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“Columbus Is Surrounded” – When Spanish Flu Infected Ohio

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea “Columbus Is Surrounded” – When Spanish Flu Infected OhioPneumonia cases at Camp Sherman, September 1918 - Photo via Wikimedia Commons
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It is October 16, 1918, and the National Dairy Show is in full swing. The Ohio State Fairgrounds in Columbus, Ohio is packed with spectators and exhibitors and many of them have come a long way from distant cities and states to see the great wonders of American agriculture. In one section belonging to the National Dairy Association, visitors can find a showcase in which every item is made completely of cottage cheese.

“There is a dish of plain cottage cheese, soups and sauces, cottage cheese custard,” the Columbus Evening Dispatch will later report. “A platter on which there is a good imitation of meat loaf, but which is cottage cheese formed into shape and browned.”

Much of the hustle and bustle is concentrated at the brand-new Coliseum where yesterday spectators were wowed by a spirited horse show, with animals and riders jumping and performing to the music of a live band. As it happened, Dr. Louis Kahn, the Columbus City Health Officer, was also at the Coliseum for the horse show. His presence at the event might have gone unnoticed had it not become something of a political and public relations necessity given the events of that week.

Ohio State Fairgrounds in 1917 – Photo via Columbus Metropolitan Library

Over at the Dairy Show’s Children’s Bureau, three women wait anxiously. These three are scientists, sent to Columbus by the U.S. Department of Labor to examine infants for various maladies and “give instructions as to their weaknesses, and how to cure them.” Six hundred babies from the Columbus Children’s Hospital are registered for examination. The three scientists set up displays for all the new devices for proper infant care, including an elaborate exhibit showing how a family can keep a baby’s milk fresh without a refrigerator. 

There’s only one problem — there are no babies to examine. No parents of the 600 babies are willing to take their children to the fairgrounds today. Not during a week like this. Not with all the schools closed and the churches silent on Sunday morning. Not with Dr. Kahn asking the Columbus Police to enforce his various public health orders.

Because by October 16, 1918, almost a thousand people in Columbus have contracted Spanish Influenza. One of the deadliest viruses the world will ever know has Columbus in its clutches, and no one can say when the crisis will end.

The Fairgrounds Coliseum in 1917 – Photo via Columbus Metropolitan Library

It’s no surprise there is some renewed interest in the 1918 influenza pandemic in this spring of 2020. I am, after all, writing this from my home where I have been more or less confined for the last week, social distancing from anyone to whom I might spread or from whom I might contract the deadly Coronavirus currently sweeping the globe. I look at the infection rate versus the hospitalization rate versus the death rate. I look at lots of charts, and sometimes I understand them.

I watch Governor Mike DeWine’s press conference every day. More than once he’s referenced the 1918 influenza and how it’s informed his remarkably swift and aggressive response to this current pandemic. He’s talked about how Philadelphia still held parades and public gatherings after they saw their first flu cases that fateful autumn and how St. Louis clamped down on public gatherings as soon as the disease appeared in their city. Sure enough, Philadelphia’s death rate spiked in October of 1918, while St. Louis managed to keep theirs under control.

Such is the incredible power of social distancing and early intervention.

But like the Coronavirus of 2020, the influenza of 1918 did not strike one or two or a handful of American cities. The word “pandemic” means a disease that affects the entire world. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 50 million people died in the pandemic of 1918, including 675,000 Americans. Unlike Coronavirus, which appears to be most dangerous for older adults and people with underlying medical conditions, the influenza virus of 1918 killed indiscriminately, attacking young children, the elderly, and perfectly healthy people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. More than a century later, it’s still not totally clear why the 1918 virus was so lethal.

In 1997, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker about visiting a cemetery on a Norwegian island above the Arctic Circle, where scientists hoped to find the frozen graves of men who died in the pandemic, perhaps along with preserved samples of the virus.

“It is possible,” wrote Gladwell, “to go to almost any cemetery in the world and find a similar cluster of graves from the fall of 1918.”

No doubt similar clusters can be found today in old Columbus cemeteries. One of those victims of 1918 interred at Green Lawn Cemetery is Aurora Parry, a “well-known Columbus nurse” according to the Evening Dispatch. A graduate of Grant Hospital, Parry did her patriotic duty and volunteered to serve as a Red Cross nurse at Camp Taylor in Kentucky, and contracted the virus when it swept through the camp. Parry died on October 7. She was 32.

Grant Hospital in 1917 – Photo via Columbus Metropolitan Library

On October 7, the same day Aurora Parry dies in Kentucky, much of Columbus sees Spanish Influenza as something that is primarily happening elsewhere. Of more immediate concern is whether the spread of the disease is hampering Liberty Loan purchases, endangering the war effort at a critical moment when the Allies have momentum against the Kaiser’s army in Europe.

