It’s the year 1918. World War I is raging in Europe, seemingly without an end in sight. Women are still rallying for the right to vote. Woodrow Wilson is in his second term as president, and as if a World War wasn’t enough of a crisis, now he has a global pandemic on his hands: the 1918 Influenza. We in the present know that the war will end in November, and suffrage is just one year away, for white women at least. We also know, however, that the influenza will take more lives than military deaths in World Wars I and II, combined.
You’re listening to Historically Speaking, the Local History podcast from the Boone County Public Library. In this podcast, we share stories from the county’s history, particularly the history you won’t read about in textbooks. You’ll realize that truth is often stranger than fiction.
On today’s episode, I look at Boone County’s response to one of the worst health crises in recorded history: the so-called Spanish Flu. Now that we’re in a global pandemic of our own, I thought taking a glimpse into the last century’s public health crisis would be an interesting comparison to our own unprecedented times. A nice opportunity to do some local history research. You know, to get our minds off of things.
Segment 1: The Disease
Are you suffering from a fever, cough, and runny nose? Do you have pains in your eyes, ears, back, and other parts of your body? Those are some of the symptoms of the Spanish Flu, and like our friend the coronavirus, many of the symptoms line up with other ailments, like the common cold. Many people who were infected and got sick with the Spanish Flu stopped having symptoms after three or four days, and they often recovered afterward. The Flu turned deadly, though, when it led to other respiratory diseases, like pneumonia or meningitis.
The Great Influenza, a.k.a. the Spanish Flu is believed to have killed 20 to 50 million people worldwide. The outbreak is believed to have originated in Europe, and reportedly, the king of Spain, Alphonso XIII, contracted the disease. This is how the epidemic got the name, the “Spanish Flu,” even though, even in 1918, people knew this was a misnomer. The king of Spain might have never had the flu, and even if he did, he recovered.
The flu was called “la grippe.” In the newspapers, it was referred to by a few different names, like pneumonia (which the flu could lead to) or generally feeling unwell or ill. If you look at newspapers from this time, the neighborhood and society columns are filled with news of who felt under the weather, and who was caring for whom.
One of the reasons the 1918 Influenza was so widespread and so detrimental was because of World War I. Think about it: all those crowded military camps, abroad and at home, along with the crowded conditions on Navy ships. It would be really hard to maintain the six feet of social distance recommended for our current pandemic under those circumstances. Also, in war, people move around a lot. We’re talking about not crossing state lines, but crossing national borders. That led to the spread of all kinds of diseases–but that’s a story for another podcast. The point is, the crowded military camps and frequent movement of war made it difficult to contain the spread. In fact, the first case of the 1918 Influenza in the United States–at least, so we believe–was in Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas.
In Kentucky, young men who volunteered or were drafted into the military gathered at Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, and some colleges, like the University of Kentucky, had their own military barracks for the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) to train soldiers. However, in trying to support the war effort, these conditions put the young soldiers at risk. Newspapers from these areas show that soldiers were dying of the flu before they were sent overseas. According to the Filson Historical Society, 824 soldiers died of the Flu at Camp Taylor alone.
Researching the 1918 Flu proves unexpectedly difficult, because news coverage about the epidemic had to compete with news about the war. The domestic public health crisis was often on the back burner, while updates from the war front and messages about liberty bonds and blood drives filled the headlines. News of the flu was very likely suppressed as well, in order to avoid a public panic during wartime. The nation had other things to worry about.
Segment 2: Two Stories
So, the 1918 Flu clearly devastated the United States and Kentucky, but what about Boone County? I talked so much about the military influence on the spread of the disease because it plays a large role in two of the stories I found about the flu. I should preface this with the fact that I find a lot of sad stories in Local History. Plenty of happy and uplifting stories exist, but for some reason, I’m always drawn to the depressing ones. This first story I’m about to tell is one example–but don’t worry, I have a happy story, too, to balance it out.
We start with Charles E. Farrell, who was born on May 19, 1895. He appears first on the 1900 Census in Verona, where he is listed as Charles McDonald, living in the same household as Edward Patrick Farrell and his wife, Katherine Long. His relation to the head of household is “Orphan,” but on the next census in 1910, he’s listed as the Farrells’ adopted son. Charles was drafted when he was 22 years old. According to his draft card, he was a farmer on his (adoptive) father’s farm in Verona. And, like most military records, we also get some other details that we don’t normally get from other records, like information about his physical appearance. So, we learn that Charles had light blue eyes and sandy hair, and was of a medium build and height.
On May 28, 1918, Charles E. Farrell was ordered to report at Camp Zachary Taylor, where he was in Private Battery A in the 18th Battalion, Field Artillery. However, he was only there for about five months before he died of pneumonia after the Spanish Flu in Camp Taylor on October 10, 1918. He was 23 years old.
His obituary in the Boone County Recorder on Oct. 24, 1918 says that Charles was (quote) “very popular and greatly admired” in Boone County and that he had (quote) “a self-sacrificing disposition” that was appreciated at Camp Taylor. It also goes on to say that Charles had been married for a few months, and that (quote), “the young widow and his parents are bowed down with grief.” The marriage must have been very recent, since he was still listed as single on his draft card. On Charles’s death certificate, it doesn’t list his mother or father. The section for his mother’s name was crossed out, and “Wife” written on top of it. But here’s how they give his wife’s name: “Mrs. Charles E. Farrell,” of Walton, Kentucky. Thanks for that, guys. Really informative.
