The Spectre at Gratiot’s Door, The Influenza Epidemic, 1918-1919 – Part V: “Gratiot County Tries to Return to Normal”

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Above: Headlines and an advertisement from the Gratiot County Herald in December 1918.

The Holidays are Here,  Gratiot is Back to Business

From mid-November to early December 1918, Gratiot County tried to shift its focus away from the terrible influenza epidemic. With the holidays approaching, people were encouraged to resume their daily lives – especially regarding shopping and going to church. Governor Albert Sleeper issued a hopeful prayer at Thanksgiving in which he said that “We are thankful that a dread epidemic has been stayed (in Michigan), through the prompt measure taken by the public health authorities throughout the state and the intelligent cooperation of the whole people.” Sleeper implied that the crisis had ended by mid-November, but in reality, it had not.

Many churches also tried to resume regular Sunday worship services in Gratiot County. When the doors opened in the United Methodist churches at North Star, Beebe, and Newark, churchgoers received a pamphlet entitled “Government Supplement Number 34 on Spanish Influenza.” On the one hand, church doors opened. However, leaders warned churchgoers that they still needed to avoid influenza. The re-opening of some churches took place while Gratiot County merchants reminded the public that businesses were open and evening Christmas shopping hours would soon start.

All of these attempts leading up to December to start life again while claiming that the epidemic had ended was wishful thinking. The federal government released numbers showing that during the influenza epidemic, more people died in the United States from influenza than did soldiers who died fighting in France.  Newspapers reported that over 3,100 people died in Michigan, and the flu had not yet abated.

The Results – The Sick and the Dead

During December 1918, more Gratiot County people encountered influenza and related pneumonia. Amidst all of the re-opening of churches and stores, an ominous column, entitled “Deaths From Illness in Week,” continued to run in the Alma Record. Names and stories were told of those who died from influenza and pneumonia, many of whom included young adults, like Flossie Merrill or Mrs. Lewis Hudson, who died in their twenties and thirties. The Gratiot County Herald also ran stories of prominent citizens who suddenly died in Ithaca, such as Miss Esther Lewis and her mother. Many others from Gratiot County would be named in columns in places from Breckenridge, Riverdale, and St. Louis. For December, at least one hundred people either became sick or died in the county. A total of forty-three people died, including twenty in Alma. At least fifty-seven cases of those ill with influenza and pneumonia would also be reported.

The Public is Warned – Again

Mixed messages about influenza continued in Gratiot County during the Christmas season. On one side were those who proclaimed that the epidemic had passed, and that life should start to return to normal. Some businesses in the county that had been closed eagerly prepared for re-opening. In Ithaca, the Ideal Theatre moved to a new location in town, purchased new seating, and awaited business to return. The Liberty and Idlehour in Alma did the same; the Idlehour bought and installed a new motor-generator to show better quality pictures. Gilbert Genesta was raring to go in Alma at his two theatres, and even announced re-opening before the quarantine officially ended. However, Genesta had to be told by the health department that he could not open.

Alma businesses announced that they would be open evenings for Christmas starting December 9 and would remain open until Christmas. The extended shopping hours allowed people who worked day jobs to have opportunities to shop at night. Alma also tried to lure shoppers with decorations in stores, shop windows, and advertisements with plenty of goods on the shelves. Business remained steady over at the Gratiot County Herald, which published a twenty-eight-page paper, but lamented that it could have done thirty-two pages if one of its foremen had not been sick with the flu. The article chimed that “This week, despite the ‘flu’ (the paper), (there) will also be a big issue.” At Christmas, the Herald also pronounced that in Gratiot County, “the excessive conservation has passed, and we are about to return to something like normal conditions.”  Still, the continuing December epidemic ran counter to “normal conditions.”

Newspapers continued to warn people of lives lost. A report from Doctor Olin, Secretary of State Board of Health, reported that 3, 176 Michigan residents had died so far. However, the actual numbers were believed to be much higher. Several large cities in southeast Michigan remained in quarantine lockdown in late November as over 800 new cases cropped up in the state.  Doctor James King of the United States Army Medical Corps, offered his first opinion that this strain of influenza originated as a “pneumonic plague” that may have started as early as 1910 in Manchuria, and which then spread across China.

Another health warning concerned tuberculosis, which now attacked survivors of influenza. The Red Cross warned of the dangers of tuberculosis and urged people to seek their doctor for treatment.  A recent explosion of the disease in England and Spain caused concern.

 December Quarantines

Mask wearing during the quarantine, which started in November, seemed awkward to some. Alma College students quickly observed how their professors and faculty members tried to wear what they comically termed “the three-layer cheesecloth masks.” Students noted that many of the professors found it hard to speak or sing with their masks on during chapel. President Crooks wore his like a bib, tied around his collar. Other professors tried to talk around their masks, and a faculty member did not wear one at all. Regardless, anyone coming down the hill after chapel or classes into town had to wear a mask.

Alma continued to use vaccinations to combat influenza. Over at the Republic Truck Company, an estimated 500 workers lined up at different times to get free shots. On the first day that the vaccinations were offered at one of the plants, 263 employees wanted the shots. When the plant opened early on another Friday, forty more people waited in line.

To further cope with the epidemic, Alma’s churches called for a Day of Prayer on December 15 for thanksgiving, forgiveness, and repentance. Churches observed that Alma had been spared from widespread devastation so far but acknowledged that the plague still needed to be stamped out in the county.

As more outbreaks of the epidemic took place in Alma in early December, leaders of the health committee and city doctors met to discuss creating a city hospital to hold the sick. The group, however, decided to send the sick to Dr. Brainerd’s Hospital.

