Between March 1918 and March 1919, 500 million people worldwide, 1/3 of the population of the planet became infected with the H1N1-“Spanish” flu virus. 100 Million People, many of them young and strong, died between March 1918 and March 1919 worldwide. 25% of the population of the United States became infected and of those, an estimated that 675,000 American Men, Women and children died during this pandemic.
In the spring of 1918 the world was entrenched in WWI. The United States had not yet joined the fight. They had remained neutral as long as possible, but following several attacks on American citizens, ( the sinking of the Lucitania-128 Americans killed, President Woodrow Wilson called on Germany to end attacks on passenger ships and though they initially agreed it was not long before they were again sinking civilian vessels, two attacks of sabotage reportedly by German spies, in New Jersey- Black Tom Island munitions is blown up- the explosion was so strong it was felt as far away as Washington DC and Philadelphia PA., fire at munitions depot in Lyndhurst New jersey- later investigations determined this was an accident and not attributable to the Germans) The United States had declared war on Germany April 6,1917. Our initial entry into the war consisted of sending support in the way of supplies and raw materials to the allies. It was not until the summer of 1918 that troops were sent in mass, to the battle field. They carried the infamous Spanish flu with them.
It is thought that the flu started in a mild form in the spring of 1918 in or around Haskell Kansas among the general populace. It was not long before it moved to the Army training camp- Camp Funston. There, in close and fetid conditions the virus thrived. Within three weeks of the first reported case at camp, 1,100 men had been infected. This was known as the three day flu, but it carried a deadly bacterial pneumonia piggyback, so many who survived the three days of flu succumbed to the deadly pneumonia. Those who survived were left weak and unable to maintain their duties for weeks, sometimes months after.
But war must go on. US troops were sent to the western front in large numbers. This was no common flu, it was especially virulent and quickly spread throughout Europe and across the globe. The US Navy estimated 40% of the men contracted flu, the army estimated 36%. The flu ravaged soldiers on both sides and it is believed that more men died of the flu than were killed in active combat. This made the military on both sides vulnerable, so reporters were forbidden from reporting on the virus among the troops. Spain, being a neutral country and also ravaged with flu became the source of reports on the virus. Because of this it seemed as if the virus must have sprung up in and remained in Spain, even the King was infected. This was how the virus came to be called the Spanish flu.
In September of 1918 the virus mutated to an even more virulent and deadly strain. A person could wake up and feel fine in the morning, start to feel chills by noon and be dead by nightfall. The virus attacked the lungs and respiratory system and would cause a person to turn blue and suffocate in hours.
Perhaps the most tragic part of the Spanish Flu story is that, unlike most virus that attack and kill the elderly, the sick or the very young, this flu appeared to be more lethal to the healthy, young adult population 20-50- with the greatest toll taken in the 20-30 year old range. Researchers are still at a loss to explain this anomaly. The result was that by March of 1919 there were innumerable children without one parent and even more who had lost both parents and were now orphans worldwide. Human service workers, churches and families across the globe struggled to meet the burden. Children were placed, when possible, with relatives, but too often there were no relatives who were able to take them in. Even children with a living parent could find themselves in an orphan home, if the parent was unable to care for them or was still suffering the effects of the flu.
So many people died so quickly that it was impossible for health officials or mortuary personal, or the health department to keep up with the work. An effort was made to bury the dead as soon as possible after their death, but this often took weeks due to illness of the workman needed to complete the many steps. It is often difficult to locate the graves of the flu victims as many of them were buried without markers and, often, without adequate documentation. If your relation suddenly drops from the record around the time of a pandemic, it is likely they have fallen victim. You may not find them in any on-line record but may be able to locate them through on site cemetery records.
I have endeavored to construct a few histories of probable Spanish flu orphans. I hope you will find this of interest.
Robert Burnham born 1869 and wife Mary (1893-) were living in Hornell Steuben New York in 1915. Robert was a traveling salesman. The young couple was raising 2 boys; Robert Burnham Jr. (1913) and Charles D. Burnham (1914). In 1915 they welcomed youngest son James W. Burnham. Grandmother Isabella Burnham also lived with the family and helped care for the boys.