Still, there are rumblings of danger. Columbus’ sons and daughters are dying from the disease elsewhere. Lt. Hurst V. Campbell, 29, dies in Baltimore, Pvt. Eli Bates, 22, dies at Fort Niagara, and Harold Nicklaus, 22, the son of a Columbus police officer, appears near death at Camp Taylor, where nurse Parry has already succumbed to pneumonia caused by Spanish flu. The state health department estimates there are between 15,000 and 20,000 cases of influenza in Ohio, with Camp Sherman in Chillicothe hit particularly hard with 363 deaths.

Observation ward at Camp Sherman, September 1918 – Photo via Wikimedia Commons

But despite the first reported influenza death in Columbus a few days earlier, a meeting between city health officer Dr. Kahn and school superintendent C.H. Fullerton results in the pronouncement that there is no need for schools to close. Instead, every teacher in Columbus is instructed to watch out for the symptoms of influenza, and Dr. Kahn orders all doctors to send him reports on every potential infection.

On October 8, the Evening Dispatch makes the situation clear: “Danger of Influenza Epidemic is Remote.”

Not everyone is convinced. On October 10, the Evening Dispatch runs a letter by an anonymous writer purporting to be a school girl, imploring the city to close the schools before influenza becomes widespread.

“Columbus is surrounded with it, and yet some say the chances for it here are remote,” proclaims the school girl. “Are the city health officials going to wait until the disease fastens its grip on Columbus before they establish a quarantine?”

The school girl goes on to remind the people of Columbus that they are “far from immune” to the disease and “the fact that one of my schoolmates who sits two chairs below me is stricken has prompted me to write this letter.”

The school girl has good reason for her vehemence. Just two days after the danger of influenza epidemic was remote, Columbus finds itself in a new world. Dr. Kahn orders all theaters and movie houses closed to slow the advance of the disease, claiming that this is only a precaution and not necessarily a sign that Columbus is in danger. The order follows a meeting in the Statehouse office of Governor James Cox between Kahn, Cox, and a collection of state and city health officials.

Curiously, Dr. Kahn’s order to close theaters, movie houses and other “indoor amusements,” makes special exception for the concert scheduled for Friday night at Memorial Hall, and for the National Dairy Show at the fairgrounds. There are some obvious reasons for these exceptions. The Dairy Show is to take place mostly outdoors, and as for the concert, Memorial Hall has a “large ceiling” with good ventilation. The Memorial Hall concert is considered safe for other reasons as well.

“It was argued that only the best class of people will attend the concert,” reports the Evening Dispatch on October 11, “and will not be as liable to carry germs of influenza as might be true with some other forms of entertainment.”

Of course, Dr. Kahn’s decision to exclude the Memorial Hall concert and the Dairy Show from his public health order might also have something to do with the pleas of the Chamber of Commerce, representatives of which met with Kahn right after his meeting with Governor Cox. In fact, it’s the Chamber that reminds Kahn of the semi-open nature of the Dairy Show and of the “best class of people” who will attend the Memorial Hall concert.

Memorial Hall in 1916 – Photo via Columbus Metropolitan Library

Kahn responds to the needs of Columbus business, agreeing to wait for the recommendations of the Chamber of Commerce public health committee before making a final decision on the Friday night Memorial Hall concert. Days later, Kahn attends the fairgrounds horse show and declares there’s no danger of contracting influenza at such an event. On that same Tuesday, the Evening Dispatch reports 739 influenza cases in Columbus.

By this Tuesday, Columbus has also recorded its first Sunday without church services. And, of course, after the order went out forbidding public funerals for influenza victims, nurse Parry’s military service at Broad Street Presbyterian Church was canceled. She has already been quietly buried at Green Lawn.

Today, Memorial Hall is the headquarters of the Franklin County Public Health Department. You can find their information page on coronavirus and COVID-19 here.

The fact that the neither the federal nor state government has a centralized response to the influenza epidemic makes for a dramatic variance between neighboring cities in how they handle the crisis. East Columbus, still an independent city in 1918, closes its schools by October 9 after 42 children show signs of infection. Reynoldsburg, Canal Winchester and Groveport also close their schools, along with Ohio University in Athens, Miami University in Oxford, and Ohio Wesleyan, which closed several days ago.

Columbus city schools do not close until October 14.

Meanwhile the situation at Camp Sherman is out of control. On October 9, the Evening Dispatch reports that 125 soldiers have died there in a single 24-hour period. More and more heroic Columbus nurses respond to pleas for volunteers, registering at the Patriotic League headquarters on Gay Street and deploying to Camp Sherman. Among those already on the front lines of the pandemic is Jessie Campbell Coons, daughter of former governor James E. Campbell. Just a few days after arriving at Camp Sherman, Coons reports to the Evening Dispatch “that conditions warrant the appeal for women who are not trained, as well as graduate and practical nurses.”

