Here’s another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.
My protagonist, Rollie, returns from war in April 1919 a widower, because his wife has recently died from what people mistakenly call the “Spanish flu.”
The influenza pandemic of 1918-19, which infected some 500 million people worldwide, of whom at least 50 million died, killed 675,000 Americans. According to historical analysis by the CDC, mortality ran high in very young children, adults from ages twenty to forty, and those above sixty-five.
A poster circulated by the Rensselaer County Tuberculosis Association, 1918, Troy, New York (courtesy National Library of Medicine)
The twenty-to-forty age group illustrates how returning soldiers and sailors spread the disease, whether in military encampments or among the civilian population. Washington State was no exception, as two naval training stations and the most important army camp were hotbeds of infection.
Seattle officials at first downplayed the danger, after which they issued ordinances banning social gatherings, shutting theaters, closing schools, and instructing police to enforce the laws against spitting on the street. When these measures failed to slow the spread, the city’s leaders, thundering against the populace, enacted further restrictions and threatened fines for infractions.
For instance, if you wanted to ride a trolley, you had to wear a mask, and the mask must have at least six thicknesses, rather than the usual four. Acid commentary ensued. After all, if nobody understood the disease, how could anyone say how thick the mask should be?
The criticism underlined how powerless medical science was. With typical bravado, the city’s leading health authority trumpeted the effectiveness of influenza serum, which, in fact, provided little or no protection. Further, if the flu virus didn’t kill its victims, opportunistic bacterial infections might, and in those days, no antibiotics existed.
Nevertheless, the infection rate petered out. The disease did rebound in December for another month or two; announcements of weddings and funerals held in homes rather than houses of worship suggest how people coped with the ban on public functions. Toward the end of February 1919, the plague vanished from Seattle, having killed an estimated 1,400 among a population of 315,000, a relatively low mortality rate. Other cities were less lucky.