|When Ella died, she left a year-old son, who became my godfather.|
Tuesday, April 21, 2020
One City's Pandemic
My Great Aunt Ella died in 1918. I have never found a death certificate for her. She died in the Spanish influenza pandemic. More than 350 people died in Milwaukee (Wisconsin). Apparently, record keeping was also a casualty.
The flu first struck sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago on September 11. Within a week, 2,600 men were ill, but furloughs were still being granted. It didn’t take long for the disease to spread to Milwaukee.
By September 21, the number of sick in Milwaukee had risen to 100. Two days later, the first death occurred. The city health commissioner encouraged everyone to avoid crowds and practice personal care, such as avoiding kissing and handshakes.
War raged in Europe, and the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive was scheduled that month. Milwaukeeans ignored the no-crowd warning and staged a massive parade on the 28th. The flu found a foothold and took off.
The city’s hospitals were taxed beyond capacity. Compounding matters, most able-bodied physicians were away in military service. The Milwaukee Auditorium was quickly converted into a temporary isolation hospital.
The health commissioner adopted extreme measures. All theaters, movie houses, and dance halls were closed until further notice. The Milwaukee Sentinel estimated the seven theaters and 68 motion picture houses lost $120,000 of daily admissions, depriving the government of $18,000 daily in war taxes.
More closures came. Bowling alleys and billiard halls, football games and boxing matches, political meetings and department store sales were all banned. Anyone violating the orders could be fined up to $100 a day. If they didn’t pay the fine, they could be imprisoned.
Churches and saloons were closed with certain exceptions. Only near relatives could attend weddings and funerals. The churches were open for private prayer as long as there were no large crowds. Assembling in saloons was also not allowed. Customers came in, bought a drink, and left.
Health care workers and caregivers wore themselves out. Several nurses died. Idled teachers went door-to-door, and created an accurate count of the sick. Six thousand official cases were reported, but the commission estimated the actual count as high as 30,000.
The 1918 pandemic infected over 500 million people worldwide, and killed between 20-50 million, more than all the soldiers and civilians killed in World War I.
Today we are in another pandemic. Like the Spanish Influenza, this too will pass.
Terri Wangard writes novels that entertain and enlighten. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), and has won and been a finalist in various writing contests. Her latest book, Roll Back the Clouds, featuring the Lusitania, released last month. When not writing, she’s likely to be reading. Learn more at www.terriwangard.com