The other deadly flu

The other deadly flu

In 1918, the Spanish flu hit the state with force, killing more than 1,700 Vermonters

BRATTLEBORO — It was called the Spanish flu, but few realized that the strain didn't actualize in the country of its namesake.

Spain simply didn't use wartime censors in its newspapers as other countries did during The Great War (later known as World War I), making reports from Spain more reliable than other news sources, and by proxy suggesting to many that the disease originated there.

Scientists are still working to extrapolate where the influenza epidemic of 1918 might have originated. There is not yet an answer to that question, but what can be known for sure was that it proliferated because of the proximity of soldiers who lived in the confines of trenches on the battlefield.

Soldiers infected or carrying the virus home helped circulate it to almost every country in the world, including, of course, to the United States, and to Vermont, then home to 352,428 people. An estimated 50,000 people would come down with “La Grippe,” including more than 1,000 people in Windham County, and more than 1,700 residents of the state would die from its complications.

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The U.S. didn't get involved in The Great War until April 6, 1917, the day the church bells rang in Brattleboro, signaling all who had already enlisted to come to the Armory.

There, in the building now known as the Gibson-Aiken Center, they slept on cots and drilled with their regiments every day until the time came for them to be shipped off to Europe.

By Sept. 27, 1918, the Brattleboro Daily Reformer featured on its front page a headline that read, “Big War Exhibit to Reach Brattleboro Tomorrow Morning, Crowd Expected Near the Station.”

“Bombs, shells, accoutrements, weapons, clothing and other articles captured from the enemy” would arrive on the “war relic train” at 8 a.m. and remain in town for three hours.

The Brattleboro Military Band was to welcome the train, along with a big group of people who were sure to be pleased with the “patriotic songs, sung under the direction of Frank M. Cram, musical director of the public schools.” The group promised to be “the largest chorus ever heard in Brattleboro.”

These events, though sanctioned because of a war, were typical of the time. It was an era in Vermont where few people owned a radio, almost all news came from the local newspaper, and though it had been invented 70 years prior, the telegraph was still the primary way of receiving important news.

For the first time in history, machines had begun to afford people a sliver of free time to enjoy the company of others in public places.

While the rest of the country liked spending their free time in roller-skating rinks, saloons, pool halls, and amusement parks, Brattleboro enjoyed its movie house, sporting events, and regular dances in halls or private homes.

Island Park (located on an island in the middle of the Connecticut River near the Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery) could be enjoyed in the summer. The Valley Fair was celebrated in the fall at the Fairgrounds, now the site of Brattleboro Union High School.

Medicine was beginning to make some advances. Licensing had begun to be required of all those who considered themselves physicians, but older doctors were grandfathered into the new law. That meant that many doctors, especially those in rural communities, had very little to no formal training.

The average life expectancy was 53 for men and only 54 for women. Disease was common at the time, antibiotics had yet to be invented, and accidents were common.

A scan through the Brattleboro Daily Reformers of 1918 shows a region rife with disaster.

“Grip Epidemic! Between 50,000 and 75,000 cases reported in New England.”

“Local Vassar Graduate, Paralysis Victim.”

“Automobile Hits Engine [train].”

“Steam Engine Explodes.”

Such headlines were typical of daily front-page news. Without laws enforcing the safety of workers, and without the sewage systems and health codes we enjoy today, life was not only shorter, it was much more dangerous.

Folk medicine was still considered reliable. People believed that illness might be connected to the weather or even a curse. The revolutions in medicine concerning germs and bacteria were in their infancy.

Ads for patent medicines appeared on the second page of the newspaper every day. “Don't be bald,” one reads. “Parisinn sage is inexpensive and easily obtained. It will make hair grow strong thick and lustrous.”

Illness was often treated with folk remedies like mustard packs, or by “cupping,” which was attaching a heated cup to the surface of the hurt. Some people still wore objects they believed powerful enough to keep illness from their body.

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This new prospect of large crowds gathering at skating rinks and movie houses helped spread the Spanish Flu more quickly than any other disease in the history of the world. The flu raged through cities and rural areas as well.

The first reports of influenza in Vermont came on Sept. 29, 1918 in Burlington. Because reporting of disease was not always accurate at that time, it can be assumed that the illness had been in Vermont prior to the first account.

The Burlington Free Press reported that “Mrs. Addie Zeno visited her ill son Francis at Camp Devens [in central Massachusetts] and brought the influenza home with her to Northern Avenue in Burlington along with his body.” Influenza crept toward Vermont from southern New England as well.