Nurses at Camp Sherman, September 1918 – Photo via Wikimedia Commons

While the young women of Columbus battle the disease, advice on how to avoid illness comes from all corners. The Evening Dispatch carries the warnings of Dr. John Dill Robertson, health commissioner for Chicago, who issues instructions at once practical — “Don’t remain in crowded, poorly ventilated places” — and bizarre — “Don’t become constipated.”

Of course, the newspapers are full of advertisements for miracle cures and preventions. “Fight Spanish Influenza With Daily Disinfectant,” says the Lysol ad, which promises that substance “totally annihilates all germ life at the instant of contact.” The magical “Oil of Hyomei” is likewise supposed to prevent influenza infection. Then there’s Nostriola, which comes in a balm, liquid or “special Nostiola Atomizer.” Nostriola is an antiseptic, opening air passages and preventing disease of the nose and throat.

It “costs but a trifle,” we are told.

By October 11, the Evening Dispatch has had enough.

“The epidemic is bad enough without exaggerating it,” rails the paper’s editorial page. “In no community is the death rate as great as the rumor-bearers would have us believe.”

The newspaper insists that there is “every reason to believe the worst is over,” and “it isn’t going to lessen the ravages to stand about the corners and repeat absurd reports which the thoughtless set in circulation.”

Unfortunately, people continue to spread rumors and misinformation around the country regarding the epidemic. In many of these rumors, the microscopic enemy is logically tied with the enemy across the sea. German agents, we hear, are spreading the disease across America in a last-ditch effort to win the war, employing doctors to infect patients at army installations like Camp Sherman. Nurses are secretly being arrested and executed by firing squad as agents of the Kaiser.

“Every unfounded rumor does a lot of damage,” declares the Evening Dispatch on October 19. “It is a positive evil to exaggerate the number of cases of influenza, or the number of deaths resulting from the disease. It is a menace to the people of this country to circulate any kind of false rumor at this time — and persons doing so ought to be taken into custody.”

This is the week that tensions start to flare and nerves start to fray. Police officers are being dispatched to Downtown street corners and new cops are being rapidly appointed and deployed onto city streetcars to ensure they aren’t overcrowded and that all car windows stay open. Saloons, restaurants, grills, bars and ice cream parlors must all close by 8:30 pm. Violators of the public health orders face fines of $100. 

Ohio State University closed at 6 p.m. on October 11, but the Student Army Training Corps on campus continued drilling after the closure. Ten days later, the SATC hospital, which was without proper supplies or nursing staff before the pandemic, now has several severe cases of influenza and is calling for emergency aid from the Red Cross. The Columbus Chapter of the Red Cross, which has borne the brunt of the epidemic, is talking about establishing an emergency influenza hospital, possibly at the School for the Deaf or perhaps at the corner of High and Chestnut.

A nursing class at Protestant Hospital, 1920 – Photo via Columbus Metropolitan Library

More and more, the public is starting to distrust health officials and the logic of their orders. 

Why, for example, have health officials suggested the churches should close while the saloons stay open for anyone to walk in and mingle throughout the day?

“They met there those evenings an exchanged their microbes, some of which may have been influenza germs, and then they went out and probably transmitted them to other people,” writes David F. Pugh in a letter to the Evening Dispatch.

Another letter writer can’t help but notice the “favoritism” shown by Dr. Kahn by permitting certain gatherings while prohibiting others.

As members of the public question the influenza regulations, the ability of state and local officials to handle the crisis is starting to crack. Acting State Health Commissioner James Bauman feels himself losing control of the situation as public health orders are followed or not followed with reckless abandon. He insists he will not stand for “monkey business” and that there shall be no lifting of bans and public health orders without his permission.

In Columbus, health officer Kahn finds himself having to defend and further explain his decisions, telling the Ohio State Journal, “I haven’t given exemption to anybody or any organization, reports to the contrary notwithstanding.”

“Instead of wanting the ban lifted, people should voluntarily abandon meetings of all kinds,” Kahn pleads with Columbus. “Even going farther than the regulations ask, until the danger is passed.”

Acting commissioner Bauman insists Columbus “is the only large city in the state where the disease has not obtained a wide spread,” but Dr. Kahn is not convinced. Despite instructions that Columbus doctors should report all influenza cases to his office, Kahn believes the official tally — more than 1,700 cases by October 21 — is too low. His hunch is there could be anywhere from 6,000 and 8,000 cases in the city.