One of the most challenging jobs during the epidemic in each town or village in Gratiot County belonged to the health officer. Doctor T. J. Carney in Alma led the battle to get the public to observe quarantines and to take the spread of influenza seriously. Carney clashed with families who refused to put up signs to warn the public about infected homes. He also dealt with people who insisted on visiting the sick, as well as other doctors who challenged Carney’s authority. After only two months of combatting the flu epidemic in Alma, Carney resigned. While other doctors were asked to take the position of the city health officer, most declined due to added stress and little extra pay. Eventually, Dr. J.N. Day took over the job, but he did so only if he was paid an additional $250 for the remainder of the term in office.  A similar occurrence with the health officer took place in Ithaca.  Doctor Lydia Higgins resigned after holding the office for less than a year. Higgins cited the extra stress and demands on her job in Ithaca for her resignation. No doctor offered to replace Higgins, so George H. Clow, village marshal, was appointed.

By late December, the State Board of Health issued warnings about quarantines in Michigan during the epidemic. It found that the continued spread of influenza resulted from not observing individual quarantines. The Board also called for the arrests of people who refused to obey.  In many communities, the health officer had to act as a peace officer, confronting people who failed to observe quarantines. In too many cases, families opposed health officers by not allowing them into the house. The State Board of Health called for a proper official to serve warrants to enforce quarantines, not the health officers.  Also, the Board confronted the public with its responsibility to inform local authorities concerning quarantine violations. In Gratiot County, some people failed to enforce quarantines with their own homes, and citizens reported violators in the neighborhood.

In December, there were plenty of ways that people continued to take risks of contracting or spreading influenza because no one else could help their sick family members. Irving Wood and his wife from Breckenridge headed to Fairgrove to care for their son and his wife. The young couple had suffered a relapse of influenza. In another instance, Lena Johnson of Sumner went to the Lansing Training Center to help her sick brother, who had been ill for five weeks.

Public gatherings still took place while the epidemic continued. The St. Louis United Methodist Church rededicated its new church after canceling the service in November due to the epidemic. Many turned out for the service. Over at the Ithaca Courthouse, one of the cases related to the 1917 murder of Alma’s Beatrice Epler began. The judge warned spectators in the courtroom that they could be sitting too close together.  He also warned the large crowd that quarantine was in effect in parts of the county, such as Ithaca. What was the result? A packed courtroom of people from across Gratiot  County turned out to hear about one of the accused in Beatrice Epler’s murder. The Red Cross, which closed many meetings, sponsored a dance at the Ashley Opera House, just as Ashley was recovering from a large number of influenza deaths during November. Over in New Haven, forty people “belled”  C.H. Blanchard and his wife during the late evening of December 12. For fifteen minutes, the crowd made all the noise it could outside the house, then the group was invited in by the newlyweds for supper, visiting, and games. They all left at 2:00 am.

When the epidemic flared again in December, all public areas were closed the week before Christmas. This quarantine also included the Ithaca schools.   Two prominent deaths occurred in Ithaca, coinciding with warm weather, and officials quickly closed Ithaca again – except for the stores which remained open. During Ithaca’s second closure, the Gratiot County Herald observed that many people in Ithaca went about with “sore arms” due to all of the vaccinations that doctors gave to people.

Other schools in Gratiot County that closed due to the epidemic re-opened, then closed again. St. Louis schools closed for much of December and planned to re-open December 30.  Alma boasted that its schools would remain open as school attendance kept growing, with over 93 percent of students in class during November. Some teachers, like Anna Clegg of St. Louis, came home from her assignment in Clare because that school closed until January.

Following Alma’s attempt to re-open the town in December, St. Louis tried to follow suit. A week before Christmas, St. Louis lifted its ban on public meetings and the wearing of masks. To prepare for business, St. Louis pledged that it would disinfect all of its public buildings. D.T. Kemp, city health officer, oversaw the plans.

Influenza Still Claims Those from the War

In all of the local news going on with the influenza epidemic, the status of Gratiot County’s World War veterans still appeared as news reports arrived during December. Private Walter Christy of the 4th Mechanic Regiment Air Service told his family that he had been sick for ten days in France, but he had resumed flying again. Fred Tryon of Breckenridge was also in France, had battled influenza for three weeks, and now was doing better. Private Ralph Miller of Alma improved after encountering influenza at Camp Wadsworth. His condition was such that his wife was called to come to visit him, then she returned home.

Out in Riverdale, the remains of Frank White arrived at his parents’ home. White served in the Navy and died from influenza and pneumonia in early November aboard the USS Mexican, a transport ship. White made four trips across the Atlantic and then died in Marseilles, France. Also, Miss Erma Harris, who was to marry White when he returned home, died in Riverdale of pneumonia on the same date that White did. Neither knew that the other one was sick. In another case, people in Bethany Township learned that Ernest Ray Showers, a local boy, died at Camp Douglas, Arizona, from influenza and pneumonia. His body came home for burial at Lakeview. Finally, the Gratiot County wife of a serviceman, Mrs. Suzie Fraker Smith of Fulton Center, recently battled influenza. She then received the news that her husband had been killed in France in October. The couple married just days before Lyle left for Camp Custer in November 1917.

