Weathering the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

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I was planning to continue to share more stories about the local history of the Tannahill Homestead for this next blog post, but got derailed by the impacts of our present pandemic that we are all experiencing, Covid-19. We are now sheltering at our homes (it’s been four weeks for us), only going out for essential items and some of you going out to provide essential services for the rest of us – for which we are very grateful!

It got me wondering how our area coped with the (so far) worse pandemic known to modern man, the 1918 Spanish Influenza (Flu). The CDC reported that an estimated 500 million people were infected (which was 1/3 of the worlds population at that time) resulting in at least 50 million global deaths with around 675,000 deaths in America.

I began to wonder how the 1918 Spanish Influenza impacted our local area, so I started to do some research. I wanted to know how lives were impacted over 100 years ago as this outbreak spread. Did people end up sheltering in place at their homes like we are now? Did business and schools and non-essential business close? If so, how long did it last?

A hospital in Kansas during the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918. Date: circa 1918
Photo ID: NCP 1603
Source Collection: OHA 250: New Contributed Photographs Collection, Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine.

But before I start, I do want to point out that I’m not in the medical field so I’m not going to talk about the disease (how it started, how it spread, what the medical community knew then vs. now, and who were the most vulnerable groups) and will not compare it much to our present Covid-19. Both are pandemics and both are impacting the world resulting in way too many deaths and economic burdens. I’m more interested in the comparison of how past residents of Tarrant Couty reacted to and dealt with the disease vs. what we are experiencing now.

After poring through many Fort Worth Star-Telegram (FWS-T) news articles, let me attempt to paint of picture of what happened. [1]

On September 23, 1918, the FWS-T reported that there were no reported cases at Camp Bowie.

Camp Bowie was established in July 1917 to train soldiers in the 31st Infantry Division fighting in World War I. Yes, the country was dealing BOTH with the Spanish Flu and the horrific war against the Central Powers led by Germany/Austria-Hungary. At least we don’t have a world war going at the same time now. The camp consumed over 2,100 acres just to the west of downtown Fort Worth, right where Camp Bowie Blvd. heads toward University Blvd. More than 100,000 soldiers trained at Camp Bowie while it was an active base.

Geological Survey (U.S.). Fort Worth Sheet, map, 1918; Reston, Virginia. (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth454425/m1/1/?q=fort%20worth: accessed April 4, 2020), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.

Technology advancements in global travel (like ocean liners) and WW1, with many soldiers being in close quarters leaving and returning to their countries, helped to quickly spread the Spanish Flu. This was why the residents in this area were paying close attention to any news about an outbreak at Camp Bowie.

By September 27, 81 cases had been confirmed at Camp Bowie Base Hospital. A rigid quarantine was not issued, but orders were given for the soldiers to not enter any, “picture shows, dance halls, pool rooms, theaters or other places of like character in the camp or in the city.” Social distancing was established on the base including the cancellation of entertainment events and large gatherings. A policy was also instituted that allowed only five soldiers per tent and they, “all must sleep with their heads five feet apart.”

700 cases were reported at the Base Hospital on October 2 with no reported deaths. By October 4 over 1900 patients were recorded on the Base Hospital roll. Also, the first death was reported, a Private Louis Warren from Pensacola, FL.

It’s interesting to note that news back then was mainly provided by newspaper, or by word of mouth. They didn’t have radio, TV, FaceBook, etc… Almost all news accounts had a positive spin vs. most of the news reports now. This particular article reported that although a record number of hospital patients had been recorded at the base, “every patient is well cared for and everything is running smoothly.” In addition, “the ‘crest’ of the Spanish Infuenza epidemic at Camp Bowie has been reached” which as you will see was not the case. On October 4, 2 more deaths were reported with the article concluding, “There has been only three deaths out of total of more than 2,000 cases in eight days which is considered an excellent showing.”

Let me now bullet-ize some of the events that happened next to help move this along.

– Women were called to meet at the Red Cross Office to make gauze masks for hospital workers at Camp Bowie. (Oct 6th)

– Acting Governor Johnston suggested that, “all public meetings be discontinued at that schools and places of amusement be closed.” Forty-one counties were reporting flu cases. In Texas, it started along the coast and San Antonio and spread northward. (Oct 8th)

– “Influenza Not Yet Epidemic in Fort Worth” was the one of the headlines. (Oct 8th)

– Somewhat amusing advice on kissing was provided. (Oct 10th)

– The Columbus Day Marathon was canceled. 600 Camp Bowie soldiers were going to participate. This one was interesting to me having been a past marathon runner. (Oct 11th)

– Health Department started distributing 10,000 pamphlets to help educate the public. (Oct 12th

– Dallas closes public schools and churches. Picture shows, dance halls and pool rooms were closed earlier. (Oct 12th)

-Cases of Spanish Flu in Fort Worth reported at 466. (Oct 13th)

– The Texas Christian University and Trinity University at Cleburne football game was postponed. (Oct 13th)

– A grim reminder of the deaths from WWI was included in the obituary section along with flu victims. (Oct 13th)

– More than 1,400 workers at the Swift and Armour packing houses reported having the flu causing a labor shortage. (Oct 14th)

– Hospitals reported being crowded with patients with Spanish Flu and pneumonia. (Oct 15th)

– Fort Worth schools closed on Tuesday afternoon. (Oct 15th)

– The official Big Closure of the city was announced. (Oct 16th )

– 762 cases reported in the city. (Oct 23rd)

– On Wednesday, October 23, it also was noted that schools would reopen on Monday, while other businesses would probably remain closed.

– Then on Friday, October 25th, a proclamation was made to reopen the city.

And indeed, the city relaxed its restrictions that Saturday night. Churches reopened on Sunday and children went back to schools on Monday. The “shelter at home” edict that city officials gave only lasted 10 days! This came at a shock to me. As I read through these stories, I imagined that the closures back then would have lasted into months, not days, but there are lots of difference between then and now.

On November 3, soldiers were allowed once again to attend movies and go to other public gatherings. But, the Spanish Influenza did not completely go away. Reports of the flu continued into 1919. In fact on December 4, 40 new cases were reported in the city, but it was never considered epidemic again and life just went back to being “normal.”

I was not able to find a reliable source of the amount of cases and deaths in Tarrant County due to the Spanish Flu. I was able to find a reference that indicated that during the one month of October 1918, over 1,200 Dallas and Fort Worth residents died. [2] As of this writing, there have been 39 deaths in Tarrant and Dallas county due and Covid-19. This is way too many already, but how it will all play at over the next months, we’ll have to see.

Two more things to explore.

First. How did this disease come to be known as the Spanish flu? During WWI, Spain was neutral, so as the outbreak occurred there, reporters were able to freely report it as it spread across the country and the name stuck. It was actually worse in France at that time, but the news was censored. If not, it would have probably been called, the French Flu.

Second, The Tannahill Homestead was also used to treat patients during an outbreak of another disease, typhoid, a bacterial infection. I have not been able to find the date of this occurrence, but a neighbor, Dr. Woods tended to 27 patients who were kept at the Tannahill Homestead.

I’ll provide more interesting historical items about the Tannahill Homestead in my next blog. 🙂

Until then, everyone please stay safe! Just like our fellow Tarrant county residents made it through the storm they had to ride out over 100 years ago, we will too.

References:
[1] All newspaper references from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram archives found in the Fort Worth Library Online Services.


[2] “In 1918, Dallas and Fort Worth weren’t worried about the flu. In a month, 1,200 died.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, October 14, 2014.

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