It’ll get cold soon. People will start closing their windows, breathing each other’s air without ventilation. There’s no way to know for sure how many cases are in Columbus or whether his patchwork of bans and regulations is working. The city, Kahn warns, must prepare for a struggle.

On October 23, Dr. Kahn bans football in Columbus.

In his 1920 History of the City of Columbus, Ohio, Osman Castle Hooper writes, “the board of health was considerably disorganized in 1918 by the war service of some members and the enforced absence of others. While it was in that condition, the epidemic of influenza and pneumonia came upon the city, and the burden fell upon the remaining members, Dr. Kahn and Secretary Keegan.”

The war, which killed fewer people than the influenza, disrupted the government response to the pandemic at every level, and it probably also transported the virus around the world. There is a distinct possibility the virus that sparked the 1918 pandemic originated in the United States, first appearing in Kansas and carried by American soldiers deployed to the front lines in Europe. This would make its reappearance in military camps like Camp Sherman in Chillicothe a macabre and profoundly unwanted homecoming.

Base hospital ward at Camp Sherman, September 1918 – Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Reading articles from that autumn of 1918 makes it clear how unimportant this global pandemic seemed to the journalists of the day compared to the war. The Columbus Evening Dispatch is full to the brim with stories of distant battles, of peace talks and geopolitical maneuvering, of submarines sinking supply ships and of the dire need to buy Liberty Loans. Meanwhile, Eddie Rickenbacker, Columbus’ favorite son and America’s “ace of aces,” is busy shooting down German airplanes over France, and Fast Eddie’s methodical destruction of the “Flying Circus” deserves front-page news.

There is another reason that might explain why influenza was not the subject of obsessive reporting that Coronavirus is today.

“The government lied,” said John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza, in a recent interview with Vox. “They lied about everything. We were at war and they lied because they didn’t want to upend the war effort.”

Even the name “Spanish Flu” is a result of wartime influence on media and public perception. Allied and Central powers refused to admit any weakness within their borders, so they suppressed reports of the mysteriously deadly disease. Only Spain, which remained neutral in the conflict, was willing to tell the truth about the extent of the epidemic.

The war ends, of course, on November 11 — on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Columbus threw an improvised parade, the “greatest demonstration in history,” with 200,000 people pouring onto High Street.

“Never before has Old Chris so given himself over to carousal,” proclaims the Evening Dispatch.

Armistice Day celebrations, Nov. 11, 1918 – Photo via Columbus Metropolitan Library

Just the day before, the ban that would have made such a celebration illegal had been lifted by order of Dr. Kahn. All regulations put into place during the time of the influenza crisis are removed, except for the schools, which will remain closed for another week. Along with his order lifting the ban, Dr. Kahn includes an ominous warning.

“The first overwhelming wave of the disease is passed,” Kahn warns Columbus. “However, it will continue to rage to a greater or less degree for several months.”

He is correct in this prediction. The influenza flares up again in December, and Kahn will be forced to close the schools yet again. Between October and December of 1918, the influenza pandemic kills 817 Columbus residents, and between October, 1918 and June, 1919, the flu kills 1,236. All things considered, Columbus fares much better than the cities on the East Coast, and even better than most of the cities in Ohio.

In February, 1919, Dr. Kahn retires as Columbus health officer.

Armistice Day celebrations in Downtown Columbus, 1918 – Photo via Columbus Metropolitan Library

In 1918, the very concept of a virus was relatively new. So much so that the articles from the autumn when influenza reached Columbus do not mention the word “virus.” They speak of the germs that are certainly not carried by the “best class of people” who attend concerts at Memorial Hall. They speak of how the smoke and fumes from bonfires and the burning of leaves, “have a decided tendency to cause the spread of influenza.”

It was only with modern genetic technology that scientists were able determine the virus responsible for the 1918 pandemic was the H1N1 strain of influenza, which made a reappearance in 2009. That H1N1 pandemic was considered mild compared to the pandemic of 1918. “Mild” here means the CDC estimates that the 2009 virus killed between 151,700 and 575,400 people worldwide.

For a virus that killed 50 million people, the influenza of 1918 left very little in the way of cultural memory. There are a few dozen well-regarded history books. There are clusters of gravestones in cemeteries around the world. There are faded newspaper articles buried in library archives. And there are charts and graphs brought out occasionally by Governor Mike DeWine and Dr. Amy Acton at 2 p.m. or thereabouts.

Otherwise, the 1918 pandemic seems to be a dark stretch of memory between the end of the Great War and the beginning of the Roaring Twenties. A pandemic doesn’t leave many physical traces, and Coronavirus is no exception. When life returns to normal and the plague has passed, there will be no physical testament to the global terror that haunted us in the spring of 2020. When the virus is dead, it will leave no skeleton behind. The disease will come and it will go and the only monument of any significance will be the one we build in our memory.

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