Copyright 2020 James M. Goodspeed


The Continued Plight of the Sick and the Dead in December 1918

Those Who were Sick:

Private Walter Christy (France)

Private Ralph Miller, St. Louis – Camp Wadsworth

Fred Tryon, Breckenridge – France

New cases December 5 in Riverdale (unnamed)

Breckenridge December 5 – 9 sick

Martin Muscott, Breckenridge

Mr. and Mrs. A.J. McDonald, St. Louis

Mrs. William Burl, St. Louis

Mrs. Ed Gable, Newark

Henry Rhynard, Perrinton

Mrs. George Myers, Seville Center

Pearl Peters, Fulton Center

Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Austin, Alma

Mr. and Mrs. James Wiltshire, Alma

Mrs. Wright and her father, Ebenezer Valley, Alma

Vincent Hawks, Ithaca

Mrs. Maud Campbell, Ithaca

W.C. Sargent, Ithaca

Charles Holmes’ four children, Alma

Mrs. Floyd White, Alma

Three Davison children, Alma

Mrs. R.C. Baldwin, Breckenridge

A.E.Pinney, Ithaca

Mrs. O. Moon, Pompeii

Orin Nettle, Pompeii

Gertrude Sutton – Pompeii

Mrs. A. Kochensparger, Ashley

Mrs. C.E. Weller’s daughter, Ashley

Darcy Reist, Ashley

Miss Ida Young, Ithaca

Hilda Pohly, Ashley

Miss Olive Myers, Breckenridge

Mrs. M. W. Muscott and children, Breckenridge

Mrs. John Allen, Breckenridge

Grace Young, Breckenridge

Mrs. B.G. Campbell, Breckenridge

Mrs. H.B. Stuckey, Alma

Miss Alberta Carson, Alma

R.H. Harrington, Riverdale

Mrs. Maud Campbell, Ithaca

Those Who Died in December 1918:

Mrs. Dean Shook, Breckenridge

Mrs. R. Coleman, Breckenridge

Mrs. Ward Long, Breckenridge

Mr. and Mrs. James Frye, Davis District

Mrs. Ray Coleman, Breckenridge

Ida Morrison, Middleton

Rufus Durbin, Middleton

James Goodwin, Ithaca

Herbert Hayes, St. Louis

Mrs. Nina Shook, Breckenridge

Mary Bellows, Gratiot County native

Mrs.Dora Watson, Ithaca

Esther Lewis and mother, Ithaca

The infant child of Mrs. Floyd White, Alma

Mrs. Ward Long and 18-month-old child, Breckenridge

Mrs. R.H. Brown, Alma

Mrs. Lewis Hudson, Alma

Flossie Merrill, Alma

Julia Evans, Alma

Ralph Swarthout, Alma

Mrs.Frank Riggs, Arcada Township






The Spectre at Gratiot’s Door, The Influenza Epidemic, 1918-1919 – Part IV: “The War Ends, Influenza Does Not”

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Above: Influenza announcements in Alma during November 1918; the World War ended in Gratiot County on November 11, 1918; local announcement for how to treat influenza.

The War Ends, Gratiot County Celebrates, Spanish Influenza Spreads

     “Peace has come.” These three words greeted Gratiot County at noon on Thursday, November 7, 1918, as the World War was thought to be at an end. Unfortunately, the official Armistice would not come until four days later. Gratiot County’s involvement in World War I lasted nineteen months but cost the lives of at least thirty young men, along with the numerous wounded.

     During days in November, residents left their homes to celebrate the end of the war in places like Alma, Ashley, Breckenridge, and Middleton. Most of the biggest celebrations in the county took place on the afternoon and evening of November 11, the official Armistice Day. People left their homes to make noise, let off steam, and to think about the return of their soldiers from Europe.

     On the other hand, all of these contacts between people across Gratiot County led to the continued spread of influenza. In Alma, people were explicitly told in the newspaper that the “Influenza Ban (is) Not Off.” Citizens found themselves celebrating the end of the war while hearing continued calls to buy  Liberty Bonds and to attend showings of captured enemy weapons. Many left their homes for different reasons, and more would become sick.
Battling Sickness and Death from Influenza – The Military

     On the same day that the Armistice was first announced, news arrived that Clarence Ludwick of Breckenridge died of pneumonia while aboard a ship heading to France.  Earlier on November 3, Frank White of Riverdale also died of pneumonia in a similar fashion. Alma College announced that it lost another student when Frank McCurdy died of influenza in France. His name became the seventh gold star on the college’s service flag. Theron Cady of Alma wrote a sobering letter that he had arrived safely in France. However, he became sick on the day his company prepared to enter combat just before the Armistice. Cady had a slow recovery in the hospital, like many American Doughboys who got ill on the front lines.

The Sick in Gratiot County

     Out in the countryside, the influenza virus and subsequent bouts with pneumonia continued to affect people’s daily lives. It was especially hard on the local doctors, all of whom could barely keep up with their patients.  Doctor Hall in Pompeii remained busy treating patients who had influenza. However, he was perplexed as to why no one in town was sick so far. All of his patients seemed to be outside of Pompeii.

     In Perrinton, newlywed Mrs. Lyle Smith battled influenza, even while learning that her husband died while fighting in France. Andrew Kinney and Little Jasper Rhynard had the same illness in that village. Out in New Haven Township, James Shaw slowly recovered from a severe, two-week bout with influenza. Leon Corwin returned to his store in Ashley, but he had been in bed for two weeks. Someone in Ashley commented that things might be a little better as “All who have been confined to the home with influenza are on the gain. Some are (even) out of doors.”

     Things did not go well in other places in the county. Sam Alexander, in Riverdale, was confined to his bed for a week. D.A. Byrnce in Sethton also remained seriously ill. Some in Middleton continued to be struck by influenza, such as Mrs. Helen Wood, who went into her third week battling the virus.

