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Our Rich History: Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 — the granddaddy of all flu outbreaks in NKY

By Krysta Wilham
Special to NKyTribune

We are creeping into that time of the year again: autumn. Autumn is all kinds of fun: pumpkin-flavored everything, apple cider, trick-or-treating, and a crisp, cool air that we are always pining for following the dog days of summer. Cool weather shoos us inside more often than summer, however, and germs are more easily spread in close proximity to others.

Cue flu season, that nasty fact of life that persists from roughly October to March.

Kentucky Post and Kentucky Times-Star headlines of 1918-19

Kentucky Post and Kentucky Times-Star headlines of 1918-19

Ninety-eight years ago this month, the nation was experiencing one of the most severe outbreaks of flu in its history. Cue the constant hand-washing, and stock up on hand sanitizer, because we are about to venture into a brief, local history of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919.

Influenza comes with a slew of uncomfortable symptoms that we also associate with the common cold, but multiplied in intensity. Influenza can be life threatening to those with compromised immune systems. Between three to five million severe cases of influenza occur each year throughout the world, with death tolls from the flu, or complications from it, ranging from 250,000 to 500,000 worldwide.

Some years, however, the primary strain of influenza is particularly virulent and panic-inducing: for example, the Swine Flu Pandemic of 2009. The fall of 1918 happened to bring with it one of those flu strains, and was quite possibly the largest outbreak of disease in the 20th-century United States.

The Public Health Service began requiring states to report cases of flu starting on September 27, 1918, coincidentally the date that influenza is estimated to have arrived in the state of Kentucky.

Locally, the first newspaper-reported death from influenza was that of Harry Lewis Wilcox, a 22 year-old sailor from Ludlow who died on September 23, 1918 at Naval Hospital Great Lakes in Illinois. Just a day later, the death of Joseph Schulkins, a 27-year-old from Newport, was reported. Schulkins died within 24 hours of exhibiting symptoms of influenza, and was described as “one of the most robust men in Newport” (Kentucky Post, 27 Sept. 1918).

Kentucky Post headline

Kentucky Post headline

Immediately after the onslaught of Spanish Influenza, the Red Cross made efforts to recruit nurses to aid in the epidemic. Given the virulence and transmissibility of the virus, nurses must have been in short supply. Public health officials and physicians were urged to report cases of the disease to James L. Fleser, the division director of Civilian Relief, as well as to report the number of beds available in hospitals within their jurisdiction, and how many other buildings were available to serve as makeshift hospitals if necessary.

Almost immediately after the arrival of the flu, efforts were made to educate the public on how to prevent the spread of the virus. A number of bans went into effect throughout Northern Kentucky to combat the contagion. Public funerals were forbidden for persons who died of influenza, and no caskets containing victims of flu were to be opened for memorial services. In Fort Thomas, public meetings were forbidden in an attempt to combat the spread.

Streetcars and theaters were ordered to be fumigated by the Covington Board of Health. The Council of Defense ordered the cleaning of Kenton County streets by “flushing or oiling” (Kentucky Times Star, 7 Oct. 1918). Similarly, flushing of the streets by fire hose was urged on October 17. Mayor John J. Craig of Covington stated that the fire hoses had gotten more use in two weeks than they had in the previous two years. Officials also advocated the use of paper or paraffin cups in places of public drinking.

By October 9, Covington was estimated to have 1,000 cases of influenza. Citizens were urged to avoid crowds at all costs, and to wear masks each and every day to prevent the spread of influenza. Establishments in Northern Kentucky saw the effects of the bans ordered. Announcements blared out from the front pages of newspapers, and served as daily reminders that people should not venture out unless necessary.

Initially, most events and meeting places that could draw a crowd were cancelled or closed, including baseball games, saloons, billiard rooms, and community meetings. Schools and churches were some of the first establishments to close, and remained closed for weeks on end. On October 5, 1918, the Kentucky Post headline read “Ft. Thomas Shuts Schools, Churches and Theaters in Fight on Influenza.”

Similarly, children under the age of 18 were not permitted to ride the streetcars, nor were the soldiers stationed at Fort Thomas. Two days later, Kenton County officials followed suit and cancelled church services, an announcement that arrived late, leaving churchgoers greeting locked doors that Sunday morning.

As the days crept by, the rules became a bit less restrictive but still erred on the side of caution. Classes at the Newport Gym were discontinued for both men of the military and members of the community amidst the outbreak, though the baths remained open. Ice cream parlors, saloons, and soda fountains were ordered to reduce hours and to avoid staying open in the evening hours. Dances in Covington were forbidden as late as December 1918, and the Newport Library was also ordered to close and discontinue the circulation of books until the influenza epidemic had passed. Even some trials were postponed on account of illness.

It should come as no surprise that even holidays were affected by the influenza outbreak. Halloween was a grim time for residents of Covington. The annual celebration was cancelled amidst the outbreak, with both public and private affairs strictly forbidden.

In an attempt to profit from the ill-fortune of those inflicted with influenza, advertisements were posted in the newspapers for products promising good health if taken after a bout of the flu. “Eatonic” and “Grove’s Tasteless chill Tonic” were just two of the products touting the promise of a full recovery, or preventative properties to help one avoid the flu altogether.

Public health bulletins were printed every several days, reminding people of the dangers of the flu and how to go about avoiding it. Announcements for the deaths of revered community members could be found in the newspapers almost daily, whether it was a beloved teacher, military man, or prominent member of society. Updates on the death toll served as grim reminders that the disease was far from gone, though officials weighed in to state whether the epidemic was on the rise or waning.

On December 5th, the Kentucky Times Star headline read “Situation Not Half as Bad as During October,” a statement directly from James P. Riffe, Covington’s health officer, who offered hope that influenza was on the wane. As of late November, the death toll in Covington stood at 157, while Newport had 30 deaths from the flu.

The bans on activities became less restricting, and eventually establishments resumed normal operations. Covington lifted its ban on children attending church on December 19, 1918, though they were still forbidden to visit a number of other establishments. On December 23, 1918, Dr. Riffe stated that new cases were on a steady decline, and that churches, schools, and theaters might again resume operation, while exercising a bit of caution, of course.

Snake-oil cures advertised in local papers

Snake-oil cures advertised in local papers

The epidemic remained steady in the final days of 1918, when roughly 8,000 individuals had already succumbed to the ailment in Kentucky. The Red Cross made another plea to recruit individuals to work army camps and communities in December.

Locally, the intensity of the epidemic can be seen in the St. Elizabeth Hospital Patient Records index (available on GenKY). Influenza cases grew from October through November of 1918, then generally declined thereafter, only to spike again in March 1919. These cases don’t even reflect the related ailments influenza sometimes caused. It is certainly not uncommon to look through death records from October through December of 1918 and see the cause of death listed as lobar pneumonia or bronchopneumonia, with influenza commonly listed as a contributory cause.

No modern influenza outbreak has quite matched that of the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19. Recent estimates put the death toll between 50-100 million individuals worldwide. As we tread into the flu season of 2016, we can be thankful that most influenza seasons aren’t like 1918-19.

Krysta Wilham is a Library Associate in the Local History & Genealogy department at the Kenton County Public Library in Covington.

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