Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Record Newspapers Jan. 18, 2018 to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1918 flu pandemic.
The year 1918 started off badly in Kendall County and got worse. By the time Jan. 31 arrived, not only had county residents been battered by some of the worst winter weather ever, but dozens of their friends and relatives had died in a worldwide flu pandemic.
County residents began 1918 coping with a new world war. Combat was raging in France. Local volunteers and draftees were heading off to war, as were young women, doing their part by volunteering to serve as nurses. On the home front, Red Cross volunteers were busy knitting and sewing for the boys still in the U.S. and serving “over there,” as duty in Europe was called.
Early in the spring of 1918, Loring Miner, a country doctor in Haskell County, Kansas, found himself dealing with a remarkably virulent influenza outbreak. Local draftees carried the illness to Camp Funston at Fort Riley, Kansas, where it quickly spread through the crowded barracks. Infected troops carried the virus east. Like ripples on a pond, it spread across the Atlantic to Europe, infecting Allies and Germans indiscriminately, rapidly disbursed worldwide by Allied shipping before dying down. On Aug. 10, the British high command declared the epidemic over. But it wasn’t; the worst hadn’t even started yet.
Instead, the influenza virus, now known to have been a relative of this year’s H1N1 virus, mutated into a far more aggressive and deadly strain. Returning like a pestilential boomerang borne on naval and civilian ships, the new, far more aggressive and deadly flu struck the U.S. again in late summer. It was incorrectly dubbed the Spanish Flu because media in Spain, a noncombatant in the war, aggressively reported its spread there.
At first, most cases – and fatalities – were again at military installations. In Illinois, Camp Grant at Rockford was particularly hard-hit. But wartime censorship kept word of the pandemic bottled up.
Locally, the epidemic didn’t accelerate until late September. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Oct. 2 that a couple had just attended the funeral of a young relative in Sandwich: “He had just received the commission as lieutenant when he was taken ill with Spanish influenza, living but a few days.”
Also that week, the Record reported: “The epidemic of influenza struck the Yorkville High School last week and that branch of the school was closed on Thursday.”
Meanwhile, bodies were piling up so fast at Camp Grant that the government drafted undertakers from all over the country to process them. “[Oswego undertaker] George Croushorn is at Leland, where he is substituting for Jake Thorson, who has been called to Camp Grant to care for the bodies of pneumonia victims,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Oct. 9, adding “Otto Schuman of Fairbury, Neb., spent an hour in Oswego Tuesday. Mr. Schuman was born in Oswego. … Owing to scarcity of undertakers he was sent to Camp Grant by the government.”
Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall hoped on Oct. 9 the worst was over: “The influenza has a firm grip on the country but it is gradually being shaken off, say the authorities. … People have been dying in large numbers in both civilian and official life.”
Indeed, that week the Record reported how much Marshall’s own family was suffering from the pandemic. His wife’s brother, Chief Gunner’s Mate A.N. Fletcher, an instructor at the Navy’s New London, Connecticut, submarine base, and his wife both quickly died after contracting the flu. The Marshalls didn’t even know they were ill until informed of their deaths.
Public gatherings were banned nationwide, from club meetings to church services. And although the weekly drill of Company K of the Illinois Reserve Militia at Plattville was canceled, that didn’t prevent the influenza death of 17-year-old Pvt. Jess C. Wittrup of Yorkville. His mother died of the flu four days later.
For three weeks, Kendall County’s social life, and much of its business life, ground to a halt. “The epidemic of influenza has knocked the bottom out of all social and business affairs,” Marshall wearily wrote Oct. 23. “Its spread has caused the stopping of all congregations for any purpose and public gatherings are claimed to be a menace to health. Kendall County has been overrun with the malady.”
By Nov. 20, it was hoped the pandemic was over, Marshall writing: “It is stated that more died from the epidemic of influenza than there did on the battle field. It was a dreadful scourge.”
But it was far from finished. Marshall’s own wife was only then recovering from a severe case, and a nephew died of it that month. Waves of influenza continued across the world until it finally burned out in 1920.
Worldwide, the pandemic is estimated to have killed 50 million to 100 million, more than 500,000 in the U.S. alone.
Theories as to why the pandemic faded away continue until this day. Some have suggested that the pandemic ended because doctors improved their prevention and treatment methods, while another theory put forth is that the virus mutated swiftly into a less lethal strain, a common occurrence with influenza viruses.