The Heartland: Coping with Pandemic Then and Now

Ernest Hemingway wrote from his hospital bed in Milan in October 1918 that people dying from the Spanish flu “drowned in mucus, choking, unable to breathe.”  At that time the 19-year-old writer was recovering from wounds sustained while he was an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I.  

The same month Hemingway’s physician father Clarence wrote from the Chicago suburb of Oak Park that for weeks he had done little else but care for flu victims. Chicago’s outbreak, believed to have come from the Great Lakes naval station, killed 8,500 people in two months in late 1918.

Unlike today the main casualties then were young men between 20 and 30 and very young children.  The flu could kill with shocking speed as it was not unusual for victims to die within two days of being infected. 

In south central Ohio the Spanish flu was a grim reaper until the end of 1919.  Fear and panic were acute because a huge nearby army camp training soldiers for service in Europe was the scene of a horrific outbreak.  During that grim  October an average of 104 soldiers died every day at Camp Sherman outside Chillicothe equidistant from Cincinnati and Columbus. 

Chillicothe papers wrote that during the peak of the outbreak bodies were stacked like firewood as they couldn’t be buried or shipped home fast enough. In 1918 there were nearly 1,800 deaths and 5,600 cases of flu at Camp Sherman where men lived, trained and ate at close quarters.

Soldiers from Camp Sherman, OH during WWI (photo: Ross County Historical Society)

Cincinnati suffered greatly from the flu. A quarter of the city’s population became infected and 1,700 people died.  In Columbus, 49 miles from the army camp, 1,236 citizens succumbed to flu.

In rural Gallia County near Portsmouth on the Ohio River, fear of the Spanish flu hung over every conversation.

My father, Howell Wood, remembered that when he was 16 his mother and father sent him on a mission to rescue their infant grandson from the flu.  It was December 1919. His parents had learned that their married daughter and husband—parents of a three-month old baby—had been sent to bed with the flu and their home put under quarantine.  The grandparents were terrified the baby would die if he wasn’t removed from the quarantined house.

Accordingly, they asked dad to saddle the horse, dress warmly and ride six miles over a frozen rutted road to bring back the baby.  Howell remembered that he began the journey slowly, riding on the side of the road so the horse wouldn’t stumble in potholes hidden under a layer of ice. Howell took two hours to reach his sister’s farm. Upon arriving, Dr. Robert Howell, dad’s uncle, emerged from the front door with a stern look on his face. 

“You can’t come inside,”  he told his shivering nephew, “that would risk you taking the virus back to your mother.” Instead, Uncle Rob said Howell could try to get warm in the woodshed and wait for the baby wrapped in blankets to be brought out. 

Howell Wood, three years later, at 19

In retelling the story, dad was dismayed that his uncle seemed to care little for his well-being. As it turned out the return ride was uneventful,  Howell cradled the baby in one arm while his free hand held the reins.  

We think we’ve got  it bad from the corona virus, and we do.  But the Spanish flu was much worse. Over 600,000 Americans died and 25% of the entire population were infected. Ten times more people died from the flu than perished in World War I.  By contrast, on June 1, 2020 US deaths from the corona virus totaled 105,000. 

Heartland numbers tell the story. By early June, 2020 in Cincinnati 151 people had died from the corona virus, meaning that the death toll from 1918/19 was ten times higher. In Columbus 271 have so far died of the corona virus while fivetimes that number died in the flu pandemic.  Of course, there may be a second wave of the corona virus.

The public response then is not unlike today. Physicians like Doc Howell a century ago understood that the flu was deadly, highly contagious and was spread by personal contact, mainly droplets from sneezing or coughing.  People wore masks and like today there were quarantines, restrictions on public gatherings, schools were closed, and flu came in waves, the most severe being October 1918.

Then as now there were no nation-wide regulations. Responses were left to the states and often it was municipalities that set the rules. Cincinnati implemented some of the most stringent measures like forbidding bonfires, used clothing couldn’t be sold, and spitting was a punishable offense. Downtown hotels removed couches and chairs from lobbies to prevent loitering. Theatres and bars were closed. Restaurants operated with restricted hours

The earlier pandemic was so severe, killing so many Americans that life expectancy was cut by 12 years.#

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