    Of all of the places in Gratiot County that suffered that November, Breckenridge had things rough. The village opened its churches on Sunday, November 10, and “usual services (were) held.” The next day, the janitor at the school rang the bell at 6:00 a.m. to tell residents that the flu ban had been lifted, suggesting that influenza had subsided. However, within the week, influenza exploded in Breckenridge, again closing the schools and churches. After a large group celebrated the Armistice party twenty-four people became sick throughout the weekend. Then more became ill and the number rose to sixty and kept climbing. When another forty people contracted influenza the ban was extended on all public and church meetings. A writer in the village recorded, “The doctors are kept busy here – attending flu patients.” Unfortunately for those in Breckenridge, their fight against influenza would go on longer than any other part of Gratiot County during the entire epidemic.

Those the Spectre Claimed in November

     Each community lost someone to influenza who was especially noteworthy.  The first to die in Alma included Clyde McElfresh, superintendent of the motor division at the Republic Truck Company.  He died November 12, and McElfresh was only thirty-one years old – one of many young adults who strangely lost their lives in the epidemic. News reached St. Louis that Lura Newman, who formerly owned Colonel Elwell’s Castle, had died, and her remains were sent back to St. Louis for the funeral. Newman died in New York. Influenza also claimed those who took care of the sick.  An example happened with the death of Jennie Marston, a nurse who worked at Brainard Hospital in Alma. She was only twenty-six years of age.

     Over at Ashley, the village continued to mourn the death of Little Mildred Beck, age four, and her death notice appeared in the newspaper. Another death notice ran for Alan Ladd of Elba Township, whose obituary appeared in the paper. Just across the county line in Midland County, Mr. and Mrs. James Preston lost their second child in only two weeks to influenza.

But the Flu Ban is Off – or is It?

     Part of the problem in the county was that health officials or town leaders called off quarantines, only having to restart them because influenza flared up again. As far as protecting the public, many like the Alma Record argued that quarantines had to be observed by everyone in each town, village, or community. The newspaper continued to condemn those who violated quarantines in the city, such as what happened during the Worden incident, where a family refused to isolate themselves and took down a quarantine sign placed on their property. Two doctors, Doctor Frank Thornburgh, and Doctor Holcomb, were served warrants for interfering with quarantines in the city. People followed their upcoming trial in Ithaca, in which both doctors prepared to defend themselves.

     However, there were forces at work that wanted quarantines to end so that businesses could resume operating. In Alma, churches hoped that they could open their doors for regular services early in the month as “Alma has seen about all of influenza that it will have if the people use care and good judgment.” Even the Alma Red Cross claimed that the ban was off by the start of November, cleaning had been done in their rooms, and volunteers awaited help from the public.  Also, places like movie theatres wanted to reopen as soon as possible. The Genesta Theatre in Alma prematurely announced that it would open the second weekend of the month, without getting permission from the health department. The Liberty Theatre in St. Louis also planned to reopen, wanting to open its doors.

       Alma’s churches were asked to hold only one service on the first Sunday, even though attendance was light. Six pastors signed a letter urging people to come to church and wear masks – with each church offering to distribute masks if parishioners did not have one. All adults in attendance had to wear masks, as well as Sunday School teachers. Soon, another outbreak of nine new cases of influenza hit various parts of Alma, then quickly became fifty-six cases, causing the health department to reconsider its decision about businesses and churches.

      As a result of this new spread of influenza, all public places were closed as Alma faced its most massive total of cases yet. Again the city put on the flu lid. The Alma Record attempted to calm the public at this time by stating that the cases supposedly were not serious and several had been cured by physicians. After all, the newspaper noted, only six had died of the disease so far. In contrast to the newspaper’s optimism, a new, sobering column started to run in the Alma Record entitled “Number of Deaths During the Week.” Some of those listed, like Mildred Boatby, age 27, died of complications of pneumonia, and her body was sent to Six Lakes. Although the cause of death for each person did not always appear in the column, it appeared that influenza and pneumonia claimed more lives in Alma. Things in the city regarding the flu epidemic were not quite as calm as the newspaper wished them to appear.

   Still, the city tried to calm people’s fears – especially since the holiday season approached, and local merchants needed business. By Thanksgiving, the Alma health department tried a new strategy to control the epidemic by trying to vaccinate everyone in the city and requiring all people to wear masks when in public. The series of three injections copied similar attempts at Camp Custer and in the city of Flint, where the shots showed some apparent success. People needed to come to the city hall in the morning or evening to get these free shots. After receiving their third injection, a person received a health department card saying that they did not have to wear a flu mask at any public gathering. Those who did not get the shots had to wear masks when in public.

The Effects of Quarantines in Gratiot County

     Even though the epidemic continued to spread, many appeared to be unconcerned that they would become sick. Whether due to carelessness or necessity, many moved about in public. Published letters in Gratiot County from hard-hit areas like  Youngstown, Ohio described how people died in numbers of over one hundred per day, and that the best ways to avoid the virus included proper hygiene and isolation, did not seem to scare some people. In some ways,  Gratiot County residents and institutions continued to go on with life – at least until things worsened.

