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October 5, 2017

1918 Influenza Epidemic Hits Johnson County Missouri

The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than the Great War, known today as World War I (WWI), at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351. Known as "Spanish Flu" or "La Grippe" the influenza of 1918-1919 was a global disaster.

In his book, Disaster in Leeton, Bob Wyatt writes.

"Spanish influenza was a more severe version of the typical flu...  Extreme chills and fatigue were often accompanied by fluid in the lungs.  One doctor treating the infected described a grime scene. 'The faces wear a bluish cast; a cough brings up the blood stained sputum.  In the morning the dead bodies are stacked about the morgue like cordwood.'

"...All doctors could do was try to make the patients comfortable, which was a good trick since their lungs filled with fluid and they were wracked with unbearable coughing.  The 'bluish cast" of victims' faces eventually turned brown or purple and their feet turned black.  Some developed bacterial pneumonia which added even more agonizing secondary infections."

Johnson County residents weren't worried about the Spanish Flu at the beginning of 1918.  Cases of Small Pox had appeared around the county and people lined up for vaccinations.

Leona Narron, a 19-year-old girl who worked in Warrensburg at the Vitt-Mayes Overall Factory recorded this in her diary:

"Jan 14.  Tryed to work but didn't get much done.  All the girls in the factory was vaxanited but me I was not.  They was all scared they would get the small pox."

The Warrensburg Standard Herald published this article on Feb 1, 1918.

More Smallpox.  

There are numerous cases of smallpox in Warrensburg.  Our residents are keeping the physicians busy doing vaccination work, and it is hoped the disease will soon be stamped out.

Leona didn't get smallpox but did contract measles later in the spring as an epidemic of that disease spread through the county.

All through 1918 her mother was dying of tuberculosis. One hundred years ago, life expectancy was very short as people died of diseases that are rare today.

 Bob Wyatt writes, "Between the speed of the outbreak and military censorship of the news during World War I, hardly anyone in the United States knew that a quarter of the world's population --had been infected with the deadly disease."

In August 1918, Warrensburg resident Annie Baker wrote a letter to her son, Carl, who was serving in the Army.  She devoted a paragraph to describing the sudden mysterious death of another young soldier.
Aug 12 1918

Dear Son Carl
...Herbert Huff that negro that left here with the last bunch is dead + will be buried today.  He as only at (Camp) Funston one week when he died They dont know what was the matter with him."

Late in August another soldier mysteriously died, This was described in a letter from Leona Narron to her boyfriend, Carl Baker.

Sep.1. 1918

Dear Carl,
Carl did you know that Charley McKinzie he lived up by Oak Grove and he was in Camp Junction he was brought home yesterday dead..."

Then another soldier from Clinton got sick. Carl's father worked for Mr. Willoughby cutting and hauling logs. Annie Baker wrote:

Dearest Carl
Mr willoughby's boy enlisted in the navy + first had influenzea + then developed in pneumonia + he is in a critial condition + Mr. Willoughby is with him in Chicago."

From Momma to Carl

"Oct 1 1918
Dearest Carl
Mr. Willoughby's boy died Friday + they brought him home yesterday + he was buried today.  He told Dad about it over the phone yesterday.

With Lots of Love Momma to Carl."
The flu was spreading into the county and people were trying to combat it with home remedies.  Leona wrote to Carl:

"Oct 4, 1918

My Dear Little Husband,
...We are all well hevent any of us got the flue yet.  Papa told Florence and I we had to take a dose of quinine tonight he said that would keep us from taking it ut no quinine for me.  I dont think I am going to take it any way.  I think the flue is a great deal better.  But there was another man died with it yesterday.  Maby you know him, he merried Mary Easterwood. I have heard his name but I don't remember what it was."
Oct 13" 1918

Dearest Carl
We went to the show last night they are going to stop school + the churches + high school + the show on account of the Spanish Flue... There is quite a scare here now of that Spanish Flu.

Glenn (Carl's brother) isn't hauling logs now as Layfatte Co in quartitine so they can't do anything over there til that is over....hope you don't get the flu.

