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The Last Big Pandemic – 1918 - December 2020 History & Heritage

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Welcome to this month’s edition of History & Heritage. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.

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The Last Big Pandemic – 1918

I recently read a good book, The Great Rescue, which tells the story of the German luxury ocean liner, SS Vaterland, which was detained in New York Harbor when WWI broke out in 1914. There she remained until the United States entered the war in 1917; seized by the U. S. Navy, she was renamed the USS Leviathan and converted into an armed troop carrier to transport thousands of soldiers to France. In the chapter called The Eve of the Flu Voyage, the author recounted that while the soldiers were boarding, some were so sick they couldn’t even make it up the gangways. This included troops from Vermont, which made me begin to wonder why I had never really heard much about this event in history. I don’t remember it in my early history classes; I could only find a paragraph about the sickness in the American Heritage book about WWI. Turns out that there was not much written at the time – a conundrum considering it killed over half a million people just in the United States.

Then my thoughts turned to St. Johnsbury and what effect this deadly and devastating disease had in this part of the world. In Claire Dunne Johnson’s book, I See By the Paper, volume I, chapter 34 ends with the following January, 1919 statistics:

“When the State Board of Health got its statistics added up, it reported that St. Johnsbury had a total of 2,984 cases. Only Montpelier had more cases, with 3,000 and no one seemed eager to surpass that record.”

St. J’s number piqued my curiosity and with the help of Jen Paine and her computer sleuthing skills, here is a snapshot.

On September 26, 1918, The Caledonian – Record headlined –

“Local Board of Health Closes Schools, Churches and Movies” –

“All churches, schools, theatres, moving picture shows, dance halls, places of amusement, pool rooms, bowling alleys and public gatherings in the town of St. Johnsbury are hereby ordered closed until further notice. All children under 16 years of age must remain at home. All case must be reported as soon as possible either by the doctor or heads of families. Salt and water should be used for the throat as a gargle and for the nose.”

On October 3, 1918, The Caledonian – Record ran a story titled

“When “Flu” Strikes You”

“The victorious advance of the “flu” represents the most successful drive that any epidemic has made in this war. It bids fair to sweep around the world, causing vast devastation before it runs out. It is not a “deadly” disease, but it has dangerous potentialities. It may kill a person who happens to be much below normal health when it hits him. It may weaken a well person so that more perilous ailments find him an easy prey.

It spreads from person to person in much the same way as a common cold. Doctors give the following advice: Avoid exposing yourself knowingly. Keep well nourished and completely clothed and try not to let yourself get over tired. Under any circumstances, if the “flu” strikes you, go to bed and call a physician and then stay in bed until the fever has subsided” – North Adams Herald.

This flu was often referred to as the Spanish Flu, but most articles point out that this was not the site of origin. One article, Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu, in the October 14, 1918 edition of The Caledonian – Record reads

“Although the present epidemic is called “Spanish influenza,” there is no reason to believe that it originated in Spain. Some writers who have studied the question believe that the epidemic came from the Orient and they call attention to the fact that the Germans mention the disease as occurring along the eastern front in the summer and fall of 1917.”

As to the wearing of masks, it is noted under Red Cross Notes and refers to the wearing of a mask when treating a patient. The New England Division of the Red Cross sent a sample gauze influenza mask to the Caledonia Chapter stating that: “These masks are invaluable in preventing the well who are caring for the sick from getting the contagion.”

Other advice as to how to make masks came from the Board of Health in a Special to the Caledonian, October 16, 1918 – The masks may be made very simply as follows: Three layers of butter cloth or five to seven layers of fine mesh cheesecloth so fastened that it will cover the nose and mouth”. After use, the mask would be placed in a paper bag and not used again until it had been boiled at least five minutes. As to wide spread use by non- caregivers, the St. Johnsbury Republican of November 20, 1918 in an article titled A Health Hint- During the recent Spanish influenza epidemic, San Francisco and other coast cities adopted a form of mask worn by all who traveled on the streets. This proved most effective and prevented the spread of the disease.”

