Thursday, May 07, 2020

Southern Illinois and the 1918 Flu Pandemic

By Jon Musgrave |
May 6, 2020

Someplace in the spectrum of worldwide pandemics between the Black Death of the mid 14th Century and today’s COVID-19 the outbreak of avian flu towards the end of Great War, better remembered as Spanish Influenza Pandemic in 1918 and 1919, has proven to be the deadliest in the modern era. Modern estimates suggest that 500 million people, or one out of every three persons alive on the planet became infected with at least one in ten of those dying. Although historical sources suggest 20 million deaths, researchers today give a low end of 50 million dead and probably more. Here in America, the flu caused 675,000 deaths alone. For comparison purposes some 75,000 people have died from the COVID-19 virus so far in the Wuhan pandemic. While the coronavirus is deadliest among those older than 65, the 1918 flu caused widespread deaths, not only among the elderly as might be expected, but also children under five s well as adults 20 to 40.[1]

While there were some accounts of it on the Eastern Front in Europe in 1917, it wasn’t until the following year that it started popping up in large outbreaks. In the United States it wasn’t identified until March 1918 when at Fort Riley, Kansas, Army Pvt. Albert Mitchell reported to the camp hospital on the 11th, complaining of fever, sore throat, and headache. Before the day was over, more than 100 soldiers had fallen sick. Within a week 522 cases had been reported at the army post. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control roughly 500 million or one out of every three persons on the planet became infected, with one in ten of those dying leaving a worldwide death toll of at least 50 million.

The first wave hit in the spring of 1918, died down during the summer months and hit with a vengeance again that fall. Southern Illinois was mostly spared during the first wave, but not the second one. By October cases had spread throughout the state. By mid October 1918, Illinois suffered with some 300,000 cases statewide. Cairo alone reported 500. By the end of the month 195,000 Americans had succumbed to the disease. At first local boards of health began requesting bans on social gatherings and ordering schools closed until they had medical personnel present. By the third week “social distancing” had become the norm when state health officials mandated closings and bans statewide though they didn’t use the modern term. However authorities recommended against shaking hands, covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing, and wearing gauze masks if possible to prevent the spread of the disease which was poorly understood.

On October 15, the Carbondale Board of Health met on a Friday evening and requested “all churches, schools, social doings and amusements closed until the epidemic is squelched.” Students at SINU and public schools were dismissed Monday morning.[2]

The official notice read as follows:

In compliance with directions of the Department of Public Health of the State of Illinois, it is hereby ordered by the local Board of Health of the City of Carbondale: That all night schools be closed; that all theatres, motion picture theatres, and other places of public amusement be closed; that all lodge meetings be closed; that all schools not under adequate medical and nursing supervision be closed; that all local health authorities be charged with the enforcement of the foregoing rules and regulations until modified by the further order of this Department. It is further ordered that all Sunday Schools and Church Services within said City be suspended until the further order of this Board. Notice is hereby given that the water from the City water mains should be boiled before drinking purposes. That the State Department of Public Health hereby directs and orders that the attendance on all funerals of persons dead from a contagious disease, or any other disease, shall be restricted to the immediate relatives and close friends of the deceased and the necessary attendants.[3]

Later the state would extend the limit on funerals to all deaths.

In an era before widespread mandatory vaccinations deadly disease outbreaks had been common so school closures weren’t uncommon. Earlier that year in January an outbreak of small pox in Harrisburg led to a quarantine of the city and around  the same time the state board of health ordered the closure of Mount Vernon schools following an outbreak of several cases of scarlet fever.[4]

With churches closed the Carbondale Ministerial Association ordered a call to prayer instead: “In place of the public services at the churches there is a call to prayer at home. The church bells will ring at the usual hours as a reminder. Let home worship prevail.”[5]

What the order did not include was meetings of the Red Cross and other organizations raising funds for the war effort. An armistice wasn’t signed to end the war until the following month.

Unlike the current crisis officials didn’t shut down private business en masse. They couldn’t legally do so, not without direct evidence of a health crisis at the place of business. That led to charges of favoritism and hypocrisy when officials shut churches but not saloons.

During the period when the ban rested most heavily on the churches with their high ceilings and spacious well ventilated rooms, the low, dark, stuffy saloons were allowed to open their doors to their participants who gathered in groups around the bar, sneezing, coughing or spitting as the case might be, each altogether as careless as the hiccoughing neighbor at his elbow. This condition was met with rebuke by the Rev. K. Schaurete, priest of St. Andrew’s Catholic church of Murphysboro. He frankly disclosed his disapproval of this conspiracy on the part of the health commissions that such conditions could not have been avoided.

Murphysboro health officials apparently went further than some eventually adding new restrictions “on saloons, confectionaries and homes where the epidemic existed.” The restrictions on private businesses drew complaints as well.

A request was made that all confectioners tie up the chairs at their tables to illiminate [sic] close association of their customers. H. Neadstine, a prominent druggist and confectioner of Murphysboro, was reported by officers to Mayor Davis as having failed to comply with these orders. Neadstine declared that if was arrested he would report others who had been permitted to maintain the chairs at their tables as they had previously done. The city officials went to Neadstine and made the proposition that there would be no prosecution and they would let the matter drop, if he would obey the new restrictions of the Board of Health. Neadstine agreed to tie up his chairs and the case was dismissed, the contracting parties compromising yesterday morning.[6]

The flu continued to wreck havoc on society for the rest of the year. While ten residents of Jackson County have died in the current pandemic, even as late as that December Carbondale alone had 11 deaths from the “flu-pneumonia,” out of a total of 18 deaths in the city.[7]

While the second round seemed to die off by the end of the year the third wave of infections hit later that winter in 1919.

