When the flu ravaged the world

Troops parade down Woodward in 1918 wearing gauze masks in an attempt to protect themselves from the flu virus.

By the spring of 1918 the terrible plague of war had enveloped the world, decimating a generation. But that same year an even more deadly plague swept across oceans, nearly eclipsing the monstrous toll inflicted on Medieval populations by the dreaded Black Plague.  By the time it had run its course that terrible Autumn, nearly one billion people throughout the world had become infected and between 25 million and 50 million had died from  an unusually virulent strain of influenza.

While the war began in Europe in 1914, the United States did not become directly involved until April of 1917. That summer and early fall the U.S sent 1.5 million soldiers to Europe.

A Red Cross unit at Detroit’s Utley Library tries to cope with the flu at the height of the epidemic.

      No one knows exactly where or when the flu originated, but some traced it to an outbreak at Ft. Riley, Kans., in March of 1918 that sickened 500 soldiers and killed 48.

Doctors were baffled by the raging fever, delirium and nose bleeds followed by bloody pneumonia. The faces of victims turned blue, and they spit up blood. Autopsies revealed that the lungs had turned blue. Doctors called the deaths pneumonia but knew it was different. They could offer no cure.

With the vast movements of troops back and forth across the Atlantic, the flu took hold in the front-line trenches of Europe. The unsanitary conditions common to warfare helped the disease to flourish and it wasn’t long before it crossed the ocean back to the U.S.

By now known as the “Spanish Influenza,” the disease entered the U.S. from Boston and spread quickly to Michigan, the Midwest, and across the entire country. More than 25 million — nearly one-quarter of the the U.S. population at the time — fell ill and 548,000 died.

A New Jersey historian wrote: “A sailor, on a transport being tied up to a Boston dock that day, had symptoms of influenza. It infected New England like a forest fire. In Massachusetts alone it killed 15,000 civilians in four months, plus an unknown number of others whose deaths were erroneously classed as ‘Pneumonia,’ ‘Encephalitis,’ ‘Meningitis’ or other diseases. The epidemic struck both civilians and military. Some of the sailors on the first Boston shipment were transferred to Michigan and Illinois and became nuclei for the spread of influenza to the Midwest.”

Communities across the nation tried to cope with the epidemic. Here a Seattle trolley conductor bars a man not wearing a gauze mask from boarding the trolley.

      Within days the entire East Coast had begun daily death counts. By mid-October the death rate in Boston, New York and Philadelphia had risen over 700 percent. Philadelphians paraded in Liberty Loan drives for the war and infected each other; 11,000 died in October. The as yet unravaged areas quickly moved to ban public gatherings.

The claim that the ourbreak had begun earlier that year in Kansas was only one theory. Others held that it originated in China, Russia, Spain and even a Georgia camp.

Huge numbers of American troops in Europe were already ill. President Woodrow Wilson knew he needed to send replacements but, with the disease also sweeping the U.S. he feared he would be dooming fresh troops to the same fate. One infected soldier on a crowded troop ship would spread the flu to the others. Many would die before they even got to the war.

Wilson sent the troops but afterward he remarked to an assistant, “I wonder if you have heard this limerick? ‘I had a little bird and his name was Enza, I opened the window and in flew enza.'”

Wilson himself contracted the disease, but he recovered.

It wasn’t only crowded troop ships that help spread the flu. Parades and other gatherings to send off the soldiers or to greet returning veterans also facilitated the spread of the disease. Rumors suggested that the Germans had created the disease in order to infect their enemies, but the flu also swept through the German population..

By October 12, 1918, the flu had hit 250,907 American soldiers in camps accross the U.S. Eighty percent of the deaths of the U.S. armed forces personnel during World War I were attributed to influenza. By October 14, Michigan had 8,000 cases out of a population of 2.8 million, 1,059 in Detroit out of a population of 466,000.

Michigan Governor Albert E. Sleeper proclaimed that “public gatherings of every description be discontinued.” His statement: “So serious has the epidemic of Spanish influenza become in Michigan that drastic action may be necessary to prevent a further spread of the disease. Men employed in the war industries are incapacitated, with the result that work on Government material needed by the American soldiers in France is being impeded.

Coffins containing the bodies of military flu victims are taken off a train in Detroit to be returned to their families.

      “The epidemic is seriously affecting the military establishment, and it is the patriotic duty of every citizen to cooperate with the military and civilian health officers to check the disease.

“I therefore request that after this date, (October 11), all conventions and public gatherings of every description be abandoned until such time as the State Board of Health considers that they may be held with safety. Convention delegates may easily carry the germs of trhe disease into a community where influenza in not prevalent at the present time.

“Unless this suggestion is voluntarily followed, it will be necessary for the Board of Health to order the closing of churches and theaters and arbitrarily to stop all public gatherings. I trust that the patriotic citizens of the state will give us their best cooperation in the matter.” The next day 503 new cases were reported, double the number expected. The day after brought 775 new cases. The Board of Health banned all gatherings of crowds. Churches, schools and theaters were ordered closed .

Panic fostered outlandish theories to explain the plague. One tied it to the Ft. Riley soldiers burning a huge pile of horse manure. Another theory claimed that it arose from poison gases used in the war that had combined with gases from decomposing bodies in the trenches. Others blamed gases from bomb explosions that soldiers inhaled. Others blamed pet distemper, airborne smoke and dust, and even dirty dishwater.

Because doctors were unable to cure the flu, many victims shunned traditional medicine and turned to folk remedies.

A funeral procession at Detroit’s Fort Wayne for a victim of the fighting in Europe. More than 10 times as many Americans died from the flu as were killed in the fighting.

      Some tried gargling with bicarbonate of soda, boric acid and chlorinated soda. A few took sugar laced with turpentine or kerosene. Others truly believed that lying in a tub full of chopped onions would save them. Other aromatic remedies included wearing necklaces adorned with sacks of garlic poultices or camphor balls. Some burned sulfur or brown sugar to drive away the flu bugs.

Panic-stricken citizens demanded laws against public sneezing, coughing or nose blowing. Gauze face masks were issued to soldiers and police, and many ordinary citizens adopted the precaution as well. Possibly, the most sensible precaution was frequent hand-washing.

Newspapers published long lists of the dead. Many who survived contracted tuberculosis, heart diseases, and Bright’s disease in their weakened states. Quarantine signs became common. Death wreaths and black bunting draped many homes. Black bunting over the doors and porches told that an older resident had passed away. Grey and white meant that younger family members had died. Passersby understood, but feared to approach to offer condolences. No one blamed them. Funerals became hurried affairs with few attendees.

Coffins piled high near funeral homes often were stolen and used without formality. Bodies placed on porches for daily pickup recalled gruesome scenes from the Medieval Black Plague.

Mild flu epidemics come and go every few years, some worse than others. Occasionally a virulent strain becomes pandemic, killing numbers of the elderly or other weaker members of society.The 1918 pandemic killed the young as well as the old and weak.All told, the disease claimed between 500,000 and 675,000 Americans, 10 times as many as were killed in the fighting.In Detroit, the disease raged through October and when it was finally done, 3,814 were dead.

The plague ended as quickly as it had begun, and the panic faded in the exhiliration brought on by the end of the war November 11.

At the height of the epidemic Red Cross workers were making daily rounds through the neighborhoods picking up the dead.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files from The Detroit News Library.)

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News