This is a story of a terrible thing that happened at a terrible time. Something people were only too glad to forget and never talk about again, as if the mere mention of it might bring back that awful period in their lives. It was compared to the infamous “Great Plague of London” in 1665 that took the lives of approximately 100,000 persons.
This was the Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1918. Mind you, the virus did not appear to come from Spain, but was comparable in scope to the mass epidemic that had occurred there in May and June of 1918. In addition to being misnamed, the epidemic in the United States began months earlier, when on the morning of March 11, 1918, a young army private at Fort Riley, Kansas, reported to the camp hospital complaining of flu symptoms. By noon of the same day, 197 more cases of flu had been logged. In a week’s time, 500 cases were reported. Some 48 soldiers died there from it.
Soldiers transferring from camp to camp or visiting their hometowns, took the disease along with them. Cases of the flu subsided by July. But it wasn’t over yet. A few months later, in September, the numbers were on the increase. That month, 12,000 Americans were reported to have been killed by flu, although the flu wasn’t the primary source of the deaths. As the flu subsided, pneumonia attacked the weakened body with a quickness and ferocity that defied all medical explanation.
October was the worst month. People, seemingly hale and hearty in the morning, could turn up dead by the day’s end. And the disease didn’t affect the very old and the very young, as much as it had been known to. Now it struck down the strong, the very ones who would usually not be so affected.
While researching this subject, I sought out any mention of it in the records of the villages of Brookfield and Riverside, and newspaper microfilms. I also asked about any records left by Dr. Ella Camp, Brookfield Health Commissioner during the time of the epidemic. There were none. I then scanned the minutes books of the Brookfield Village Board, and struck gold.
The Riverside Historical Museum had no records of the epidemic, and even the village board minutes books were devoid of even he slightest mention of the flu, as if the officials of the time had refused to accept its existence.
This was not as odd as it appeared as this sort of thing had then occurred all over the United States, and even in newspapers, sometimes due to war censorship. By the way, no Riverside papers exist for 1918.
Besides books, I consulted the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Daily News newspapers, on microfilm at the Chicago Public Library. Even here, Riverside was not mentioned, but then, neither was Brookfield.
Current local eyewitness accounts, 87 years after the fact, were a challenge, but I had a source, Marge (McFee) Davis of Congress Park, who has lived in Brookfield since 1906. Curiously, she did not catch the flu, or its attendant secondary pneumonia infection, which is probably why she was alive today to speak with me.
“My mother was not alive. I was 11 years old at the time, and I would get a case of tonsillitis every year. My father came down very ill with all the signs of typhoid fever. For a whole month, I stayed home from [Congress Park] school, going back and forth from my sick grandmother [in our house] to my father. By the end of the month, I was sick with tonsillitis.
“There was a hospital across the street from where the LaGrange Theater now is [87 S. LaGrange Road, the LaGrange Sanitarium and Hospital]. My father was against operations and said I’d have to arrange it all, but he never thought I would. But I arranged it. I was all ready to walk up to the hospital, but the doctor [James C. Clarke] called me and said I’d have to cancel the operation due to the flu epidemic. He didn’t want me there in my weakened condition.”
So, little Marge McFee, never had the operation done. Her tonsils probably saved her, in combination with the fact that she had little time or inclination to be out in public, where one sneeze from a sick passerby could’ve laid her low forever.
Suburban Magnet newspapers for September 1918, give little clue to the coming tragedies of October. Doctors everywhere had trouble diagnosing the disease, calling it “whooping cough.” Then, when that didn’t adequately describe the symptoms, they dubbed it “grip,” “LaGrippe” or more modern “influenza.”
The October 4 issue of the LaGrange Citizen related that “there are a number of Spanish Influenza cases in LaGrange, but not many of them so far are very serious. There has been one death resulting from pneumonia.”
In the same issue, headlined “Has Good Health Record,” LaGrange was patting itself on the back, stating that “LaGrange has been most fortunate in its freedom from serious epidemics the past couple of years.” One short week later, the Citizen radically changed its tune. “The epidemic of Spanish Influenza is very serious,” a report read.
The Brookfield Village Board was not unmindful of the situation, either, passing a resolution proposed by Village Attorney Willis Melville, at a specially called meeting on Oct. 10. It may have been the shortest meeting ever held with all village officers present.
Maybe they thought they might catch something from being present for too long. Anyway, from this meeting came a unanimous Proclamation closing “all schools, churches, theaters, lodges, societies, and public meetings, and gatherings of every kind and nature” in the village.
Also specified was “that all children under the age of 16 years be kept off of the streets unless they have a permit from the health officers.”
Brookfield was officially under quarantine. A total of 250 copies of this proclamation were printed for distribution and posting throughout the village.
The children must’ve hated to be cooped up. The weather for all October ranged from temperatures in the 50s to the 70s with little variation.
That month, a favorite jump rope rhyme was first chanted; “I saw a little bird, it’s name was Enza, I opened the window, and in flew Enza.” Like the “Ring around the rosy” rhyme that emerged from London’s Great Plague, now the United States had one also.