Aaron Erastus Prince was 32 years old when the third round the flu hit southeastern Illinois in 1919. He had been called to the pastorate of First Baptist Church in Eldorado that February. A year earlier while preaching at La Grange, Missouri, he had also started practicing medicine after five of the six doctors in town left for military service.

Back then, you didn’t have to be licensed, and you could order a medical diploma for as little as $25. You simply found a doctor who would take you in, let you make calls with him, and maybe study some of his textbooks. So to meet the doctor short, I started practicing in that fashion... This training came in real handy when I accepted the First Baptist Church in Eldorado in February, 1919...  But when our leading doctor in Eldorado came down with the flu, I started doctoring some of the sick as best I knew. It was really vicious, people dying all over town, just like rats. It was like the black plague – some patients would turn as dark as a colored person after they died. Some folks when out of their heads with temperatures up to 105°, chills and vomiting. There wasn’t a thing we could do for them. We didn’t know what to do. We had nothing to do with. The nearest hospital was at Evansville, Ind., but all the deaths I knew anything about occurred in the homes.

We got in touch with some doctors in England, to see how they treated it. We found they weren’t doing much more than we were – some quinine tablets, cold pills and aspirin. But I’d go house to house with my little medicine case, dispensing what few medicine we had, but always under advice of a doctor. The flu broke out every winter, for two or three years. Several times, we closed our church for as long as six weeks to two months. All public meetings, including the picture shows, shut down. Everyone was told to stay home.

When the local undertaker got sick, I started burying the dead, too. I didn’t have a license to embalm, but a mortician at Harrisburg would send one of his men over from time to time. He’d set up the embalming machine for two or three bodies at a time, and together we’d prepare them for burial. Then I’d dress them and put them in their caskets. At times, you couldn’t even find able-bodied men to dig graves. I’ve helped with as many ten funeral in one day. Oh, I didn’t preach that many sermons, but I helped with that many, either as a preacher or mortician. Most funerals were in the homes, often with two or three members of the family watching from their sickbeds, not knowing if they might be next. I remember a sister and sister-in- who died 30 minutes apart, in the same house. We had a double funeral for them, and at that service, I was preacher and undertaker and everything else. In some cases I might bury the father one day, and the mother a couple of days later. Often the little children would come running to me, some of them sick with the flu, asking what was to become of them. I have money to some of them, to pay neighbors to take care of them.

Those three years – February, 1919 to September, 1921 – saw the hardest work of my ministry. I’m not exaggerating when I say that sometimes I was up 24 hours at a time. When I came home at night, my wife, Perl would have me a clean change of clothes. I changed over at the church, for fear our children might get contaminated. Then I’d take the dirty suit to the cleaners.

After the epidemic ended – and you didn’t hear of a case anywhere – I was standing on a street corner in Harrisburg, waiting for the tram–car to Eldorado. All of a sudden, I got sick, and by morning, every member of our family was in bed. We had to hire a nurse to come in and care for us.[8]

By that summer the epidemic had ended in the United States. Not much has been found in the region’s newspapers about the suspension of civil rights in part because liberties weren’t as restricted as they are being today. Also, World War I was a low point for civil liberties in the United States, especially First Amendment rights. The war effort had already caused shortages at time which required closure of non essential businesses. Earlier in the winter 1918 a shortage of coal had required the closings of nearly all businesses on Mondays in an effort to conserve the fuel necessary for heat and generating electricity.

Monday will be open-less day for nearly every business place in Carbondale, except drug stores and places selling food which may keep open until 12 o’clock, only. This is the order of U.S. Fuel Administrator Garfield, in his drastic action taken as a means of saving a coal famine in the United States. All dry goods stores, men’s furnishing establishments, barber shops, moving picture shows, confectionaries, and laundries must close all day Monday, as no coal will be allowed to be used to heat any of these places except enough to keep things from being damaged by freezing. Banks, light plants and telephone offices may remain open, however, also physicians and dentists.[9]

The order took effect January 21 and lasted through March 25.

[1] 1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus). Centers for Disease Control. Online at

[2] Oct. 21, 1918. “Schools Closed for Indefinite Time.” Carbondale Free Press (Carbondale, Ill.). 3.

[3] Oct. 19, 1918. “Official Notice!” The Daily Free Press. (Carbondale, Ill.). 3.

[4] Jan. 14, 1918. “Mt. Vernon Schools Are Ordered Closed.” The Daily Free Press. (Carbondale, Ill.). 1.

[5] Oct. 19, 1918. “The Call to Prayer” The Daily Free Press. (Carbondale, Ill.). 3.

[6] Dec. 21, 1918. “Business Man and Health Board Clash.” The Daily Free Press. (Carbondale, Ill).  2.

[7] Jan. 9, 1919. “Local and General.” Carbondale Free Press. (Carbondale, Ill.). 3.

[8] Robert J. Hastings, ed. 1976. We Were There: An oral history of the Illinois Baptist State Association 1907-1976. Springfield, Ill.: Illinois State Baptist Association. 20-24. Prince became pastor of First Baptist Church in Marion on Nov. 6, 1921

[9] Jan. 18, 1918. “Businesses to Close Monday.” The Daily Free Press. (Carbondale, Ill.). 1.