Oct. 18-24, 1918

1918 Influenza Pandemic


Oct. 18

Helped get breakfast, cleaned the dining room, practiced, wrote to Florence, took my music lesson. Edgar came, had ice-cream and took some medicine down to Mahlon and Viola, went to be at 12. got our pictures.

Oct. 19

Got up at 8. Cleaned the cupboard and kitchen. Eudora was here for dinner. Mr. Peterson died from the flu today and Charlie Newell died yesterday at camp. translated nearly a whole lesson of Virgil.

Oct. 20

Got up at 9. Translated Virgil, read, helped get dinner, ate at 3. made candy for Azel, went out riding, went out to the farm, Gerald and Edgar came out, nearly froze coming to town, went for a long, long ride, went after mama, met Mr. Whitton. Edgar read my old Diary and we had an awful time. Went to bed at 12.

Oct. 21

Found a box of candy under the book case. practiced 45 minutes. Finished a towel for my “chest”. wrote to Azel, went to bed early.

Oct. 22

Washed, cut out my sailor blouse, Margie came up, went to bed at 8.

Oct. 23

Ironed, Charlie Newell who died at Camp Lee was buried today and also Mr. Tomack. started to make a dresser scarf. practiced, Edgar and Gerald came and all they talked about was the funerals. went to bed at 10.

Oct. 24

Started to read Michael O’Hallorn. crocheted on my dresser scarf, practiced, went to bed early.

I thought I would fill in some of the details and provide some background for people, places, and references Aunt Clara makes in her diary, for anyone who might be interested in background information.

As far as I can tell, Clara is writing to her cousin Florence Leary, who was 29 years old in 1918, married and living in Iowa. Throughout her diary, she refers to writing letters to a number of people. Of course, back in 1918, writing was the only form of communication other than going to visit in person. While people then and people today want to maintain connection to friends and family who are afar, the technology sure has changed, hasn’t it?

While we are all isolated in 2020, video chat platform use has exploded. I have to admit. I have avoided using FaceTime for years. I was wildly uncomfortable with the video aspect of talking to people on the phone and managed to avoid it completely. Until a couple of weeks ago. Now I am FaceTiming groups of friends and family (can we use FaceTiming as a verb yet?). Or using Zoom. Or Google Duo. In fact, I now am organizing calls myself! 

But the drive to connect remains the same.

Edgar (Williams), mentioned in the first entry, was her beau. He will figure prominently in Clara’s diary. He’s the one who read her old diary, which led to an “awful time.” I’m sure it did. One interesting characteristic of this diary is that it appears so devoid of emotion and even inner thoughts. It is more like a record of Clara’s day. I can’t imagine being upset about this being read. But perhaps it isn’t about what specifically is written inside. It’s the violation of privacy. I suppose it’s the equivalent of a guy taking his girlfriend’s phone to see who she has been texting. 

Another name that will be repeated throughout this diary is Margie, or Margaret, McGregor. Even though she is four years younger than Clara, she spends quite a bit of time with Clara and her friends.

Clara also mentions taking medicine to 26-year-old Mahlon Williams (yes, this is Edgar’s older brother) and 22-year-old Viola Evans, a couple who have been married for one and a half years at this point. 

Edgar comes from a fairly large family. And the name Mahlon struck me as curious. In order, the kids are named Thomas, William, Mahlon, Mabel, Sydney (called by his middle name Basil in this diary), Edgar, Catherine, Everett. Mahlon doesn’t seem to fit. It turns out it is a Hebrew name meaning “sickly,” an odd choice for a name. I cannot imagine where that came from as the area and the family were decidedly Protestant. 

It isn’t clear why she brought them medicine, as there is no other mention of them being sick. In fact, both lived to reach 80 years old.

But the next day, we find out that two local people have died from influenza: Mr. Peterson and Charlie Newell.

Mr. Peterson’s first name was Chester. I don’t know much more than that. I think he may have been 39. 

Charlie Newell was 26 years old. He was a private in the US Army, stationed at Camp Lee, an army training camp in Petersburg, Virginia, and he died in the Base Hospital. His death certificate states he was a soldier: private, and he died of influenza, which he had for 9 days. The contributing factor was bronchial pneumonia, which he suffered from for 5 days. His body was returned to Cresbard for burial on October 23, 1918.

