Saturday, March 7, 2020

Our Ancestors' Recent Pandemic

In our work as family historians, we can turn to the lives of our ancestors to find examples of how they coped with challenges that affect our lives similarly today.

Willa Cather must have understood this when she wrote in her novel O Pioneers! that, "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before."

Today's current events are grim with news of the evolving COVID-19 (coronavirus) epidemic. Proliferating reports suggest that there's not a part of the world untouched by the effects of the disease (or soon to be). 

Looking to the recent past, it was just a century ago that many of our families - worldwide - were plagued by a virulent illness that exacted a devastating toll.

1918 Influenza Pandemic

In the final year of World War I, an outbreak of influenza spread worldwide which was so lethal that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has since branded it "the most severe pandemic in recent history."

According to the CDC, the virus first appeared in the United States among soldiers during the spring of 1918 (although the origins of the outbreak remain disputed). The unprecedented movement of people as a result of the global conflict fueled its spread with catastrophic repercussions.

The CDC estimates that "about 500 million people or one-third of the world's population became infected." Mortality rates were high with deaths "estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States." In that first year of the pandemic, which was widely reported on in Spain and gave rise to the moniker Spanish flulife expectancy in the U.S. dropped approximately 12 years.

Spanish Flu Hits Home

In my own family history, I knew of instances where the Spanish flu had an impact among collateral lines.

In high school, I interviewed a second great-aunt who recalled her father falling ill with the virus. On another family line, I learned of a second great-uncle who passed away from the disease at the age of 33 (the CDC says that a hallmark of the pandemic was that healthy populations - especially those aged 20-40 years old - were particularly susceptible).

Taking a closer look at my direct ancestors, I noted that my second great-grandfather, Giuseppe Ruoti, passed away in August 1918. Was it possible that his cause of death was attributable to the Spanish flu?

Giuseppe's Colorado death certificate said he died from lobar pneumonia. According to the National Institutes of Health, "The majority of deaths during the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 were not caused by the influenza virus acting alone. ... Instead, most victims succumbed to bacterial pneumonia following influenza virus infection."

The death notice that was published in a Denver newspaper made no mention of Giuseppe's cause of death, and oral history offered no further insights. I'm left unable to pinpoint influenza as the culprit behind Giuseppe's fatal case of pneumonia, but the ailment, statistics and timing make it plausible.

A Prairie Community Amid the Pandemic

A little more than 300 miles east of Denver, in the small Kansas prairie town of Plainville, my farming ancestors were confronted by many of the realities we see today resulting from coronavirus.

In October 1918, the Plainville Times published a health bulletin that featured an interview with the U.S. Surgeon General that ran nationally to provide "definite information concerning Spanish influenza." The interview, which was published repeatedly in subsequent weeks, attempted to educate the public about the cause of the virus and how to mitigate its spread.

With the War to End All Wars still raging in Europe, the health bulletin included art with clever phrasing to highlight the national security implications necessitating strict hygiene to prevent further spread of the disease.

A month later, a single page of the Plainville Times illustrated how widely the virus affected a community. A handful of people had fallen ill or were recuperating from influenza, and there were several reports of deaths.

Blue highlighted text is the word "influenza"

The page included a blurb without a byline that raised concerns about the community recklessly spreading the disease. "It is evident that the rules of the quarantine are not strict enough in this vicinity. People are going and coming from houses where there are influenza patients needlessly endangering others." Clearly, the spread and effects of the virus prompted escalating concerns for public health and safety.

Plainville's mayor and city council passed an ordinance to equip the town with the legal authority to enforce quarantine efforts. Writing in the paper, the mayor made the case for the strict regulations:

"Owing to the fact that a few have not complied with the quarantine regulations placed upon them the City Council has passed an ordinance under which they expect if necessary to enforce the quarantine rules."

Ordinance No. 101

  1. It shall be unlawful for any person who shall have been quarantined by any County or city health officer, or by any practicing physician to leave the premises whereon he or she shall have been quarantined by said officer of physician.
  2. Any person having Influenza or any other contagious disease in the family or household, or any person suspecting or having reason to believe that the sickness in the family or household may be influenza or some other contagious disease, shall report the same at once to a Health Officer or to a practicing physician of the City of Plainville, Kansas.
  3. All public and social gatherings of more than ten (10) persons are hereby prohibited in any public or private building within the jurisdiction of the City under this ordinance.
  4. It shall be unlawful for any person to loiter or loaf upon any street or alley, or within any public building within the jurisdiction of the City under this ordinance.
  5. The provisions of this ordinance shall apply to the corporate limits of the City of Plainville and to all territory within a radius of five miles thereof.
  6. Any person or persons violating any of the provisions of this ordinance shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction thereof, shall be fined in a sum of not less than five (5) dollars nor more than fifty (50) dollars, and the costs of said action; and shall be confined in the City jail until said fine and costs are paid.
  7. This ordinance shall be on full force and effect from and after its publication in the Plainville Times.

The city paper continued to detail the magnitude of the epidemic, writing of school closures and publishing full page guidance on how to properly care for the ill. Instructions on how to make face masks appeared, and readers were encouraged to visit the Plainville Mercantile's storefront to see their window display featuring a homemade example.

Remarkably, none of my ancestors were among the ill who were named in Plainville's newspaper. I would be amazed if they escaped it entirely.

Different Era. Different Disease. Same Concerns.

Of course, a lot has changed since the outbreak of the Spanish flu in 1918. There have been significant advancements in medicine and healthcare. Admittedly, the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 is not the same disease as coronavirus.

But what's striking are the similarities.

Lives were threatened. Communities were deeply concerned and took serious action - including mandatory quarantines and restrictions on public gatherings - to limit the spread of infection.

People may look at today's headlines and think that some of the actions being taken to curb transmission are unprecedented, but family historians know that the truth hits closer to home. And much more recently than some may realize.

How was your family affected by the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic? What similarities have you seen between then and now?


  1. Quite interesting. My post today was about a family death from the 1918 flu. I guess it is on all our minds.

    1. With it dominating the news, it certainly is top of mind. And 1918 seems like the most recent relevant example our ancestors had to navigate.

  2. Fascinating to see those restrictions back over a hundred years ago.

    I have seen numerous fatalities in my research that resulted from the Spanish flu. Let's hope that is not where COVID-19 takes us.

    1. Indeed, let's hope the action being taken now will soon bring the situation under control. It sure has been a wild week.