Mother to Carl"
"Oct 17, 1918

Dear Husband,-
...I have been working all day that is untill five oclock then they shut the factory down to air it out and fuigate for that influenza.  Mr Vit sure is scared about it.  He has been away for about a week and just got back today.  He shut the power down and made a talk he said he had been out at Topeka Kansas and in Oklahoma and he said that influe sure is bad out there.  He said that they were just dieing like flies and he said they just died so fast that they could not get caskets for to burey all of them.  He said that he wanted we girls to be careful.  But I think that two or three of the girls have it now.  They are sick and they say that is what it is."
"Oct 19 1918

Dearest Carl
...I thought maybe you had influ as that seems to be the order of the day now... Mr. Willoughby say they are dying in Clinton at the rate of 5 a day with the Flu.

With lots of Love Mother to Carl"
On Oct 19, Leona wrote in her diary

Worked all day came home and went back to town after some things and came by Mrs Lawes and got my skirt. (Mrs. Lawes, who did custom sewing, seemed to be as well as anybody when Leona made this entry.  She was only nine days away from death.)"

Image result for spanish flu warrensburg
October 24, 1918 Butler Mo Newspaper

Nine days after Leona made her diary entry about Mrs. Lawes, she wrote to Carl

"Oct 28, 1918

My Dear Husband,-
Carl, did you know Harry Lowe, his wife died yesterday or this morning one I don't know which.  She was the lady that did my sewing for me.  And a lady that works in the factory died yesterday morning her name was Mrs Hunter.  It sure was bad they was both big, strong, healthy Woemen and died so suddent.
(Undated clipping sent by Annie Baker to her son Carl. Probably from the Warrensburg Star Journal in early November, 1918 since it mentions the W.T. Baker family.)
"Nov 4" 1918

Dearest Carl

...the kids all started to school again this morning Earline (Annie Baker's youngest of her 12 children) is better but not well yet She cant walk around any yet She is so weak + Aunt Lue is here in bed + Maw on the grunts + I sure dont feel like I can stand to do much more...

Shermy Anderson died + was buried yesterday it sure was sad.  He was here last week + talked to me abut an hour asked about you boys + ege Henderson Died this moning so Henry Shackleford told me... Aunt Liz Breeden was here just now + she said Mr. Hammond died last night.
Mother to Carl


"Nov. 8, 1918

My Dear Husband,
...You said the flue was a thing of the past down there.  It is just about that way here We never hear of much of it any more.

"Nov 24, 1918

My Dear Husband
...I am setting up with the sick.  We have got that flew at last.  I did not think we would get it. But Della is in bed with it.  I was telling you about George coming up with it and I am afraid we will all have it before it is over with..."
"Nov 26, 1918

Dearest Carl
This leaves all well but me + I have been nearly sick for a week.  They all say I have got the Flu but I wont have it that way.

Aun Lue was here 4 weeks + was sick all the time she was here

...I called Leona + Florence said she was sick in bed + all the rest of the kids but her was in bed with the Flu.  Nearly every body here in town had the flu.

Mother to Carl
Nov 29,  1918

My Dear Husband, -
I have just got up our of bed and and am setting here by the stove with my feet on the sstove.  I feel a great deal better but they wont let me set up.  Papa was just telling me I had better go back to bed.  I did not have the influenza very bad But they say it is best to stay in ed...We just have five here in bed But they ar all getting better right along,,, I wnt to bed Tuesday and they told me I could not get up untill Sunday.  But I am setting up now.  But will not getup to stay untill Sunday.  Because I sure do not want to take a beck set and have to stay in bed any longer...Papa just keeps fussing at me to go to bed He is afraid for me to set up... Papa says I must go to bed so I will close and do better next time.
Dec 1, 1918

My Dear Husband,
I am getting  along fine after the flew.  They are all up now but are not allowed out of doors.  I will not get to work any for another week...
Dec 4, 1918

My Dear Husband,
Carl you know that Jackson boy that was a cripple that had that hump on his back.  He died of the flew today.  Poor Mrs Jackson sure is having a hard time it has not been so very long since she lost her husband.
Dec 6 1918

Dearest Carl,
Robert Hatfield died last night He was Bobs only boy now He had the Flu.
Yours with lots of love,

Mother to Carl
This December 6th letter contains the last mention of the flu in Warrensburg.  In January 1919 Annie Baker's children who suffered from the flu only months before came down with the measles and recovered.
Leona's mother succumbed to tuberculosis in February 1919 and the many diseases that were common 100 years ago continued to take their toll.