Already it was known that this new illness attacked those young and healthy as well as the infirm.

The Sept. 27, 1918 edition of the Brattleboro Daily Reformer reported that “Massachusetts Health Authorities Take Drastic Measures to Check the Spread of the Grip.”

Not yet called influenza, the City of Boston's health committee voted “to request proprietors of all soda fountains to discontinue immediately the sale of all drinks as an aid in checking the spread of influenza. No time was set when the sale might be resumed.”

During the final week of September, 6,000 cases had been reported throughout the state. By October, the epidemic was in full bloom, with 28,842 cases reported. The largest outbreaks hit central and northern Vermont, but Windham County reported 1,009 cases in the month of October alone.

The last week of September, the Brattleboro Daily Reformer reported: “No Indication of Wide Outbreak, Local Health Officer Says Influenza Is Being Held in Check.”

The article explained that quarantines and placards “have been placed at fifteen homes. Of the nine patients now at the emergency hospital, one is in critical condition. One nurse who has been on night duty is now being cared for as one of the influenza patients. The traveling man from New York who was taken to the hospital from the Brooks House [hotel] about a week ago, was able to leave for his home this morning.

“As the number of cases apparently are increasing in Brattleboro, it might not be a bad idea to adopt here some of the practices which have been adopted in New York for fighting the malady.”

According to Mary R. Cabot's history The Annals of Brattleboro, “An Emergency Hospital was organized and conducted during the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919.”

Quarantine was mandatory, which assisted in keeping the population free of other diseases while containing the flu.

In October, Brattleboro reported 77 cases of measles, 7 of smallpox, 22 of typhoid fever, 27 of scarlet fever, 45 of diphtheria, 48 chicken pox, 10 of German measles, 57 mumps, 56 of whooping cough, 7 of tuberculosis, 257 of pneumonia and 18 of venereal diseases to the Vermont State Board of Health.

“Influenza makes its appearance,” a writer from Newfane reported that day. “Five cases of influenza are reported in the Union district and Dr. L.B. Gordon, health officer, has quarantined the houses of Samuel Winwall whose wife is ill and the home of Royce Severance, where Mr. and Mrs. Severance and infant son and Mrs. Severance's sister, Miss Gould of Wardsboro who was there to care for Mrs. Severance are ill.”

The local schoolteacher was ordered to shut down the school and act as nurse to the ill people of Newfane.

Over the river in West Chesterfield, N.H., the news was the same. “There will be no Red Cross meeting this week on account of the prevalence of influenza. Schools in this village were closed this week for fear of a spread of the prevailing epidemic.”

By Oct. 9, 1918, along with the regular updates on the war in Europe, the flu headlines continued: “Ten New Cases of Influenza, local situation remains unchanged, two admitted to emergency hospital and one discharged.”

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Bulletins with advice for caretakers of patients ill with influenza and its common complication, pneumonia, began to circulate in the community.

“Symptoms start with what appears to be an ordinary attack of LaGrippe or Influenza and when brought to the hospital they very rapidly develop the most viscious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen,” one doctor wrote. “Two hours after admission they have mahogany spots over the cheekbones.”

A few hours later, the doctor wrote, the spots spread all over the patient's face.

“It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate,” he wrote. “It is horrible.”

Author Nancy Bazilchuk recently interviewed 93-year-old Ken Bessette of Williston, Vt., who was 12 years old during the epidemic.

“Everyone, it seemed, had the flu,” Bessette told Bazilchuk. He was working 6 p.m. to midnight delivering telegrams for Western Union. Since telegrams clearly contained bad news, he was often asked to come inside and read the telegram to others also sick with influenza. “I would knock and get no answer, and I would call in and say, 'Telegram,' and they would all start to cry.”

“As the casualties climbed, Bessette and his cohorts were sent to the train station to unload rough-hewn boxes carrying bodies being shipped back for burial,” Bazilchuk continued. “Some bodies came back in expensive wicker caskets, which were in short supply. Bessette and the other boys had to unload the bodies, put them in rough boxes and then ship the caskets back to the distant undertakers who supplied them. One time, he said, 'I remember it was snowing like hell and the wind was blowing the white sheets around the bodies.' ”

By the end of October the epidemic wound down as quickly as it began. Seven million people died as a result of the Great War. Worldwide, 50 to 100 million died of influenza during the pandemic.

Now, all that remains of the Great Pandemic of 1918 is the jump roping rhyme popular with children that year.

I had a little bird/its name was Enza/I opened the window/and in-flew-Enza.

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