But, if we look back at the newspaper, we see that there is a wedding announcement for the marriage of Charles E. Farrell and Mary Agnes Ryan in January. Charles and Agnes were married on January 26, 1918, at St. Patrick’s church. He was selected by the local draft board a few months later. Charles E. Farrell was buried in St. Patricks Cemetery in Verona. His parents, Patrick Edward and Kate Farrell, died in 1937 and 1944, respectively, and were buried in Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Fort Mitchell. The couple had no other children. His wife, Agnes Farrell, never remarried. She died in 1974 and is buried in Saint Patrick’s Cemetery.
So that’s the sad story, but as promised, here’s an uplifting one: Benjamin H. Riley.
Born on May 22, 1889, Benjamin H. Riley was a notable attorney in Boone County. He was also the clerk of the local draft board, until he himself was drafted and stationed in Camp Meade, Maryland. His son, Ben Riley II, later told the Dixie News in 1992, “The most action they saw was the flu.” And he was absolutely right. Though Riley never went overseas, he did have the pandemic to reckon with. Riley got the flu at Camp Meade, but he did recover and return to Boone County. When he returned, he got to work, becoming one of the founders of Boone Post No. 4 in 1919, the fourth chapter of the American Legion in Kentucky, and its first Post Commander. He worked tirelessly to promote the Legion and support veterans of the Great War in the county. Riley died at the age of 46 on March 4, 1936, after a stroke. On the day of his funeral, county offices closed at noon, and flags were flown at half-mast. He is buried in Hopeful Lutheran Cemetery. Talking about the war and all that he had survived–including the flu–Riley wrote, “We have stood together–let us stick together.” And I think those words apply now, as then.
Segment 3: The Local Level
In the newspapers, you can see the progression of the pandemic. In the October 3 issue of the Boone County Recorder in 1918, not much was written about the sickness, but the next week, a few cases of the flu were reported, in Gunpowder, Florence, and Union, along with several closures. On October 21, Belleview had several cases, including the entire family of Dr. Richmond. Burlington, however, claimed not to have a single case in 1918. In December, they reported there were no cases within city limits, and that the nearest case was a mile and a half away. This was a small victory–or really, coincidence. In another column, they say that, although there was no flu, (quote) “all are expecting it every day,” which finally happened in February 1919. In the end, there was no place untouched by the flu.
Like today, many places were shut down to avoid spreading the illness. Races at the Latonia tracks were postponed, and all public assemblies, including funerals, were cancelled. Schools were also shut down on October 8th. Remember, this was before school desegregation, so the newspaper specifies that both African-American and white schools were to close their doors. This was understandably very controversial, because the school year was already much shorter than what we’re accustomed to today, and attendance was pretty sporadic even without an epidemic. Many people were concerned that, once it was clear for the schools to reopen, many of the kids would be needed to help with their family’s farm and would not be able to attend. Fortunately, schools opened their doors again in January of 1919. The superintendent at the time, J.C. Gordon, called closing the schools a “great mistake,” but from a modern standpoint, I think we can agree it was better to be safe than sorry. Many schools closed again on their own after teachers or students got sick.
So, I’ve talked a lot about the impact of the 1918 Flu, but what about the medical aspect of it? Were our historic counterparts also social distancing and humming “Happy Birthday” while washing their hands? And what did they know about the spread of the disease?
One column from October 24, 1918, is called “Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu,” and it gives some information on the epidemic. The column says that the flu spread through ‘droplets,’ like ‘respiratory droplets’ with the coronavirus outbreak. The column suggests a variety of ways to prevent spreading the flu, many of which we know and love today: isolating the sick, avoiding the crowds, and covering the mouth when coughing and sneezing. They even had a little rhyme for it: “Cover up each cough and sneeze, If you don’t you’ll spread the disease.” They also suggest getting fresh air and maintaining a good diet–specifically through drinking milk, which I don’t think has any effect on the immune system. Today, though, we’re encouraged to get enough Vitamin C. You can read other precautions on Local History’s website, Chronicles of Boone County.
Did you notice something that was missing? Yeah: WASHING YOUR HANDS!
So, clearly, there are some major differences between how these pandemics were handled.
In total, the 1918 Flu pandemic lasted for fifteen months. Ironically, many deaths have since been attributed to aspirin poisoning, since aspirin was prescribed in heavy doses to help treat the flu. The Flu clearly had a tremendous impact on Boone County, but it is far from the only epidemic in its history.
One of the earliest was the 1792 smallpox epidemic, and there were numerous cholera outbreaks in the 1800s. The Northern Kentucky Tribune published a great article about the epidemics in our region’s history, so be sure to look at that for more information. The one thing that all these pandemics have in common is that they ended.
There was also a more recent pandemic in the 1980s: the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which is still fresh in the memory of many people today. This pandemic hasn’t ended yet, but much better treatment options have become available. If there’s enough interest, I can look at the history of this pandemic in the Northern Kentucky area for a future podcast episode.
That’s all for this episode, but more Local History stories will be coming your way.
Thanks to the Smithsonian Magazine website, smithsonianmag.com, with their article from November 2017 by John M. Barry. That article is called “How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America,” again by John M. Barry.
Thanks also to the Filson Historical Society, who wrote a blog on January 17th, 2012, entitled “Kentucky in the Great War,” and the Northern Kentucky Tribune, for their article on March 30th of this year, entitled: “Our Rich History: Epidemics in the 19th Century Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky; we have persevered.”
Other information for this podcast came from the Boone County Recorder, available on the Boone County Public Library catalog and archive.org. Another member of the Local History team wrote about the 1918 Flu on our website, Chronicles of Boone County, called Precautionary Rules and the Spanish Influenza. I’ll put the links to all those websites on Local History’s website, Chronicles of Boone County.
If you enjoy this podcast, please rate, review, and share it with your friends. Thanks for listening, and make history this week. Or, should I say, preserve history this week. We’re in a historic moment–document it, if you can! Take pictures, keep a journal, save newspaper clips online or old-school style. Your Local History librarians thank you.