St. Johnsbury Republican (St. Johnsbury, Vermont) · Wed, Oct 16, 1918

“Emergency Hospitals – Two are Opened in St. Johnsbury Tuesday morning with Fourteen Patients.” This was the headline in the St. Johnsbury Republican on Wednesday, October 9, 1918. The two were the Charlotte Fairbanks Cottage (across from Fuller Hall at St. J. Academy) and the Fairbanks casino – part of the Fairbanks Plant fronting Western Ave and where the Trade School began. A little bit of encouragement was found in the article:

There is a slight decrease in the number of new influenza cases and that, with better weather conditions and improved facilities for caring for the sick, give encouragement that the crisis of the epidemic is passed. Its toll of life in St. Johnsbury is heavy and there are many seriously sick, but with the cooperation that everyone is showing in an attempt to stamp out the malady the situation is improving. Ninety-six new cases were reported Tuesday, a decrease of two over the day before and a decided decrease over Saturday and Sunday.”

The community kitchen that the Red Cross set up at Summer Street schools was aiding in the fighting of the epidemic. This was providing daily soups, broths and cereals where needed. In the October 21, 1918 edition of the Caledonian-Record, the headline of “Community Kitchen Work” is followed by “Splendid Work of the St. Johnsbury Ladies Through the Epidemic.” It was suggested that the need for the Community Kitchen might be nearing an end. Praise was given – “The Kitchen, under the splendid management of Miss Maude H. Sprague, who has not been absent a day since the Kitchen was opened two weeks ago last Saturday, has provided broths, custards, etc., for 60 or 70 families, sometimes even a larger number, daily. Forty or fifty pounds of beef or lamb have been ordered each day for the broths, to say nothing of milk, eggs, etc. Clear broths for the very sick, rice, broths, rice, oatmeal, barley gruel, custards, grape juice made by one of the women, stews, gingerbread, baked apples, light dinners for the well and the nurses, and lunches for those who cared for the families at night – these are some of the things that the Kitchen has furnished.” Mrs. Charles Ruiter was in charge of seeing that cars were available for delivery and for the transportation of the volunteer nurses. Four routes were established to get this done. Praise was given to the women that did the volunteer nursing: “When the need was the greatest, these women have been carried from place to place for an hour or two in each place, in one instance one of these women made 16 calls of this kind in a day; many of them have made 8 or 10 a day.” Additional help was being asked for as the first volunteers were getting tired and concern needed to be shown for their health.

Shortages? Couldn’t find anything about toilet paper, but here is a headline from the St. Johnsbury Republican of November 13, 1918:

“DRUGGISTS!! PLEASE NOTE VICK’S VAPORUB OVERSOLD DUE TO PRESENT EPIDEMIC—Tremendous Demand Last Few Days Has Wiped Out Excess Stocks That We Had Estimated Would Last Until Next January. Last Weeks’ Orders Called For One and Three Quarter Million Jars – Today’s Orders Alone Amount to 932,459 Jars.”

One final article has the influenza still having an impact in St. Johnsbury into 1919. According to The Caledonian – Record of January 5, 1919: “By order issued by Health Officer Harriman all students attending St. Johnsbury Academy who reside in Summerville were excluded from attendance until further notice. This section of the village is most seriously affected by influenza. Notice will be given in the Daily Caledonian when these pupils may return to the Academy.” Summerville was the name given to the Portland Street area – across the Passumpsic River.

St. Johnsbury Republican (St. Johnsbury, Vermont) · Wed, Feb 12, 1919

This is Just a small snapshot of St. Johnsbury in the last great Pandemic of 1918. On a personal note, I lost, on my father’s side, a great Aunt, Margaret Damon Howe in this Pandemic. I knew she died young while teaching school but not until now did I realize what took her; the flu which then went into pneumonia. She rests in the Woodsville, N.H. Cemetery. On my Mom’s side, her sister Alice was born as the Pandemic was winding down in 1919 and continues to live through the current one!!

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