     By November 7, Ithaca Schools announced reopening after a three-week closure. Sumner closed its schools and all lodge rooms, as well as Washington Township schools, Hamilton Center, Carson City, and Breckenridge. Sometimes the schools in one area tried to reopen after being closed for as little as one week, then closed again. In a few cases out in the country, schools closed because teachers were sick, and no one could teach the students, leading to more days off.  Also, it did not help when events happened as they did in Breckenridge around Thanksgiving. A group of young people went over to dance on a Monday night at the St. Louis Opera House. Soon, someone noted that “as a consequence, we have about fifteen new cases of influenza” in Breckenridge. Just after the Armistice, six Breckenridge high school girls carried a large American flag through the celebrating crowds during the Armistice. They raised $57 for a new flag for the school. How many of these girls got sick is unknown

     Other public gatherings took place, such as a drive for the United War Work Campaign in Ashley. A Canadian Army officer, Captain McKendrick, spoke to a large group there because of the flu ban in Alma, and those from Ashley could not attend in Alma.  McKendrick spoke for ninety minutes about his experiences in battles at the Somme, Vimy Ridge, and Flanders, all to raise money for the YMCA. The turn out reflected how cooped up people felt after a terrible October wave of influenza hit Ashley. Yet, people did not seem concerned about relapsing.

     Still others in the county moved about either to see loved ones, to attend to sick family members, or to attend a funeral. When her son came down with Spanish Influenza in the Student Army Training Corps in Ann Arbor, Mrs. Ernest Madden of Vestaburg immediately went to help. After her death, Mrs. William Amon’s body arrived in Breckenridge for the funeral. She died of influenza and pneumonia while living in Lansing. Mrs. Jesse LaPaugh went to Toledo, Ohio, to take care of her sick daughter-in-law. Mrs. Stanley Bailey of Breckenridge ran to Camp Custer to see her husband.

      During mid-November, an advertisement appeared in the Gratiot County Herald from A.A. Sprague. It was the first statement of why some wanted the quarantines to end. Its big, bold letters it read “CHRISTMAS SHOPPING.”

Those who were sick in Gratiot County in November 1918 because of the Influenza Epidemic included:

Mrs. Arthur Manley and four others – Vestaburg

Marcus Cody, Marine – France

Frank Warner, Anna Harlow – North Shade Township

Mrs. Lyle Smith, Little Jasper Rhynard, Andrew Kinney, Mike Allen, Mrs. Landis and daughter – Perrinton

James Shaw – New Haven Township

Leon Corwin, Mrs. Nellie Ackles – Ashley

Floyd Bunts and Family – Elba Township

Frank Cockwood, Lawrence Hodde, Burton Btiley, Doctor and Mrs. D.A. Curtis, and J.E. Hodge– Breckenridge

Mrs. Delling and Daughter – Ithaca

Sam Alexander – Riverdale

Miss Carrie Merritt – St. Louis

Reynolds Gregory – Eureka

John Williams Family, Hunter and Gertrude Martin, Mrs. Myrla Moore and two children –Hamilton Center

Mrs. Cor Frisbie – Forest Hill

Mrs. Herbert Rhynard – Washington Township

D.A. Byrnce and Scott Payne – Sethton

Mrs. Helen Wood and Mrs. John Staley – Middleton

J.H. Cady, E.C. Crandell – Alma

9 new cases in Alma –November 14

Waldo Richards – Pompeii

John E. Johnson – Newark

Elbridge Wolfgang  and wife – Bethany Township

Reynold Gregory, Mr. and Mrs. Burt Parks – Eureka

Mrs. Alpha Ringle – Sickels

24 sick in Breckenridge – November 23

60 new cases in Breckenridge – November 23

15 new cases in Breckenridge – young people from dance – November 23

40 cases in Breckenridge – November 28

Neva Williams – North Star

Those who died in Gratiot County as a result of the Influenza Epidemic in November 1918 included:

Clyde McElfresh – Alma

Two members of the Harris Family – Vestaburg

Mrs. William Amon – died in Lansing, funeral in Breckenridge

Ed Sullenger’s son – died in Lansing, funeral in Breckenridge

Mrs. Glen Johnson, D.A. Byrne – Carson City

Two children of Mr. and Mrs. James Preston –Redstone

Mrs. Lester Beard – Jasper Township

Mrs. Scott Payne – Sethton

Jennie Marston, Mildred Beatby, Harry See – Alma

Leon Ladd – Elba Township

Mrs. Lura Newman – died in New York, St. Louis native, funeral in St. Louis

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

The Spectre at Gratiot’s Door, The Influenza Epidemic, 1918-1919 – Part III: “Danger Arrives in October”

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Above: Red Cross nurses show how to wear masks in fall 1918; Alma Record advertisement about coughing and sneezing; Quarantine in Alma.

Gratiot County in October 1918

         The topic of bad health or health threats was not something new to Gratiot County in 1918. Two well-known men were arrested in Alma in July 1918 for “expectorating” (spitting) on the sidewalks. Both men thought the ordinance to be absurd and loudly complained to Justice D.L. Johnson about the enforcement of the law and their small fine.

         The late summer of 1918 also would be noted for a crackdown on “social disease” in Alma as the state began to enforce the detention of women who were believed to be carrying social diseases. Some women would be arrested, detained, and then sent to hospitals like the one in Bay City because they were suspected prostitutes who were visiting Alma businesses like the Republic Truck Company.  Over at Alma College, plans took place to convert the museum into a barracks for the additional students who joined the SATC (Student Army Training Corps).  The college needed more room to house the increased men, and leaders believed that they would turn down SATC applicants after October 1. Because of this, many young men would be crammed into a confined space.

        Medicines regularly appeared in newspapers, advising readers about how they could avoid or treat “The Grippe.”  “Doctor King’s New Discovery”  helped avoid the Grippe and could be found at the local druggist. Or, one could try Scott’s Emulsion, a preventative for the flu “so skillfully prepared that it enriches the bloodstreams, creates reserve strength, and fortifies the lungs and throat.”

