Historic pandemic hits the county
One hundred years ago this year the world was in the grips of the worst killer influenza pandemic ever known in modern history. It was a very democratic affliction in that it didn’t care if you were Christian, Jew or Buddhist, Chinese, German or American and it was estimated to have killed between 50 to 100 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1919.
The label of “Spanish Flu” came from the fact that King Alfonso XII of Spain was one of the estimated 500 million people that came down with the illness. Researchers now believe the origins of this strain of flu were located in China and that it mutated after crossing over from birds and then perhaps to pigs and from there on to humans. More American soldiers would die from the Spanish Flu (43,000) then those unfortunate souls who lost their lives from hostile action. Even President Woodrow Wilson fell victim to this dreaded illness in 1919 while he was at the Versailles Peace Conference in France.
In the United States, the first outbreak of Spanish flu was traced to Haskell County, Kansas, in January of 1918. A local doctor warned the U.S. Public Health Service but they took no action. Then on March 4, 1918, a cook at Fort Riley, Kansas, reported sick and by March 11 over 100 soldiers were in the hospital and within a very short period of time 522 soldiers in Fort Riley were in their hospital. The failure to contain the flu when it was still small and still controllable would open “Pandora’s Box.” Soldiers living in cramped barracks often slept no more than three feet from their neighbors which made an ideal setting to spread the illness.
Minnesota wasn’t spared the ravages of it either with over 10,000 reported deaths between 1918 and 1919. Faribault County had the very dubious honor of having the first confirmed death in the state. Wells, Minnesota, has been traced to the genus of Spanish flu for both the county and the State of Minnesota.
The “Typhoid Mary” of the outbreak was a 17-year-old boy named Raymond Paulson. Raymond had enlisted on May of 1918 in the Army and was serving as a musician at Fort Riley, Camp Hancock, and Fort Oglethorpe. When the influenza struck hundreds of recruits the military concluded it was a new form of pneumonia but soon this was proven incorrect. The base commander decided to press the regimental band into becoming health workers because the medical staff were completely overwhelmed. There was a much greater need of hospital orderlies than musicians so the regimental band came to a temporary end. Raymond would never play another musical note in an army uniform.
It was Sept. 18, 1918, when Pvt. Raymond Paulson stepped off the train in his hometown of Wells, Minnesota. He wasn’t feeling all that great but he didn’t give it much thought. This was his first furlough home since he transferred to duty in the hospital at Camp Oglethorpe, Georgia. He got this time home to recover from appendicitis and the subsequent operation.
Soon after getting to his parent’s house a telegram came from the Navy. The telegram said Raymond’s 22-year-old brother Walter had died from a strange form of “pneumonia” and his body would be shipped forth with. The day after Walter’s funeral, Raymond died and the day after that his sister Anna died and sadly, Pastor C.W. Gilman, who conducted Raymond’s funeral, was to see the same fate.
The State Public Health Service quickly marshaled its forces and started to generate regulations in an effort to lessen the spread of the flu. They closed all schools, banned public gatherings, required health workers and people exposed to the flu to wear cloth masks. Spitting in public was forbidden. They even went so far as to order that coffins should be closed at funerals. Since streetcars were the way people in Minneapolis and St. Paul got to work, they required the staggering of business hours to avoid packed streetcars. Some of the rather unusual ideas they deployed were banning the sale of ice cream and beverages at soda fountains, plus the shutting down of elevators in buildings of six or fewer stories.
The death records in the Faribault County Recorder Office reveal that 101 deaths were recorded listing Spanish flu as the primary or secondary cause of death during the years of 1918 and 1919. Also, individuals who were under the age of 40 made up the vast majority of those that died. People who died and were over 40 years of age often had some other health problems that compromised their ability to fight off the flu. It is thought that many of the over 40 age group had been exposed to a strain of flu back in the late 1890s and thus obtained some immunity. It was very common for multiple deaths in the same families and for young mothers to lose their life and the newborn infants within hours of each other. When you consider how overworked doctors would have been you would have thought they would have been victims of the flu, but no deaths are recorded in the death records. Schoolteachers didn’t fair well, and even the mailman wasn’t spared or the butcher in the meat market.
When the 101 deaths are plotted on a map of Faribault County using the home address, it shows that having access to railroads played an important role in the spread of the flu. There are no deaths recorded in Foster Township and Walnut Lake Township and one in Dunbar Township. None of these townships has easy access to railroad travel. The largest clusters of reported deaths were located in Wells, then Blue Earth and, thirdly, Winnebago. All three of these communities had rail service. Wells had both north-south and east-west rail connections, as did Winnebago and Blue Earth.
A.B. Russ is a
the Faribault County Historical Society.