LIMA — By the time readers of the Lima Times-Democrat got their newspapers the evening of Oct. 16, 1919, a relentless biting wind had driven out the mid-day warmth and left the city feeling the first “real wintry tinge in the air” that fall.
The back page of the 12-page paper that day was packed with a lively mix of local news. The opening night of the four-day St. Gerard Parish bazaar drew “an exceptionally large attendance,” as, apparently, did a 17-year-old chorus girl from the Orpheum Theatre, who waved to crowds in the Public Square from her seat in an airplane. “It was just like a joy ride on the ocean of Jazz,” the girl said of her flight with a barnstorming pilot. The Times-Democrat declared her the youngest female and first actress “ever to make a trip into the clouds in this section.”
Below that, tucked in among the stories of crime and politics and airborne chorus girls, was a reminder of a somber anniversary.
“One year ago today,” it read, “Lima like many other cities all over the country was in the midst of the great influenza epidemic with all churches, schools and places of amusement closed, as all energies bent towards fighting the spread of the dread disease. It was on Oct. 9 (1918) that a special and hurriedly called meeting of the board of health was held to take preventative steps, and on Oct. 10, that the edict went into effect.
“The ban was on here for a little more than a month, and was not lifted until Nov. 15, four days after the armistice (ending World War I) was signed,” the Times-Democrat continued. “Contrary to expectations the thousands of persons that mingled together on Nov. 11, when the glad news reached here, did not have any serious effect. The ‘flu’ died down for several weeks, and then again spread rapidly about the middle of December when Lima people were forced to wear the white masks at home and in places of employment. It reached its peak here about Dec. 11.”
Hints of what was to come began to appear in the local newspapers in the spring of 1918. “A mysterious plague is sweeping Spain,” a story in the May 29, 1918, declared, adding, “The disease resembles influenza. So far there have been no known fatalities, but the greatest alarm is felt.” The disease would become known as the “Spanish flu” because, historians speculate, Spain, which was unaligned during World War I, did not censor news of its epidemic.
Hardly any alarm was felt in Lima in the spring and summer of 1918. “Is it proper to allude to Spain as a neutral when she has openly befriended the allies by sending her famous influenza right over their heads into the German camp,” the Lima Daily News quipped on Aug. 8.
By September the joking was over. In a story headlined “Grippe Grasps Boston,” the Daily News reported on Sept. 11 that more than 1,000 cases of “what is reported as Spanish influenza” were found in Boston, many among sailors stationed in the city. On Sept. 19, a story in the News noted, “Widespread appearance of Spanish influenza along the Atlantic coast recalls warning of naval officers some weeks ago that German submarines may be responsible.” Prisoners captured and released by U-Boats “might have been inoculated with the germs …,” the story explained.
On Sept. 23, the News reported that 4,500 sailors at the Great Lakes training station had the flu. The station commander said the death rate was 1 1/2 percent, adding, “the malady has been conquered.”
It hadn’t, and it was in Ohio. On Oct. 3, the Daily News reported there were 3,962 cases at Camp Sherman near Chillicothe with 81 deaths since the end of September. But the number of cases had dropped for several days, the Daily News noted, and the flu “was declared to be definitely checked today.” Within a week the death toll at the camp was touching 600.
The following day the Daily News printed a set of rules prepared by the Red Cross to check the flu. Among them: “avoid feeling or spreading of the disease” and “regulate bodily functions and keep them so” as well as “avoid crowds.”
On Oct. 8, with the death toll again soaring and the flu widespread in the East, particularly Massachusetts, a Daily News editorial warned that stricter measures were coming for Lima. “It has been deemed necessary to practically quarantine some of the towns of that state (Massachusetts) and prohibit public gatherings,” the Daily News wrote. “It is probable the same measures will be extended to other states.” That same day, the Daily News reported there were only “a few cases of Spanish influenza in the city … It has not become compulsory to close schools and all public meeting places, but this measure will be adopted, if necessary, if the disease spreads,” the newspaper wrote.
Two days later, as Lima mourned its second flu fatality, the rules became compulsory. “At 6 o’clock this city will go under the strictest epidemic ban in its history,” the Daily News wrote Oct. 10. “Although there are not more than 30 cases of the influenza in Lima, the disease is raging on all sides of the city and the move has been taken as a precautionary action.”
Under the order, church services were canceled, schools shuttered, “moving picture and vaudeville theaters” closed and a Columbus Day parade called off. Additionally, the newspaper wrote, “cigar store owners and managers are warned against permitting loafers in their places of business.”
By that weekend, Lima health officials reported the city had nearly 100 cases of Spanish flu. “Lima was closed tightly Friday night and tonight will see a general closing of all stores in the city, preventing the gathering of the usual Saturday night shopping crowds in the stores and on the streets,” the Daily News wrote Oct. 12.
A week into the citywide lockdown, the Daily News carried a hopeful report on a drop in the number of reported cases of influenza in the city. The flu, however, continued to touch the city. On Oct. 20, the Daily News reported the death of Captain Duncan MacDonell, who died at Fort Stevens, in Oregon. He was, the newspaper wrote, “one of Lima’s most promising young men, and had a bright future before him.” He also was but one of the more prominent of the Lima men who had enlisted to fight the Germans only to die of the flu.
With the flu seemingly on the wane, the city health board was pushed to lift the ban but refused — with one notable exception. On Nov. 3, the Daily News reported the War Chest campaign was given permission to hold a meeting at Memorial Hall, with Sen. Warren G. Harding as the featured speaker.
Although Lima lifted its ban on Nov. 15, the Spanish flu did not go away, and new reports of flu deaths from Lima and elsewhere came in daily. In Delphos, the flu claimed a 20-year-old woman and her 27-year-old brother. In Kalida, a family that had lost six children to the epidemic suffered another blow when their parents died in early December.
The flu roared back in mid-December. “Health authorities have exhausted their last resources in fighting the epidemic which increases hourly, reaching its peak of 106 new cases for the 24-hour period ending at noon today,” the Daily News wrote Dec. 11 as Lima’s new St. Rita’s Hospital opened two floors to handle flu cases.
“Thirty-three new cases if influenza developed within the 24-hour period prior to Tuesday noon, city health board reports show,” the Daily News reported Dec. 17. “There were seven deaths due to the disease the same period. Due to overstrain, Dr. E.G. Burton, city health officer, is confined to his home under the care of a physician.”
On Dec. 18, regulations placing the city “partially under the ban again” were approved by the health board. Schools again closed, children under 12 were ordered off the streets and a “vacant space of 24 inches” between those at churches, theaters and other gathering places was ordered.
The epidemic finally began to wane around Christmas 1918, although new cases would continue pop up over the next few months. On Feb. 2, 1919, Burton, back on his feet and back at work, reported that in the last three months of 1918 there were 92 deaths from influenza and pneumonia in Lima.
In the United States, the epidemic claimed 675,000 lives in a nation of about 103 million. The average lifespan in the country dropped more than 10 years between 1918 and 1919. Worldwide it’s estimated the flu claimed between 20 million and 50 million, more than the total military and civilian deaths in World War I.
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.