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William Sanders probably wondered when the horror would end. The Carter County, Missouri resident watched his 14-year-old son, Leonard, die on October 8, 1918. Two days later, his 21-year-old son, Willie, died, followed by 7-year-old Timon, 15-year-old Simon, 3-year-old Dallas, and finally 17-year-old Maude. He lost six children in a span of nine days. Ten days later his 48-year-old wife Sarah died, leaving William a widower with three children under the age of 10.
William’s stunning tragedy wasn’t unique. Families across the United States, and around the world, grappled with a killer of unprecedented proportions - the Spanish Influenza. My grandfather, Henry Bergman, a healthy 37 year old man, fought his way back from near death when the flu struck him. He was one of the lucky ones.
It’s fairly certain that the disease didn’t originate in Spain. It was likely called the Spanish flu because Spain was one of the first countries in Western Europe that publicized significant numbers of flu-related deaths in the general population. Even today, nearly a century after the pandemic, virologists still remain fascinated by the origins of this catastrophic illness and its worldwide deadly march. While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when, where, and why the illness developed, documented cases appeared among British troops in France in late 1916 into 1917. Other countries reported sporadic outbreaks of flu, including a particularly ominous outbreak in Kansas in early 1918. Wherever it started, most agree that the conditions in France, the major battleground of World War I, contributed to an opportunistic perfect storm for this deadly strain of flu to strike throughout the world. Soldiers were on the move and they carried the illness with them.
A massive wave of the flu struck soldiers in Europe in the spring of 1918. Nearly 25,000 French troops reported ill with the flu in May. But, only a handful died, and the illness seemed to fade away during the summer. In late August and September, the flu re-emerged worldwide. This strain, though, proved to be lethal for millions of people. Accurate numbers aren’t known, but estimates suggest around 30 million deaths from the flu. Some assert the number was probably much higher, approaching 100 million.
In practical terms for genealogists, hardly any American family escaped the effects of the flu. More than 25 percent of the American population became ill over a span of a few months. Fortunately, many of them recovered, but it was no ordinary case of the flu. Recovery was often a long and arduous undertaking. Even if your family members avoided getting sick, they may have felt the impact of the pandemic on their daily lives. Public gatherings were strictly curtailed. Schools were closed. People on the streets wore masks. Some communities posted guards on the roads and wouldn’t allow strangers in, and some wouldn’t allow anyone to disembark from trains that rolled through town. While church services were discouraged, some congregations met outdoors thinking that would be safer than meeting inside.
For many Americans, like the Sanders family in Missouri, the entire makeup of their family changed. John Oxford, a British virologist, noted that when “one person dies … there are repercussions through the next generation.” Was your family affected by the 1918 flu? Look for clues in these records.
Study the changes in the family from 1910 to 1920. Don’t forget to look for state census records, as well. Iowa and Kansas, for example, took a census in 1915. Genealogists are used to seeing children disappear from family groups, as childhood diseases often proved deadly. The preferred target of this flu, though, was seemingly healthy young adults between 20 and 40. Many children lost one or both parents. If you spot widows, widowers, and orphans in 1920, consider the possibility that the flu may have struck the family.
By 1918, most states had laws requiring death certificates, although compliance could still be sporadic. Deaths from the flu might have been recorded in several different ways: Spanish influenza, influenza, bronchopneumonia, pneumonia, or respiratory infection, for example. Many death certificates list influenza as a contributory factor. One North Carolina death certificate, for example, lists the cause of death as “pneumonia following Spanish influenza.” However, because of the swift and devastating nature of this illness, death certificates were never made for some people, especially those in large cities. Some cities were so overwhelmed by the number of dead people, that they were buried in mass graves. In Philadelphia, for example, at least 2,600 people died in the first week of October from the flu and its deadly complications. The next week at least 4,500 people died. Whole families were wiped out and bodies were piled high in the city morgue. Many of them were never properly identified.
If you had any family members in the military, check for muster rolls and service records. A scan of the Marine Corps muster rolls shows page after page of servicemen “sick in hospital” during the fall of 1918. Most of them had the flu. If your ancestral relative died in France in 1918, don’t assume it was a battle death. He may have died from the flu. One Army division reported 90 men wounded, captured, or killed in battle during the final weeks of the war. Yet, 444 men in the same division died from the flu.
Don’t forget to look at the records created for Gold Star Mothers. These records are a major source of information for World War I soldiers and their families.
One of the best ways to understand the impact of the flu on your family is through the newspapers. It was news everywhere. Look for notices of who was ill, who died, and what precautions were taken by the local populace.
Walk through any cemetery in existence in 1918 and you may find a large number of grave markers from 1918. Check the cemetery records to see if they have interment files that list cause of death. Some newspapers reported that unscrupulous cemetery workers charged high burial fees, but made the families dig the graves themselves.
Many communities banned funerals for flu victims, allowing only minimal graveside services for the immediate family. If your ancestor was lucky enough to receive a funeral, you may find records at the funeral home, if it still exists. Some old mortuary records have been placed with local and state historical societies, libraries or archives. This example is from the new collection of California, San Francisco Area Funeral Home Records, 1895-1985 on Ancestry.com.
This flu left the landscape almost as quickly as it arrived. Another round, not nearly as deadly though, struck in the spring of 1919. And, there were scattered reports of this flu strain through 1920.
Scan your family history databases and look for deaths clustered around 1918. Every person’s death had an impact on other family members or perhaps even a direct impact on you. If you have deaths in your family related to the flu, do a little research. There are many excellent books, websites, and articles devoted to this catastrophe. Understanding the world in which our ancestors lived helps us to understand the challenges they faced.
Genealogical writer, researcher, and lecturer Mary Penner resides in New Mexico. She can be reached through her website at: www.marypenner.com.
Other articles in the 11 July 2011 Weekly Discovery