The Spanish flu, a misnomer for a strain of influenza that rampaged across the globe in 1918 and 1919, claimed the lives of millions of men, women, and children worldwide. Spanish flu survivor stories reveal the hardships brought on by the virus, from the rural plains of Iowa and Montana to naval vessels out on the open seas.
Individuals who lived through the Spanish flu experienced massive changes to daily life. Diaries, letters, and interviews from influenza survivors bring a very human voice to the devastation of the time. Fear, desperation, and confusion come through in striking form, while the realities of medicine shortages, impossible funerals, and social isolation serve as haunting reminders of how things once taken for granted were suddenly lost.
‘My Father, Delirious… From A High Fever… Lifted Me Over His Head To Throw Into The Fire’
The Spanish flu arrived in West Virginia during the autumn of 1918. On October 8, 1918, the disease prompted closures of "the public schools, Marshall College, all theaters, revival meetings, billiard parlors, dance halls and other crowded places," according to local reports at the time.
Believed to be transported along railroad lines, coal camps proved especially vulnerable. Ethel Hubble Harter's family resided at High Coal Camp in West Virginia when she was only eight months old at the time.
In November 1918, Ethel's mother took ill. As Ethel described it, her father tended to her mother, fearful on "many a night" that his wife would not survive. However, once her mother began to recover, her father became sick - far more so than his ailing spouse.
As Ethel's mother regained her strength, she, in turn, cared for her husband. On one occasion, Ethel's father believed his crying infant was a wild cat. Ethel recalls, "I woke up crying and my father, delirious and confused from a high fever, ran over and grabbed me up... lifted me over his head to throw into the fire."
Ethel's mother intervened, and Ethel says she was lucky that her mother had "enough strength that day to save" her. Ultimately, the whole family survived.
‘We Were Actually Almost Afraid To Breathe’
The extent to which the Spanish flu ravaged the young and old alike triggered widespread panic. In Luce County, Michigan, especially hard hit in September 1918, neighbors were too scared to help a family suffering from the flu.
People in Perry County, Kentucky, a state that saw 14,000 casualties from the flu, also perished of starvation, unable to get food from fearful members of the community.
Getting too close to someone with the flu was one risk but, for Dan Tonkel of Goldsboro, North Carolina:
We were actually almost afraid to breathe... You were afraid even to go out... The fear was so great people were actually afraid to leave their homes... afraid to talk to one another.
‘All Six Of Us Children At Home… Had The… Flu, As Did Our Mother’
The only member of Clella B. Gregory's family to escape the flu in 1918 was her father, Eli. Clella, only 2 years old at the time, five of her siblings, and their mother Nora, all became ill.
As Eli Gregory watched his children and wife suffer from the flu, he kept up work around their home in Blackford, Kentucky. Eli also offered aid to neighbors, as Clella explained:
Dad kept us warm and fed and he also helped others in our community who had the illness. He made sure our sick neighbors had drinking water, would milk their cows, fed their livestock, and made sure they had coal and wood for heat.
On one occasion, when a local doctor visited the Gregory house, he asked Eli, "How is your family doing?"
Eli replied that they were well, to which the doctor replied, "Keep doing what you are doing for where I′m going, they are going to lose a girl."
‘People [In Masks] Will Look Funny - Like Ghosts’
In October 1918, the Spanish flu arrived in Seattle relatively late compared to cities on the East Coast. As Seattle prepared for an outbreak, public health authorities closed schools and prohibited large gatherings. Fifteen-year-old Violet Harris was happy school was closed, but found the notion of wearing masks to be intriguing:
It says in to-night’s paper that to-morrow all Seattle will be wearing masks. No one will be allowed on a streetcar without one. Gee! People will look funny - like ghosts.
As her father went out to search for masks, the young Violet cut out newspaper articles about the face-covering phenomenon to keep in her diary.
In Montana, a young member of the Student Army Training Corps at Montana State College described the appearance of "flu" masks. To him, wearing masks would make him and his cohorts "look like members of the Ku Klux Klan."