A look back at another health crisis: the flu epidemic of 1918


Editor’s note: La Porte County Historian Fern Eddy Schultz wrote the following article several years ago — an article we feel is worth re-visiting in these times of the COVID-19. 


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One might have thought a world was continuing was enough without another disaster. During the summer and fall of 1918, three young men from LaPorte were killed in action in what would come to be known as World War I: Lt. Hamon Gray, July 30, 1918; Albert E. Swanson, Aug. 2; and George Luebker, Oct. 7.

It was also in 1918 that the worldwide “Spanish” influenza epidemic, considered the third greatest epidemic in the history of mankind, paid a visit to La Porte County.

Pronouncements were made by public officials about things to avoid and ways to try to prevent becoming a victim.

However, by Oct. 2, a local doctor was reporting cases of the flu but in an attempt to allay fears stated they were “extremely mild” and there was “no cause for alarm.” He was reporting it to be similar to the “old-fashioned grippe” and a couple of the old-fashioned remedies were ginger tea and the juice of a lemon with honey and rum added to a cup of boiling water; taken for a few days, he said this was a sure cure.

However, this strain proved much more virulent and deadly. In 1918, according to the Indiana Health Department, 52 people in La Porte died from the flu, not necessarily all the “Spanish” variety but various forms of flu.

The epidemic continued into 1919, and October and November were particularly tough months.

Every day, the status was chronicled and the county health department urged banning of events and  offered suggestions to avoid contracting it. In early October, two young Cass Township soldier boys were reportedly dangerously ill with the “Spanish” flu.

This was closely followed with the report of death of a Galena Township boy at the Great Lakes Naval Training Base. Only a few days later came the report of the death a young La Porte boy at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh.

In the very flowery writing style for obituaries of that time, his stated in part: “But throughout the day the sands of life were running toward the eternal shore, and at 10:40 o’clock last night, several hours before the mother arrived in Pittsburgh, the sleep of death had come, the transition had taken place.”

The La Porte County health department placed a hold on public meetings, which included closing of all schools, churches, theatres, amusements of all kinds, and any public meetings or gatherings, until further notice.

During the following weeks, information was published in the newspapers advising the public of ways to “stay clear” of the influenza. (In Chicago, churches were combed by the police department and worshippers who sneezed or coughed were asked to leave.)

Vicks VapoRub took advantage of the situation to promote its product, claiming that “when VapoRub is applied over throat and chest, the medicated vapors lessen the phlegm, open the air passages and stimulate the mucus to throw off the germs.”

The then-mayor of La Porte also gave his advice, saying the public should refrain from talking influenza. He advised not to keep discussing it and thus keep it living — he suggested letting it die. He advised to “be attentive to  segregation orders — but particularly stop depressing talk.”

It was reported that the small towns in the county were also reporting the status of their localities. For example, “Spanish” influenza was “raging” in LaCrosse with over 80 cases and three deaths. The town had one doctor who was “greatly overworked.” Hanna officials reported that there had been no effort made to clean up or disinfect the school building, which was considered the cause of the widespread infection there. They reported the son of a former resident had died in Remington, Indiana. Interlaken, the camp at Rolling Prairie, reported the death of 15 soldiers there and a memorial service was held.

By late October, local authorities were convinced the problem was easing up and the ban on public meetings was lifted. However, the ban was reinstated as it was determined to have been lifted too soon — the influenza epidemic was again running rampant. By mid-November, 39 new cases were reported and by the end of November, the new cases had reached 70.

Apparently this was the end of this tragic time and as of Dec. 3, the ban on meetings was again lifted and the theatres opened their doors to the “picture hungry” public.

Not only was the epidemic’s end good news, but the Armistice had been signed Nov. 11, ending World War I.

The boys were returning to La Porte County and to a hero’s welcome.

FERN EDDY SCHULTZ is La Porte County’s official Historian. For more information about our county’s fascinating history, visit the La Porte County Historical Society Museum and its website, www.laportecountyhistory.org.

5 Responses to “A look back at another health crisis: the flu epidemic of 1918”

  1. Mike Kellems

    Apr 01. 2020

    Maybe another related topic for the absolutely wonderful and multi-talented Fern… wasn’t there a military encampment north of Rolling Prairie, where St. Joseph’s Novitiate is now, that was affected by the Spanish Flu epidemic?

    Reply to this comment
  2. Kathy T

    Apr 01. 2020

    That is such interesting information on the Spanish flu. It’s amazing that people were told to stop talking about it to alleviate it, to use Vicks and drink “hot toddies.” We’ve come a long way!

    Reply to this comment
  3. May

    Apr 01. 2020

    A piece of history we all should of looked at when the first sign of this came to our attention!

    Reply to this comment
  4. Lynn Lisarelli

    Apr 01. 2020

    Fascinating!! Thank you, Fern!!

    Reply to this comment

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