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

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