"Spanish" flu hit hard here in 1918
“Cover up each cough and sneeze; if you don’t, you’ll spread disease.”
That was one of several tag lines promoted by the U.S. Health Service in 1918 to stop the possible spread of the Spanish influenza.
Like COVID-19 (coronavirus), the Spanish flu caused Kansas residents to be quarantined and closed churches and public gatherings. In Jackson County, several waves of the flu hit, and schools were closed for a total of seven weeks.
Although it was deemed the “Spanish” flu, the first outbreak of the disease was reported here in Kansas in Haskell County and Fort Riley where young men were being hospitalized for flu-like symptoms.
An official “outbreak” occurred at Fort Riley in March with as many as 500 soldiers hospitalized within a week, according to the Kansas Historical Society.
As the soldiers began to recover, many of them were sent to Europe to fight in World War I where the disease mutated and became deadly. The disease spread and caused outbreaks in most parts of the world, according to the KHS.
In the fall of 1918, the disease returned to Kansas, and a health notice in The Holton Recorder, “Uncle Sam’s Advice On Flu,” described the Spanish flu as “a very contagious kind of cold accompanied by fever, pains in the head, eyes, ears, back or other parts of the body and a feeling of severe sickness.”
The notice reported that for some, symptoms disappear after three or four days but that some people develop pneumonia, inflammation of the ear or meningitis and that, in many of these complicated cases, a person may die.
To fight the influenza, it was reported that it was important that the body be “kept strong and able to fight off disease germs,” which could be accomplished by having “a proper proportion of work, play and rest, by keeping the body well clothed and by eating sufficient wholesome and properly selected food.” Fresh air was also highly encouraged.
In the Oct. 10, 1918, edition of The Recorder, Holton Mayor F.H. Woodworth published an order that closed all Holton schools, Sunday schools and churches and prohibited all “public gatherings, shows, lodges and entertainments” until further notice.
In the same edition, it was reported that the board of education agreed to close the schools after Dr. M.S McGrew, the county health officer, reported more than 30 cases of the flu in the area.
Residents who had the Spanish flu were asked to quarantine themselves for five days.
In the Oct. 24, 1918 edition of The Recorder, it was reported there were “still a good many sick” with the disease and more than 120 cases had been reported in the county with one death reported.
A state-wide quarantine was put in place in Oct. 9 by Gov. Arthur Capper that closed all schools, theaters and public gatherings that was lifted on Sunday, Nov. 10. Local schools were set to resume on Monday, Nov. 11.
The number of positive flu cases in Jackson County increased after Thanksgiving, however, which prompted local schools to close again until January. In total, local schools were closed for seven weeks, it was reported.
In one week in November, 100 cases of the flu were reported in three days, according to The Recorder.
In the Dec. 5 edition of The Recorder, it was reported that the disease had become more widespread than in the fall and another strict quarantine was ordered locally until Jan. 1. All public funerals were also prohibited during the duration of the second quarantine, it was noted.
It was reported that 35 households in the town reportedly had at least one family member with the flu. A card with the words “Influenza, Keep Out” was posted on the homes. In some cases, a whole family was ill at the same time.
Holton nurse Mary Bair volunteered her services at Fort Riley on Oct. 8 when she learned there was an urgent need for trained nurses in the training camps due to the epidemic.
Bair was on duty for three days when she contracted the flu and died of pneumonia, according to her obituary in The Recorder.
During her funeral, the stores in Holton were closed to show respect for Bair’s sacrifice for her country. Holton’s Mary Bair American Legion Post 44 is named in her honor.
The total number of deaths and positive cases in Jackson County attributed to the Spanish flu is unknown. It is estimated at that more than 20 million people or more died from this flu worldwide.