The first cases of influenza in Kansas City, Missouri developed among the city’s two army motor corps schools, and from there spread to the civilian population. On September 27, local newspapers reported that the commandant of the motor corps had placed the two schools under a strict quarantine after it became apparent that the few cases that had developed among trainees several days earlier had now become a serious outbreak. Nearly 1,000 student soldiers in the two corps now had the disease. Simultaneously, three young civilian women living at the Girls’ Club showed symptoms of the disease after having visited one of the motor corps several days prior. Reports of additional civilian cases circulated, but the official stance of the Kansas City Department of Health was that these civilian cases were only severe colds.1 If only it were true. Kansas City was about to experience a deadly influenza epidemic.
Within a few days the number of new cases both at the motor corps schools and within the city’s civilian population started to climb. By October 1, twenty percent of the city’s army training schools had contracted influenza. Forty-three civilian cases had appeared, with 33 of them under isolation. Kansas City Health Director Dr. E. H. Bullock now acknowledged that his city was on the cusp of an epidemic, but noted that it was not yet dangerous.2A week later, as more cases developed, Kansas City Mayor James Cowgill declared influenza a public emergency under the city charter, granting the Board of Health the authority to open hospitals, enforce health regulations, and make necessary expenditures. The Board reacted immediately. On October 7, it ordered all schools, theaters, and churches closed and prohibited gatherings of more than twenty people. Liberty Loan mass meetings were included in the ban, but planning luncheons were permitted as a military necessity. Saloons and cabarets were not ordered closed, but would be watched closely by health inspectors to ensure that they did not allow more than twenty patrons to congregate at a time nor become a public health menace.3 Kansas City shuttered itself as best it could against the impending storm.
The orders were not implemented as smoothly as they could have been. The problem was leadership. In most cities, decisions about how best to run the anti-epidemic campaign were left to the health officer, some of whom were guided by an influenza advisory board or by a health board. In Kansas City, however, in addition to Health Officer Bullock, the Director of the Contagious Diseases Department, Dr. A. J. Gannon, also took a leading role. The two men clashed almost immediately. On October 8, Gannon ordered the Metropolitan Company, operator of Kansas City’s streetcar service, to limit the number of standing passengers on its cars to twenty people. The company’s president refused to comply, arguing that conductors did not have the legal authority to implement such a rule. Gannon then asked the police to enforce the order. Health Director Bullock and several members of the Board of Health–including its president, Dr. W. P. Motley–refused to support Gannon, however, and countermanded his order. Bullock told Gannon that the passenger limits were unnecessary and that the president of the Metropolitan Company had complained that his company was being persecuted. Gannon responded that he was going to have his inspectors examine every streetcar anyway. Board of Health president Motley then chimed in, stating that he would not support Gannon’s inspection or his passenger limit order, adding that the police were only needed when there were riots or civil disorder. “Until such conditions exist,” Motley stated, “we will go ahead ourselves enforcing the city ordinances without the police department’s help. We’re not going to cause the street car company any trouble in this matter.” Later that day, Gannon’s inspectors reported streetcars “not fit for beasts, let alone human beings,” and ordered some fourteen cars sidelined until they were properly cleaned.
Dr. Gannon did not stop there, though. That same day, he sent inspectors to survey each and every saloon in the city; they found all of them to be insanitary. Gannon ordered police to close saloons unless they were sufficiently cleaned that night.4 The next day, Gannon ordered closed all second-hand stores and pawnshops dealing in clothing, as well as all cleaning and dyeing shops found to be insanitary. He claimed that many stores had received clothing from Camp Funston (where the epidemic had started particularly early and had been especially severe), and, although he had not been able to trace the epidemic to second-hand clothing, he believed it had contributed to the spread of the disease.5
