Real life horror of the Great Influenza—and it could happen again

Maurice Stamps, a 103-year old World War II veteran, recalls his brush with the deadliest pandemic in human history in 1918

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From The People’s War Book, which does not mention the Great Influenza, but does announce the title President Woodrow Wilson chose for Herbert Hoover.

Near the end of World War I, an American soldier from Iowa was placed on burial detail. Yet this young man was nowhere near the frontlines of Europe.

In uniform, he dug graves for 700 of his comrades who had died of the Great Influenza at Camp Dodge in October of 1918. The bodies were stacked like cordwood.

Later, his son asked the World War I veteran, whose legacy was burying the bodies of his friends in a mass grave, “What did you do in the war?”

The only thing the former soldier ever told the boy was, “I survived the flu.”

Black Death

Exactly 100 years ago this October, the worst pandemic in human history was at its height. Also rising, as a nation, was censorship in America. To this day, every child knows of the Black Death, chanting Ring Around the Rosy, a song about the sores indicative of the Plague, yet the Great Influenza is not taught in most high schools. It is as if the germ of fascism has survived intact for a full century.

During World War I, nations suppressed freedom of the press. They needed warriors that could concentrate on battle rather than worry about the greatest enemy of all sweeping their countries like nothing before and nothing since.

Spain was neutral in the Great War. Therefore, its newspapers were free to report the truth, and the disease incorrectly became known as the Spanish Flu.

The children of the time knew, though, and were not afraid of censorship to sing:

I had a little bird /
Its name was Enza /
I opened the window /
And in—flu—enza.

This rhyme four lines long might seem quaint or silly if it did not tell the story of 100 million people dying by drowning from within, blood seeping from eyes, noses, ears, mouths, their bodies blue, black.

Wayne County was not immune. No one was, and the young and healthy were the most likely to die. Approximately 51 people—a conservative figure—in the period of less than one year died of influenza across the county, including three members of the Wade family buried in Seymour—20 years old, 31 years old and 65 years old—within the span of 10 days during Christmastime.

It cut across ethnic boundaries. One victim’s death certificate signed by Dr. George Hinkle of the Harvard area was a native of Salamanca, Mexico, occupation laborer, most likely at the nearby coalmines, name Jesus Rodriguez. A few months earlier, his 16-day-old daughter Maria Rodriguez had died, the most likely killer the Great Influenza.

Modern medicine was impotent to stop it. The immune system, in attacking the virus, destroyed the body. Eventually, this demon leapt from swine to human and from human to swine, and scientists today are not sure from which species it rose. For all they know, it could have been avian in origin.

In 2009, a descendent reappeared as the Swine Flu, the same H1N1 strain having become more civilized.

In Australia, it was remembered simply as the Black Death. Though a greater percentage of the population died during the height of the Plague in the 14th century, no pandemic killed more people in a shorter amount of time than influenza circa 1918. Yet most students are never taught the subject, and scientists are no closer to preventing another pandemic of this nature than they were a century ago.

The world’s population was 1.9 billion at the end of World War I. Estimates of the global death toll range from 50 million to 200 million. If the last figure is correct, with today’s population at 7.6 billion, nearly a billion people would die if a pandemic of similar virulence hit the world tomorrow.

Witness

In his house shaded by evergreens in Seymour, Maurice Stamps watches a college football game, muted, while listening to the Iowa Hawkeye’s postgame commentary on a taped-up transistor radio.

On Oct. 29, the former high school principal turned 103 years old. Maurice is a veteran not only of World War II, but of the Great Influenza. He is one of the few witnesses left.

“It was the worst thing since the Black Death in Europe,” said Maurice. “I was born in 1915. I can remember being in bed with the flu. Most of our neighbors got it. The flu wiped out three of my family members.”

His memory of the pandemic is shiny and obscure, but clear enough to portray a picture as gruesome as Bosch’s Black Plague painting The Triumph of Death.

Maurice’s father made a pact with the neighbors, that if one of them got the flu, the other would do their chores for them. But the fear proved too strong when the pandemic struck Maurice’s parents.

“When it hit our family, those neighbors gathered their team of horses and the wagon, got in it and took off,” Stamps said, laughing softly. “They left the neighborhood.”

Maurice’s grandmother died. His aunt Lola Stamps died. Her son Donald Stamps was in the Army. He died of the flu at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis.

“It would get into an Army camp, and they didn’t have the medication to take care of the sick like they did later,” Maurice said.

However, it is doubtful today’s medicine would have any more efficacy once a similar contagion started.

Maurice and his parents were fortunate enough to get the influenza in the spring, when it had not mutated into its most deadly form.

“We were well enough to go to the funeral for Donald Stamps at the little church on the road that comes up from Cincinnati [Iowa]. It’s a meeting place for the 4-H now. I remember it was sunny and warm outside—it would’ve been in the fall of the year.”

That was the second wave. The three-year-old boy was fortunate to have a measure of immunity. Mourners wore surgical masks to Donald Stamps’ funeral.

“When my folks went out to do the chores, they tied a mask around their face,” Maurice said. “There were several girls in a family down in Genoa it just swept through. It was hard to get enough people to take care of the funeral. Several families were buried at that Genoa cemetery.”

Fear kept people from helping their neighbors bury the dead. But there were also examples of selflessness. Parents did not want the same thing happening to another man’s wife or children.

