The Influenza Epidemic of 1918

Appeared in the Gazette, Spring 2018
By Helen Weaver

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 1918 influenza pandemic, known then as the “Spanish” flu. Experts today are not in agreement about where the flu originated, but Spain was blamed at the time since wartime news blackouts kept outbreaks of the illness in other European countries from being reported. According to recent CDC estimates, more than 500 million people were infected by the deadly strain of the H1N1 virus, with at least 50 million deaths worldwide, and 675,000 deaths in the United States. Chicago was hard-hit– at the height of the pandemic reporting more than 2000 new cases and several hundred deaths per day. Winnetka, like the rest of the North Shore, was also impacted with hundreds of people sickened and at least 10 deaths attributed to the flu.

The first cases of influenza in the Midwest occurred at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Waukegan in early September. On September 17, 1918 the Chicago Tribune reported “four thousand men in the aviation camp at Great Lakes were placed under quarantine yesterday as the result of Spanish influenza breaking out in the camp.” On September 20 the Winnetka Talk reported that there were between 25 and 30 cases of influenza in the Village, “all of them traceable to the boys at the Great Lakes.” Winnetka responded by cancelling the regular Saturday night “Jackie” Dance as it had “been deemed advisable to discontinue the dancing parties for the sailors at Community House on Saturday evenings for the present and until this epidemic is over.”

While Illinois military officials were quick to claim (according to a September 19 Tribune headline) that the “Grip Epidemic at Great Lakes (was) Under Control,” it was actually just getting started. Within days 100 new cases of flu were reported in Lake Forest, and 300 at Fort Sheridan with 120 cadets falling ill in one day. By the end of the month, Highland Park had reported 600 cases, Wilmette 200 cases, and Winnetka 150. Out of approximately 45,000 sailors stationed at Great Lakes, there were 4,500 cases of influenza. Josie Brown, a newly trained nurse from St. Louis, was assigned duty at Great Lakes in late September 1918. She recalled her experiences in a 1986 interview: “There were so many patients we didn’t have time to treat them. We didn’t take temperatures; we didn’t even have time to take blood pressure. We would give them a little hot whisky toddy; that’s about all we had time to do.”

Naval records attribute 941 deaths at Great Lakes to influenza and/or respiratory illness between September 2 and November 11, 1918 with a peak on September 25th. On that day, a 17-year old Winnetka sailor, James Edward Hayes, who had enlisted only a month and a half earlier, died at Great Lakes. He was the third of Winnetka’s ten men to die during World War I, and the first Winnetkan to die of the “Spanish” flu. There were 94 other sailors who died on that one day at Great Lakes, and 485 that week.

In early October, Winnetka’s Health Commissioner, Dr. C.O. Schneider, requested all villagers who exhibited signs of illness to “remain at home until fully recovered.” He also advised members of the community to “not come near anyone who has a cold, avoid scanty clothing and wet feet, get plenty of fresh air and at least 8 hours of sleep.” By October 4th, Dr. Schneider had ordered all public places closed including New Trier High School. He requested that all churches, clubs and other meeting places remain closed until the epidemic was considered past the danger stage. At that time, an average of 40 cases of flu were reported in Winnetka daily. Boy Scouts were sent to distribute “circulars” warning villagers that no child may leave the premises of their home without written permission from their parents. The Winnetka Talk reported that “police are watching for violations of this order and will deal harshly with heedless offenders.” Village services were also affected with garbage and ash collection “seriously interrupted by the epidemic.” Six out of nine village drivers were too sick to work.

Winnetka’s women, led by Winnetka Historical Society founder Carrie B. Prouty, established an emergency hospital at Indian Hill Country Club, in operation from October 3 to October 25, 1918. There were 30 beds available for patients from Winnetka, Hubbard Woods, and Glencoe. Many Winnetka and Glencoe “society women” served as volunteer nurses. To meet the expenses of the hospital, the Village Council requested that each citizen contribute $1 to $5 per week.

By late October, Dr. Schneider felt the danger point had passed. Schools were re-opened, churches were allowed to hold services and the emergency hospital at Indian Hill was closed. However, the epidemic was not over yet. On November 29, a Winnetka Talk headline read: “Influenza Situation Remains Unimproved.” On December 6, Dr. Schneider ordered “all moving picture shows and dances prohibited” though the schools remained open under strict supervision.

By the end of 1918, there were ten more Winnetkans who had died from influenza. Robert Henderson was only four years old when he died at the emergency hospital on October 17. Michael Falasca was a 17 year-old Italian immigrant. William Flynn, Irene Moses and Ralph Ellis were parents of young children. One of the most tragic cases concerned the prominent Houghteling family. On October 12, 1918, Captain William Houghteling, married Miss Virginia LeSeure in Danville, Illinois. William’s brother, Francis, served as best man and his sister Harriet was one of the out-of-town guests. Within days the entire family was sick with influenza. Harriet was forced to postpone indefinitely her planned overseas service with the Y.M.C.A., both William and his bride Virginia were too sick to return to their hometown, and Francis succumbed to the flu on October 16.

In mid-January 1919, the Health Commissioner ordered “the complete quarantine and placarding of every home where the disease is in evidence.” By that time, the disease had become less deadly but was affecting children at a greater rate. All restrictions on public gatherings were removed. After that, the flu slowly petered out with no further news items regarding influenza in Winnetka. With its quick controls on public gatherings, the establishment of the emergency hospital and its efforts at public education, Winnetka was able to avoid the death rate experienced by the country as a whole.

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