1918 flu pandemic dwarfed the horrors of war

Echoes of our past
William & JoyWangemann • for The Review

In the year 1914 the dark clouds of the world’s first modern war rolled across Europe. Soon most of the continent was embroiled in a grinding calamity that would claim the lives of millions, both military and civilian. The incessant chatter of the machine gun and the roar of modern artillery exacted a death toll previously undreamt of in past wars

The stage was now set for the worst disaster in the history of mankind… not the war, but the so called Spanish Flu pandemic of 1917-18. The flu spread around the world in the incredible time of two months. World War one had caused millions of people to move about spreading the virus where ever they went. A catastrophe ensued that was to kill more people worldwide than all the plagues in history combined! Over half of the world’s population was affected, every land mass on the globe suffered from the unknown disease except Antarctica. The exact death toll across the world was never known, but it was well over 40 or 50,000,000…10,000,000 in India alone; the grim total far exceeded the deaths caused by World War One.

President of the United States Woodrow Wilson had vowed to send no American boys to die in foreign wars. But as the war ground down to a hellish stalemate, the United States was steadily drawn into the horrible whirlwind of destruction later known as World War 1. Finally on April 6, 1917 with a great deal of reluctance and sadness President Wilson sent a declaration of war to congress which voted nearly unanimously (one senator voted no) to accept the declaration of war.

The United States Army at the start of World War One numbered but 200,000 men, an urgent call went out for volunteers, young men responded by the millions. The population of Sheboygan County in 1917 was about 58,000, of that number over 2500 young men volunteered. The City of Sheboygan with a population of 30,000 contributed an astonishing 1500 volunteers! Little did these young men realize that the greatest threat to their lives would not be the war but a deadly disease.

At least one Sheboygan World War 1 veteran in later years would claim that while the flu was killing millions world wide it may have saved his life! When Private Henry Wirtz arrived in France he and his best friend were both stricken with the flu hospitalized, both men survived, while in the hospital their unit was sent to the front and suffered heavy casualties. By the time Private Wirtz recovered from his illness the war was over and he was shipped back home.

In Wisconsin and Sheboygan little heed was paid to the deadly malady, but the so called Spanish flu would soon extract a terrible toll on our city and the state.

In the USA the flu was first noted at Fort Riley Kansas when on March 18, 1918 several men reported to the base hospital with flu like symptoms by the week’s end over 500 men were ill. No attempt was made to restrict the movement of troops as thousands were shipped to Europe further spreading the virus.

The symptoms of the mystery illness were high fever, severe aches and pains in the joints and life threatening lung congestion, people between ages 20 and 40 were most often affected. For some strange reason the elderly and the young were bypassed by the virus.

Before the flu pandemic was over 600,000 Americans died, that’s equivalent to almost 2000 people dying per day, for 10 months! During that same time 13,000 people died in Philadelphia alone. In October of 1918 the worst month of all, 195,000 Americans died of the flu, which is equal to a World Trade Center disaster every day for one month!

By early summer of 1918 the first cases of the Spanish Flu began to appear in Sheboygan. Health authorities here as well as the rest of the country were helpless as the disease ravaged Sheboygan and Wisconsin. The Spanish Flu had a greater effect on the lives of more people than anything else in the history of our city and state. Statewide more than 7,200 persons lost their lives to the deadly virus. In many remote rural areas, hundreds were reported to have died without ever receiving medical care and were never counted. In Sheboygan County the death toll stood at 207. In the City Of Sheboygan the count was over 165 with 78 deaths in October alone. In all, over 2400 cases of the flu were counted in the city.

October 10th, The Sheboygan Press declares “The Whole State is closed!”

October 12th, The Health Department warns that the city is in an epidemic, 37 year old Alderman Wuetherick dies of the flu.

October 17th, Dr. Reich director of the Health Department orders all homes that have been struck by the flu to be placarded. Red placards are soon seen all over town.

The City is in crisis, the Mayor calls an emergency council meeting.

A new ordinance is passed stating that, Expectorating is prohibited in public places, on side walks or on public conveyances.

The Operators of all public conveyances and public places are to provide cuspidors for patrons.

Chief of Police Henry Dehne is ordered by the Common Council and the mayor to instruct his men to enforce the law to the letter.

Violators will be punished by 5 days in prison at hard labor or a fine of $5.00 for expectorating.

October 24, The Sheboygan Press quotes Dr. Reich as saying “Conditions are improving, the end is in sight.” In the next month 46 Sheboygan residents die. In December 23 more city resident pass away from the flu.

During the Height of the epidemic two emergency hospitals were opened, one in the 99 Hall and the other in the hotel at 14th and Michigan Ave.

Lydia Wangemann (my mother, now deceased) who remembered the epidemic with great clarity recalled that both places were no sooner open than they were swamped with patients. Doctors, nurses, undertakers and grave diggers were all in short supply, they too had become ill. Black wreaths appeared on doors, like a silent specters, all over town. The city was in mourning. In January of 1919 the vile plague disappeared as suddenly as it appeared. Why? No one knows. Even today much is still unknown about that terrible plague.

The flu virus of 1918 has never been clearly defined many doctors today feel the virus is still out there somewhere, in a dormant state.

But one thing doctors do know for sure it could return one day!

Remember to get your flu shots

Today’s snippet: In the year 1921 Wisconsin was the first state in the union to pass a law eliminating all discrimination against women.

If you have any questions or comments feel free to contact me at 920-458-2974. Or e-mail wangemann@yahoo.com

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