Camp Lee post cards/photographics. Virginia War History Commission, Series IV: Virginia’s Camps and Contonments, ca 1917-1918. Accession 37219, State Records Collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

A little side note about these army camps. The influenza was first detected at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas, in March of 1918. Within a week of the first diagnosed case, hundreds of soldiers fell sick. And it quickly spread through other army camps. The first case at Camp Lee was on September 13, 1918. Throughout the fall, around 10,000 got sick and 700 died, including Charlie Newell. Soon, it spread to Richmond, 25 miles away, where soldiers would travel for a reprieve from life in the camp. By October 5, Dr. Roy Flannagan, the Richmond Health Officer, and Ennion Williams, Virginia Health Commissioner, took drastic steps to stem the spread, steps that may sound familiar to us today. Initially, they banned all public gatherings, including those at churches and movie theaters. The next day, schools were closed. The day after that, soda fountains and soft drink parlors fell victim. And finally, the Virginia State Fair was cancelled. It would be only 10 days later that Charlie Newell would die. 

In all, nearly 9 million enlisted army personnel died from the Spanish flu, both in the US and abroad. October 1918 was the single worst month for deaths in the camps and in the country (195,000 total). All the while, new draftees continually arrived. Finally, the man responsible for implementing the Selective Service Act of 1917 (otherwise known as the Draft), Provost Marshall General Enoch H. Crowder, cancelled draft calls for October.

An interesting fact about the 1917 Selective Service Act:  it isn’t the first time the United States implemented the draft, but it’s the first time that those drafted were forbidden from hiring substitutes to serve in their place. The wealthy who found themselves drafted would have to find other ways to avoid serving.

The first two stanzas of Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin

Meanwhile, Clara is busy translating Virgil. Virgil was a Roman poet (70 BC – 19 BC) most famous for epic poem Aeneid, written in Latin. Impressive. And writing to Azel (20). Azel is Clara’s older brother who may be away at college, perhaps South Dakota State University in Brookings, based on other comments she makes later in this diary. And there is no record of him serving military service either.

Another Cresbard family is the Pershings. Gerald is the youngest at 17 years old. I can only guess this must be Edgar’s best friend because it seems that they are always together.

Clara also spends a lot of time sewing, knitting and crocheting. On October 21st, she mentions finishing a towel for her “chest.” This is a hope chest, often made of cedar, that young unmarried women used to store items such as linens and clothes to use after they got married. 

On the same day, she mentions finding a box of candy under the book case, which also cracked me up. You will notice that candy seems to be a pretty important component of her life. She makes candy, she buys candy, she eats candy, she receives candy as gifts. She never mentions exactly what kind of candy, but at the time, some popular candy included the following:

Cherry Mash
  • Cherry Mash – cherry fondant coated in a chopped-peanut and chocolate shell 
Caramel Creams
  • Caramel creams – chewy caramel with a cream center
  • Hard candies like Charms (basically square Lifesavers), rock candy, lemon drops
Necco Wafers
  • Necco Wafers – little chalky flavored discs that come in different flavors
Mary Jane
  • Mary Janes – a peanut butter and molasses taffy type candy 

Perhaps getting her hands on candy was a treat partly because of rationing during World War I. The country was experiencing sugar shortages in 1917, and the candy companies responded by starting the practice of replacing sugar in their candy with corn syrup. This was considered very patriotic! 

According to Samira Kawash, author of Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure, at the beginning of 1918, 

Walter Hughes, the secretary of the National Confectioners Association, got himself appointed to the Sugar Division of the U.S. Food Administration. When sugar conservation began to appear necessary, the candy industry had a seat at the table and made sure that candy was recognized as having food value and as being important to public morale. And it was a good move. Candy, and other “non-essential” foods like ice cream and soda, were allotted 80 percent of their previous usages when the Food Administration began strict rationing in May 1918.

Clara also does a lot of reading. And she appears to read novels that were best sellers in her day. The first she mentions is Michael O’Halloran, a novel written by Gene Stratton-Porter in 1915 about an orphaned boy and his adventures helping others. His publisher, DoubleDay Page & Co. report that by July 1918, the novel “sold well into the millions.”

Join me next time to see how Clara is faring during what was to become the deadliest flu pandemic, during a time that although seems ages ago, really is not that different.

3 thoughts on “Oct. 18-24, 1918

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