On Oct. 11, the Magnet noted on its front page the flu-related deaths of four citizens, one of whom was soldier William F. Koenig, who died on Oct. 10, “being one of the first victims of the prevailing epidemic.”
Koenig, 24, died stateside before being shipped out, and was thought at the time to be the “first [Brookfielder] to give [his] life” to his country. However, news had not yet been received of resident Edward Feely’s death “of disease” in France, on Sept. 27.
The Magnet reported that on Oct. 18, three days after his 28th birthday, that William “Billy” Buhs, the son of Brookfield’s first village president, died after only a few days of flu illness, at Camp Knox, Ky., where he was engaged in government work.
Among the mundane items up or discussion at the next regular meeting on Oct. 16 was a letter from Health Commissioner Dr. Camp, concerning the number of whooping cough cases in Hollywood, and crediting the tireless efforts by Village Marshal Curran and local citizens who had helped her to maintain the quarantines “of the present epidemic of contagious diseases.”
It should be noted that in all the pages of the minutes, not one time did they ever write the word influenza, or even flu.
Dr. Camp wrote a small article for the Magnet giving advice on how to combat the contagion, going so far as to state her belief that the reason for the epidemic was unclean dishwater in the sink, harboring the growth of the germs. To be fair even the top health officials all over the country were perplexed and had no idea on what was causing the disease.
So the churches were all closed, and if anyone wanted to pray for God’s help, they’d have to do it at home. And the library was closed, too, so nobody could while away the worryful hours by reading a borrowed book.
Brookfield’s streets were deserted like a ghost town. Those who had to go out eyed anyone coming close and dreaded their fate should someone near suddenly sneeze. They might well be dead within hours. This may sound overly melodramatic, but it was exactly the situation.
The State Board of Health cautioned “influenza is a crowd disease. Therefore, keep out of crowds as much as possible. Cover up each cough or sneeze. Don’t spit on the floor or sidewalk. Shun the common drinking cup and the roller towel in public places. If you feel sick and believe you have Spanish Influenza, go to bed and send for a doctor.”
Keeping out of crowds probably did help, some. Yet, for the war effort, thousands of soldiers were being cramped into warships and sent overseas, arriving with hundreds of them sick and dying. As for sending for a doctor, well, that was a fine idea–if only there was a doctor to spare. They were all being run ragged. And how would anyone call for them? Telephone service was disrupted because so many operators were sick.
To make matters even worse, there was an acute shortage of nurses as well. The Chicago Tribune published an extensive list on what and what not to do, in essence making nurses out of ordinary people.
White gauze surgical masks became the necessary item to wear when going out into public. In reality, they offered very little protection against the virus, and to see old photographs of people wearing them in everyday situations, appears quite bizarre.
Brookfield resident Albert Haase returned home from the war to marry his sweetheart, Irene. Everyone”the groom, the bride, the reverend and the guests”wore masks at the ceremony. Stated the groom: “We have to wear gas masks and many peculiar devices in France, but civil life in America seems to be getting just as complex.”
It is not known how the bride and groom kissed through their masks.
Every day, it seemed there were funerals, and church bells tolling solemnly. Speaking of funerals, in 1989, William Feely Jr., related that Mr. Gillespie of the only funeral home in Brookfield needed help.
Gillespie was busy serving the needs of people from other villages as well. So Feely took the job, but didn’t last long at it, because all he saw were bodies and coffins everywhere. Feely himself suffered from the flu, but survived.
People were desperate and looked to any kind of a cure. Horlick’s Malted Milk touted itself as “The Diet in Influenza,” while Turpo Ointment, made of turpentine, menthol and camphor, stated that it was “splendid for bronchitis or tonsillitis.”
Perhaps little Marge McFee used it. Or they could buy Dobell’s Solution, in a perfume-type atomizer that was supposed to be squirted up the nose. What about Kondon’s Catarrhal Jelly, to be spread around inside the nose?
The end was not yet in sight, but the “influenza ban [was] lifted,” stated the Nov. 1 Magnet. Dr. Camp reiterated that “precautions should be kept up.”
Newspapers and officials everywhere had been saying, time and again, that the epidemic was nearly over, but were always proven wrong. On Friday, Nov. 8, the Magnet begged their readers’ forgiveness, as the paper’s foreman, linotype operator and two typesetters were out with the flu, and help had been unobtainable.
On Armistice Day, Nov. 11, the ending of the war seemed to choke the contagion. The number of cases all over the country dropped off sharply. Of course, it wasn’t over yet. The flu reappeared in December, and then into 1919, with some cases even in early 1920. But the main epidemic, as swiftly as it had come, all but disappeared.
What was the cause of America’s worst epidemic? No one is sure, even today, but recent studies link it to birds. A virus that jumped from birds to humans. “Bird flu” it’s called. And health and animal experts warn it could happen again, perhaps even worse in scope.
So the next time the flu comes around, maybe we shouldn’t be looking at the dishwater, but instead, be looking to the skies.