The Spectre at Gratiot’s Door, The Influenza Epidemic, 1918-1919 – Part I: “It Was Unlike Anything We Ever Experienced”

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Above: Downtown Alma during World War I months before the arrival of the Influenza Epidemic.

      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 global 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 used for the frequent waves of influenza that came seasonally to places like Gratiot County.  Others called it “The Spanish Influenza,” and in the fall, it arrived as the second of three waves. The first invasion came in the spring of 1918 and left little indication of how deadly this 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 went on, and patriotism was very much in swing. With the nation heavily involved in World War I, the fall of 1918 witnessed intense Liberty Loan or 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 would end soon because the Germans were retreating in France. Loyalty and support for the war effort seemed to approach a fever pitch, and people who did not appear patriotic could be put on notice.  On the eve of this national health crisis, people were actively congregating, meeting, and working in support of the war -and they would soon encounter and spread the influenza virus.

      For many who became sick, it meant suffering through intense influenza and then succumbing to a secondary viral infection,  usually in the form of pneumonia.  Symptoms frequently included having a sore throat, a severe 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, coughed up of blood,  bled out of their nose or ears, and  had their 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 best described the sickness 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 their families and homes adrift.  People tried to counter the influenza epidemic by keeping different things clean. Instructions said: keep your house clean, keep your “bowels open,” get plenty of sleep, eat a light diet, and practice social distancing, a practice that went back to the Middle Ages.

     Churches and theaters closed. Businesses closed their doors as well. “Quarantine” in Gratiot County was the word that meant staying away from homes that had contracted influenza. Woe to those who broke the quarantine as they could find themselves facing the wrath of the health department, or end up in jail.

       The truth was in Gratiot County, as in countless numbers of cities and villages across the United States, no one knew how to combat this influenza virus. Doctors could not explain why some of their treatments seemed to work on some patients but failed with others.  Doctors experienced a sense of helplessness about what to do, as did 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. And it was a time in our county’s history that our ancestors would never openly discuss.

Copyright 2020 James M. Goodspeed

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