        As October started, many helped America in the World War by buying bonds, attending patriotic meetings, or by helping the Red Cross. Few people seemed concerned about the impending health crisis that started to descend upon Gratiot County.

Military Deaths are the First Warnings

       The first news that Gratiot County residents heard about the influenza epidemic dealt with the deaths of young men at military cantonments. Robert Wachalac,  the first one mentioned in the newspapers, died from influenza on September 26 at the Great Lakes Training Station. His father had once owned a foundry in both Alma and St. Louis. Two days later, on September 28, Clair Schlappi from Riverdale also died at Great Lakes. The biggest name that received the most attention in Alma came with the announcement concerning Ammi Lancashire’s death in Philadelphia. Lancashire was the grandson of Alma’s leading founder and benefactor, Ammi Wright.

        Soon, the names of county men who died at Camp Custer and their funerals would be announced. Floyd Allen’s name, who enlisted from St. Louis, emerged. Homer Hunt of Elwell would follow. The funerals for the men could be problematic during the epidemic. Glenn Heibeck’s funeral took place at the Ithaca Presbyterian Church, and some people attended. However, Michael Mikilica’s funeral in Bannister took place outside in front of the church. Afterward, he was buried in Ford Cemetery. Earl St. John, who died in Camp Custer, was sent to Breckenridge for a funeral. Dwight Von Thurn of Alma died in a Georgia camp. He contracted influenza while serving as a nurse to other soldiers after volunteering to help the sick.

      Once Camp Custer notified families that their son or husband was sick, parents, wives, relatives, and friends took off for camps to see their loved one before he died. The trips took place regardless of the threat of anyone becoming infected. Homer Hunt’s parents also traveled to Camp Custer before he died. Samuel Wheeler of Emerson (Beebe) ran to Camp Custer to see his sick brother. In other trips, W.E.Swope of Breckenridge and Mrs. Thomas Crawford attended their relative’s death in Jackson, Michigan. The soldier died at Camp  Croft and had been sent home for the funeral.

      Ralston Fleming, an Alma boy who joined the SATC in Ann Arbor, died at the University of Michigan hospital one week after joining the program.  Other sad news came when Alma College student and star football player, Ed Foote, died in a Southern camp.

       Other news about soldiers who tried to avoid the virus also arrived in the county. Orlo Roberts from Ithaca joined the Merchant Marines and sent word home that he had been sent with other men out into Boston Harbor due to the flu. Captain S.R. Watson wrote that he survived an attack at Camp Dodge, Iowa.

        By mid-October, a rumor existed that court-martials – and even executions – would take place at Camp Custer involving doctors who allowed sick soldiers to travel to their homes. It turned out that some officers had been allowed to go to their homes in downtown Battle Creek during the outbreak. However, several soldiers were seen loitering downtown, and the news made its way back to camp and the newspapers. While investigations into the incidents were planned once the influenza crisis abated, the rumors of executions at Camp Custer were called “pure bunk” by the Army.  On a side note, if anyone wanted to help a sick man at Camp Custer, they could send cigarettes for them while they stayed in quarantine.

       At the end of October, Gratiot County newspapers ran a “Roll of Honor”  of twelve men who died so far in service to the county. None of the names included influenza victims, at least not yet.

Conflicting Messages

      The arrival of influenza at Camp Custer caused a delay for the departure of any Gratiot County men for their camps that October. On October 3, the county draft board announced that it canceled all scheduled departures for drafted men to cantonments for at least one month.

      Slowly, people in Gratiot County started to close public places; however, only for “precautionary measures.” The first indication that people were nervous came when the Alma Suffrage Meeting was canceled; then, the Presbyterian Synod also canceled its meeting in town. By October 17, Alma had officially moved to quarantine. Health Officer Dr. Thomas Carney ordered the closing of all churches, movie theaters, pool halls, and music halls in town. For the moment, Alma Schools remained open as it was noted that “only a few cases of Spanish Influenza” existed in the city.  Alma College went to full quarantine just a day before this order. A week later, St. Louis also went and closed public places on October 24.

      One incident demonstrates the conflicts of enforcing quarantine with one Alma family, the Wordens, and two local doctors, Dr. Carney and Dr. Thornburgh.  When Alma reached thirteen cases of influenza as of October 23, Dr. Carney declared that homes had to post notices that each household was infected.  One of these on Woodworth Avenue belonged to the Worden family, where at least two people were sick (one was an infant). Dr. Carney visited the family and declared that it needed to be quarantined, and a sign was put up outside. When the older son, Albert, grew worse, the family changed doctors and called in Dr. Thornburgh, who pronounced that the family suffered from typhoid, not influenza. Thornburgh advised the family to take down the quarantine sign, and Ollie Worden, the eldest son, did so. Ollie had a reputation as a troublemaker and the town drunk, and when he took down the sign and put up another one that read “No Influenza,” people went into an uproar. Many saw Ollie Worden’s actions as just another of his irresponsible acts and someone quickly reported this to Dr. Carney and the health department. The issue in Alma now involved who had the power to declare and enforce quarantines. Because Carney had the backing of the State Board of Health, the Wordens were again quarantined.  Another sign was put up out in front of their house. They were also informed that no more resistance would be tolerated. The Worden incident demonstrated that quarantines were to be taken seriously and that there would be consequences for those who did not obey. The case also caused Dr. Thornburgh and another doctor in Mt. Pleasant to be charged, brought to trial in Ithaca, and fined for encouraging disobedience of the quarantine. Sadly, the Worden child during the influenza epidemic.