“Some families would not even report some of the dying,” Maurice said. “Because they didn’t want to spread the flu.”

Lost Generation

The Book of Revelation paints a similar portrait as the Dutch artist Bosch:

“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death…. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death….”

Former English professor Enfys McMurry, a friend of Maurice Stamps, grew up in Wales circa World War II, and like her American-born counterparts, she was not taught in her secondary education the lessons of the Great Influenza.

Everything she learned about the pandemic she had to seek out, her information by necessity second-hand.

“Most of them were soldiers coming back from war,” McMurry said. “The first bodies that came into Centerville on the train were all soldiers. The first one came from Washington State. Young, healthy people placed in graves. Everyone was afraid.”

The Allied and Axis propaganda machines were at their height. In The People’s War Book, published in 1919, not one mention is made of the worst pandemic in human history. The U.S. government suppressed information about the disease which, more than any mustard gas, machine gun, tank or biplane brought the conflict to an early end on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, riding a pale horse. The pale rider was not wearing a gas mask, but surgical gauze.

The book was owned by Dr. D.R. Ingraham of Sewal, and signed by World War I ace of aces W.A. Bishop. The caption below reads, “The hand that signed the above name is the Hand That Downed a Hundred Huns.” Influenza downed many more Germans than Bishop ever could.

In The People’s War Book, there is a photograph of Iowa native and future president Herbert Hoover with the caption, Food Dictator. In a time of war against real and imagined enemies, President Woodrow Wilson gave Hoover this title.

“The people were saying it was the Germans,” McMurry said of the dictated paranoia of the age. “What they said was, ‘They couldn’t defeat us on the battlefield. What the Germans have done is come into our country and infected us and are spreading the germs around.’ They were saying that in Centerville because there were German [immigrants] living there.”

If this influenza had been designed by man, it was ingenious. It convinced the immune systems of the healthiest to kill. And not only did it kill, but it caused mental disorders in survivors. If you got the flu, you were more likely to end your life by suicide.

There’s was called the Lost Generation. Conventional wisdom blamed shell shock—now known as PTSD—or disillusionment. A better explanation would be the mind-altering nature of the pandemic that immediately followed the war to end all wars.

The Treaty of Versailles was, to say the least, controversial. There is a theory President Wilson contracted the flu while in France, and it adversely affected his decision making.

“People gathered on the square in Centerville, looking east and shouting, ‘No!’” McMurry explained. “They didn’t want the Treaty of Versailles.”

In this case, the masses were right, and President Wilson’s blunder inevitably led to greater carnage.

“It led to World War II,” McMurry said. “They put all the blame on people [instead of circumstances, such as the Great Influenza], and people couldn’t stand it. But there’s just this natural fascism in some people—you know there is.”

Hitting home

Sometimes, after the onset of symptoms, the victim would be dead within hours of realizing he had the flu.

“For the victims, it began with a headache,” McMurry said. “Following that came aching muscles, uncontrollable shivering, burning eyes, ascending fever and delirium.

“Blood invaded urine, sputum and saliva. The face and feet darkened. The patient gasped for air. Death followed by drowning. Whole families were wiped out.”

The typical symptoms of seasonal flu turned into horrific images of the Ebola virus, which spread fear around the turn of this millennium.

The most popular medication for both young and old, in a futile attempt to alleviate the symptoms, was whiskey. Despite giant leaps in medical knowledge, in that age, scientists were not even sure if a virus caused influenza, which led to pneumonia, to drowning in blood and other bodily fluids.

People hung a horrible smelling compound called aciphedida, more commonly called Devil’s Dung, on string around the necks of their children. They consumed huge quantities of garlic. They brewed Bulgarian blood tea. For all safe purposes, the Middle Ages had returned.

“At first, people didn’t catch on in Wayne and Appanoose County,” said McMurry. “The ridiculous thing is you could go into certain shops kept open and get candy unwrapped. In Centerville, what it took was one significant leader of the community. He knew he was going to die. He announced he had the flu. When he died, people went into shock. People wore masks.”

The Great Influenza came in three waves, the first in the spring of 1918. It was the milder but highly infectious form Maurice Stamps contracted as a boy.

On April 8, the Daily Iowegian noted, “An epidemic of an ailment resembling la grippe [French for influenza], which has been afflicting the residents of Centerville the past week seems to have entered the school Friday, and the afternoon session was attended by only a few pupils.”

The second and most deadly wave began around August.

“In Seymour, west of Centerville, the disease claimed Wayne County’s reliable and loved 41-year-old Dr. R.[Z]. Ingersoll.”

Before he died, Ingersoll issued Seymour’s quarantine.

Physicians exposed to the contagion while serving their patients often became casualties at the frontline of this war.

While three members of the Wade and Stamps family perished in Seymour, in December, three members of the Huston family were buried in Allerton Cemetery.

Death records from the time list names still present in Wayne County: Brock, Bettis, Bracewell, Dyer, Frampton, Hellyer, Jones, Kinser, Liggett, Poston, Selby, Tuttle, just to name a few. A typical example was Kenley Snyder dying at age 26 on Nov. 2, 1918, and his son Warren Snyder, eight months old, dying on Nov. 24. They are buried together in Evergreen Cemetery.

One-year-old Buelah Darrah’s interment was held near Derby with no public funeral due to the nature of the ailment from which she died.

It was no wonder people wanted to forget. With the government’s help, that became possible.

“I think, today, it could happen again,” said McMurry.