patriotic were noticed.  People were congregating, meeting, and working in support of the war. And they were encountering and spreading the influenza virus. The virus was here in Gratiot County and it was at work.

      For many who were victims of “the grippe ” or “Spanish Influenza”, it meant suffering through intense influenza and then succumbing to a secondary viral infection.  Usually, this came in the form of pneumonia.  Symptoms could include having a sore throat, a serious cough, experiencing muscle pains or pain in the joints, the feeling of being cold all the time, or experiencing a fever of 101-105 degrees.  For those who experienced viral pneumonia, they often had intense delirium, the coughing up of blood,   bleeding out of their nose or ears, and  even having skin turn “as blue as berries.” For some people in Gratiot County it meant feeling healthy in the morning and then being weak, confined to bed and delirious in the evening. Others described the illness as if they were being hit with a club.

     This flu epidemic in 1918 was also unique in that adults in their twenties and thirties died, leaving families and homes adrift. This was different from the past when influenza seemed to claim the very young and the very old as primary targets. People tried to counter the influenza epidemic by keeping areas of the county clean. What were they told? Keep your house clean, keep your “bowels open,” get plenty of sleep, eat a light diet and practice social distancing, which went back to the Middle Ages.

      Churches and theaters closed. Businesses closed their doors as well. “Quarantine” was the word that meant staying away from homes that had contracted influenza. Those who broke the quarantine could find themselves facing the wrath of the health department or even end up in court.

     The truth was in Gratiot County, as in countless numbers of cities and villages across the United States, no one knew how to combat the influenza virus. Doctors could not explain why some of their treatments seemed to work on some patients and failed with others.  The strain upon the community and a sense of helplessness about what to do was experienced by doctors, nurses, clergymen, health department officials, and city governments.

      In the fall of 1918, these were some of the things that Gratiot County experienced at the time called the Influenza Epidemic. It was a time in our history that our ancestors would not talk about.

Next: Part II – “And They Came and Went to Camp Custer”

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed

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