What should Gratiot County do?

        Both Gratiot County, the state of Michigan, and the Federal Government all tried to quickly educate the public about the dangers of the influenza epidemic. Professor MacCurdy from Alma College was the first to do this when he asked the Alma Record to print a list of thirteen things people should know about this influenza virus.  Surgeon General Rupert Blue issued this notice to each state as an attempt to “provide all available knowledge” about the influenza virus. The culprit now had a name: Pfeiffer’s bacillus. It moved through body secretions, incubated between one to four days (usually two), attacked the respiratory tract, and vaccines for victims offered only partial success for treatment. While the government acknowledged that quarantining was termed difficult and impractical in some cases, people were told to avoid crowded rooms, streetcars and to look out for those exhibiting coughing and spitting. People also had to stay in warm, ventilated rooms to avoid broncho-pneumonia, which usually followed this influenza.

      Another example that the epidemic was spreading through Alma involved the creation and use of masks. Professors and anyone else who left Alma College and came “down the hill” into town were told that they had to wear a mask as the college aimed at protecting those who were in the Student Army Training Corps (SATC). Even the Gratiot County Draft Board members soon wore masks upon orders from the Adjutant General in Lansing.

        Red Cross workers also received orders to close and quarantine and would “open as soon as health conditions are improved.” When the Red Cross room reopened just before Halloween, workers had to “exercise reasonable precautions.” Upon entering the room, workers had to adjust their face mask, and then wear it for only two hours at a time. After this time, they had to leave the room and boil their masks for at least twenty minutes before wearing them again. The Alma Red Cross also published a notice for the public about how to make their own masks.  A mask needed to be made out of more than three grades of gauze, but butter cloth worked best. A yard and a half of tape was needed for each mask, and the mask should measure at least five by nine inches. A good mask would supposedly protect a person if they stayed at least four feet away from others. However, one needed to stay at least ten feet away from anyone who coughed.

       Clerks in all of Alma’s downtown department stores also used them when dealing with customers as precautions. Another example of social distancing existed in the county. The Ithaca postmaster put out an announcement earlier in the month that both adults and children had to stand behind the floor line when picking up packages at the post office.

      Surprisingly, another topic of quarantine took so long to take effect in the public schools. Early in the month, the St. Louis schools closed for a short time due to the fear of infantile paralysis. It is not clear how long they stayed closed, but it appears that they reopened. Even after closing different places in Alma by mid-October, the schools remained open there because “only a few cases of Spanish Influenza” could be found in Alma. Alma High School did seem concerned enough to cancel the Alma – Midland football game, possibly because Midland experienced the epidemic as well.

       Out in the countryside, it was a different matter. The Beebe school closed first and announced it would remain that way for two weeks, then came the closing of the Sumner school. A string of closings followed in succession: Sethton, Perrinton, North Shade, Washington Township, Rathbone, all closed their doors. A pattern was emerging in Gratiot County: while towns like Alma and Ithaca seemed to avoid the epidemic,  it was the Gratiot County countryside that was ablaze with cases of the influenza virus.  Things would continue to worsen in rural Gratiot County.

       On October 24, as a precautionary measure, Ithaca closed its school even though there supposedly was not an epidemic. As other public places in Ithaca closed, someone commented still that  “We are not suffering seriously from the plague anywhere neither do we want to do so.  An ounce of prevention.”  However, in what would be one of the hardest-hit areas in the county,  just before Halloween Breckenridge closed its schools indefinitely.

       Churches also closed and could no longer hold services. The church bell at the Ithaca Presbyterian Church still rang each Sunday morning at 10:00 am, reminding people of the Sabbath. The pastor eventually asked each family to make a time of prayer and worship at home by reading the Bible and singing a hymn. Someone from the church still delivered Sunday School papers to homes. The pastor also asked each family to lay aside weekly offerings and send them to the church treasurer.


The Sick

        Notices of the sick who suffered influenza started as a trickle in October. “The Sick List,” which each community kept track of, contained a listing of people who experienced different maladies, and it served as communication to warn others. One of the first to become sick, A.S. McIntyre of St. Louis, was at home with three days due to “Lagrippe” early that month. By October 10, the virus hit the countryside, and entire families became sick. The Peter Salisbury Family in New Haven Township were all ill, and ten more people in Middleton became ill at the same time. The Hull Family was having “a serious time with influenza” and fortunately had a nurse to tend to them. The Hulls were fortunate as many families could not find anyone to serve as a nurse. Christian Eyer of Alma headed for Lansing to take care of his daughter because Eyer’s son-in-law was hospitalized with influenza, and “There is not a nurse to be had there.” Finding someone – anyone – to help with a sick household was a real problem for many Gratiot County families.

         Within a week, another eight people in Middleton went down, and the churches suspended services. Ten more people in Middleton became sick by Halloween.  Four people over at nearby Perrinton soon reported in as sick, followed by another household of five. As things worsened, Dr. Hall and at least three other doctors made frequent house calls. A total of fourteen people would initially become sick in Ashley, and by the end of the month, the total there reached the incredible number of seventy-five with influenza.