The Spanish flu took its toll on this family, but was not able to sink them. In 1920 we find the three boys living in an orphanage in Hornell Steuben New York. Robert is 6, Charles is 5 and James is 4. Things look bleak for our small friends but a look at the 1925 census shows they are all together and reunited with their mother, Mary Burnham and living in Rochester Monroe NY. Mary is now working as a school teacher. She is a widow. Mary was able to raise her sons on her own and send them all to college. The pain of her loss and the struggle to keep her family over the years must have been tremendous. If you are a relative of this family, take a minute to think about Mary and her struggles and be thankful for her strength and perseverance.
Henry Phelps (1866) worked as a brakeman and struggled to care for his two daughters; Bertha (1909) and Hazel (1911). Henry had lost his wife shortly after Hazel’s birth but he was determined to care for his girls the best he could. In 1915 he was living in Hornell New York and had move in a care taker to help him care for his daughters. C.G. Dan (1887) had a daughter of her own, Ana Dan (1910). The three girls, so close in age, enjoyed playing together.
This story does not have a happy ending. Bertha and Hazel Phelps were forced to live in the Hornell Children’s home following their father’s death. In 1925 they are still there, waiting for a chance to find a family to love them.
Harriet Davis (1908) and her sister Alberta Davis (1916) found themselves alone in the Hornell Orphan home in 1920. I was not able to find them in the 1925 census and hope that means they were adopted into a good home. It is probable and adoption would result in a name change.
In 1915 they were living a much happier existence with their Father Russell H. Davis (1877_ who worked as a painter, their mother, Addie H. Davis (1880), and siblings; Charles H. Davis (1910), Ralph J. Davis (1912), and Bessie M. Davis (1905). It is assumed they were all killed by the virus as none of them appear in subsequent census reports.
Walter Elster (1877) worked as a stationary Fireman. His wife had passed away by 1915 and Walter and his three children; Blanche (1910), Marguerite (1909), and Gerald (1908) were living in Hornell ward 04 Steuben NY with his mother –in-law, Louisa O’Neill. He counted heavily on Louisa for help with the children. When she died on May 11, 1919 it was a devastating blow for the family. Walter, unable to care for his children alone and maintain his fireman position, was forced, like so many others at that time, to place his children in the Hornell children’s home. Blanche, Marguerite and Gerald Elster clung to each other for hope that one day , as promised, their father would retrieve them.
They were some of the lucky children. By 1925 we find that Walter has remarried a woman 20 years his senior. Mary has three grown children of her own living with them; Floyd R. Mealenbacher(1897), Clyde L. Mealenbacher (1907), John E. Mealenbacher(1906). She also had on Harvey H. and Lester R. Mealenbacher who did not living with them at that time. Happily, Walter has brought his three children back home to him and they continue to live in Hornell Steuben NY.
Mildred M. Frantzen (1911) was born and raised in Jamestown NY ward 6 Chautauqua county. Her father Carl E. Frantzen (1882) worked as a sales man, his wife, Mary L. Frantzen (1889) was a housewife caring for her children; Melvin E. Frantzen (1907) and Mildred (1911). Mary’s sister, Mable C. Wiltsie (1894) also lived with them and worked as a laundry worker. After the flu ravaged the family Mildred found herself alone in the Hornell Children’s home. She was just 9 years old.
Fortunately for Mildred her aunt and uncle; Marie and Earnest Eckman took her into their home in James town. Mildred was raised with her cousins Lester and Herbert Eckman.
The Pandemic of 1918-1919 illustrates the value of keeping ones family close. None of these people thought they would die in the prime of their lives and leave their children alone in the world. Take a minute to reflect on this and reach out to that loved one who may be slipping away due to the daily cares of the world. You may not think you need each other now, but you never know what the future may bring. Until Next time, have a wonderful spring afternoon.