         Caring for the sick had its challenges. Several teachers returned home to Gratiot County to their families because their school in Flint or Marion closed down, allowing families to see each other. However, for those who traveled to take care of their sick family meant becoming trapped in a quarantine, or worse. Miss Della Struthers, an Ithaca teacher, went home to Pontiac to attend a funeral for a close family friend. At the funeral, her brother became sick, and Della had to stay in quarantine. The same situation happened to music teacher Merrie Jewell who went to help her family in Fowlerville. Jewell was quickly placed in quarantine. Samuel Wheeler ran to Camp Custer to see his sick brother, even as relatives of many soldiers there became ill. Mrs. Roscoe Praether of Breckenridge traveled to Alabama to see her husband in a cantonment, apparently unafraid of the epidemic.  When Roland Campbell of Breckenridge made the trip to Pompeii for surgery at Dr. Hall’s hospital, his wife came with him. Unfortunately, Campbell’s wife contracted influenza while awaiting his recovery in Pompeii.

The Dead

       Among the first to die early in October included Reverend F.E. Gainder of the St. Louis Baptist Church. In Ithaca, Warren Gross, age 56, died as a result of pneumonia, but his funeral took place at the Ithaca Presbyterian Church. Frank Gunn, the first in Ashley to die, had a private funeral in the undertaker’s room. Only a prayer was said for him then he was quickly buried in the North Star Cemetery.  Ashley residents experienced shocked by what influenza did to three members of the Beck family, who all died in Ashley. Little Mildred Beck, age five, died along with her relative, Dorothy Beck.  When Mildred died on a Saturday night, her father, Sam, came from Durand to help his sick daughter. The father quickly contracted influenza and died the following Monday morning.  When infant Orbie Darling died on a Sunday in Breckenridge, his parents were so ill that they could barely attend a private funeral. A funeral in Bannister took place on October 15 for Private Peter Mikilica, who died in Camp Custer, but the service took place outdoors in front of the church. While all deaths would be tragic, sometimes the loss of one person hit a village or town, especially hard. In Perrinton, Howard Phelps typified the fate of one of the younger adults who died. Phelps served as village clerk and telegraph operator, and he was well-liked and respected in the community. When he suddenly died at age 26 and in the prime of life, people could not believe that such a young adult could perish.

How the Public reacted to the Influenza Epidemic in October 1918

       On October 3, approximately 2,000 people still attended a Liberty Loan meeting in St. Louis in front of the Commercial Bank. Just as the virus hit, Middleton people met for prayer meetings at the Methodist Church. The Strubles showed some foresight in Ithaca by volunteering to close the Ideal Theatre before being ordered to do so. Large numbers of people from Breckenridge drove to Alma to see the war trophy train that pulled in with several flat trailers filled with guns, German airplanes, and tanks. The showing was held to raise Liberty Bonds.  State Representative Fordney, who represented Gratiot County and who had just planned a tour of the county for a series of speeches, canceled all of them. Instead, he planned to “drive about some” in Gratiot County to talk to a few people. The St. Louis Methodist Church thought enough of the threatening situation to postpone the dedication of its church until December.

       And in Alma, toward the end of the month, the newspaper started printing first page notices of those who died. On October 31, the headline of an article that said: “‘Flu’ Situation is not Alarming.” The Alma Record justified the headline by writing that only two or three severe cases had been reported in the last day. Also, the paper mentioned that Alma College was the only college in Michigan with students in the SATC that had escaped the flu. True, people in the Gratiot countryside were suffering, but Alma “hoped to escape the toll” being taken in places like St. Louis, Ashley, Perrinton, and Middleton. Maybe Gratiot County could soon return to normal.

      It would not be so.

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

Those who became sick during October 1918 included:

A.S. McIntyre, St. Louis

Mrs. J.G. Kress, Ithaca

Peter Salisbury Family, New Haven

Mrs. B. Hudson, Newark

Ten people in Middleton (October 10)

Eight people sick in Middleton (October 17)

Mrs. Harvey Humphrey, New Haven

Two people sick in Ashley (October 17)

Fisher and Shaw families – Wolford District

Five people in Hamilton Township (October 17)

Fourteen people in Ashley, including the George Gallup family (October 24)

Jack Burch in Rathbone

Alf Crawford in Breckenridge

Seven sick in Middleton (October 24)

Mable Pendell  – Middleton

Nellie Peters – Pompeii

Charles Dodge – Pompeii

Mrs. John Martin – North Shade

Hull Family – Middleton

Otto Fenner & wife – St. Louis

Glenallen Caldwell – Ithaca

Mrs. Rolland Campbell – Breckenridge

Baird Family – East Alma

Mrs. John Delling – Ithaca

Mrs. Hooker & 5 children – Perrinton

George Browning & wife – Riverdale

Seventy-Five people – Ashley (October 31)

Lora Seaman – Sumner

C.T. Pankhurst – North Star

Ten sick in Middleton (October 31)

The unknown number (“reported only a score”) in Alma (October 31)

Those Who Died in October due to Influenza who were either from Gratiot County or were tied to the County:

Robert Wachalac – Great Lakes

Clair Schlappi – Riverdale

Ammi Lancashire – Philadelphia

Floyd Allen

Rev. F.E. Gainder – St. Louis

Warren Gross – Ithaca

Floyd Schrider – Carson City

Glen Rickard – Matherton

Homer Hunt – Elwell

Mildred Beck – Ashley

Dorothy Beck – Ashley

Sam Beck –Ashley

Orbie Darling – Breckenridge

Frank Gunn – Ashley

Four people dead in North Shade

Ralston Fleming, Alma boy, died in Ann Arbor

George H. Smith – Alma

Howard Phelps – Perrinton

Mrs. Irvin Pankhurst – Pompeii

William C. Smith three-year-old son – St. Louis

Albert Worden – infant child – Alma

Copyright 2020 James M. Goodspeed