Within a few days, Mayor Cowgill, Health Director Bullock, Dr. Gannon, and other members of the Kansas City public health administration began to discuss the possibility of lifting the closure order. New cases were being reported each day, but these men believed that the epidemic had reached a plateau. Captain A. A. Hobbs, chief medical officer of the city’s two army motor corps training schools, strongly disagreed, arguing that influenza was still prevalent in all sections of Kansas City and citing the army’s requirement that epidemic measures be kept in place for a minimum of three weeks to be effective. The head of the local chapter of the Red Cross as well as one member of the Board of Health agreed with Captain Hobbs that it was too early to lift the closure order. Nevertheless, Mayor Cowgill and Dr. Gannon believed that the danger had passed. Effective at noon on Monday, October 14, the closure order and gathering ban was lifted. The Board of Education met shortly thereafter and ordered Kansas City schools to reopen the following day.6 Had Mayor Cowgill or Dr. Gannon listened to Captain Hobbs, or taken the time to read news of other cities’ experiences, they would have realized that the epidemic had not ended so quickly in any community in the United States. Kansas City was in for a much longer and much bumpier ride.
Dr. Gannon was too busy condemning stores, apartment buildings, and even whole neighborhoods as unfit for humans to notice the influenza danger.7 When the Chamber of Commerce called for a meeting with local physicians and members of the Board of Health to discuss the raging epidemic, Gannon replied that it was “no longer necessary to hamper business by a continuance of the ban. The responsibility of preventing its spread should be assumed by the individual.” Public fear, he added, would keep people from gathering.8 Fear, however, was not an effective public health measure. Apparently, garlic and onions were, as Gannon claimed were responsible for the lower numbers of influenza cases in Little Italy.9
On October 17, after an emergency meeting with the Board of Health, Mayor Cowgill announced a second closure order and gathering ban. The order went into effect immediately, once again closing all theaters, churches, and schools. Unlike the first order, the gathering ban now applied to dances, parties, weddings, and funerals as well. Hotels, cabarets, and restaurants were barred from having music or other amusements. Stores employing twenty-five or more employees could not open before 9 am nor close after 4 pm, and crowding in city stores and shops was forbidden. Lastly, all cases were to be isolated with their homes placed under quarantine.10 Kansas City had finally gotten serious about its epidemic.
Business and residents lived under these restrictions for the next month as new case tallies spiked and then dropped. By the first week of November it appeared as if the danger had truly passed. Merchants and other business interests, along with at least one City Council member, began to pressure Mayor Cowgill to remove the closure order and gathering ban. Cowgill himself supported removing the ban, believing that the latest rules imposed by health authorities were ineffective and unfair to Kansas City’s businesses. “Business has borne the burden of the epidemic too long,” he told the public. 11
The Board of Education was eager to reopen classrooms, but opted for a cautious approach. The closure was causing students to fall behind their curriculum schedule, and empty school buildings were costing the city approximately $10,000 per day. Still, the Board of Education believed that the comparatively low numbers of influenza cases among the city’s children was the result of the school closure, and therefore opted to keep classrooms shut until all signs of danger had passed.12 Within a week, however, as new cases dwindled to a trickle, the Board decided to reopen schools on Monday, November 18.13
On November 26, local newspapers reported the latest influenza bombshell: the Board of Health had removed Dr. Gannon from his position as Director of the Contagious Disease Division of the Health Department. Board members were quoted as saying that the action was taken “for the good of the service.” In addition to his brash demeanor and his proneness to making unilateral decisions, Gannon had been submitting inaccurate case tally reports since at least mid-October, often reporting only half the number of actual cases. The president of the Board of Health Motley commented that he was glad to see Gannon go, and that he had been in favor of his removal for well over a month.14
In the meantime, Kansas City’s epidemic had begun to spike again, particularly in children. On November 30, Health Director Bullock announced that schools, still on break for the Thanksgiving holiday, would remain closed until further notice. The next day, he announced that the closure might last through the upcoming Christmas holiday. Having lost so many days to the previous school closures, prospects for a carefree summer of outdoor play now seemed bleak.15 So did their current situation, given that parents were asked to keep children under 16 years of age at home, and movie houses and retailers agreed to bar youngsters from their premises until the epidemic had fully abated.16
By the time the last remaining days of the year arrived, Kansas City’s influenza epidemic situation had improved drastically. New cases and deaths continued above the normal seasonal rate throughout January and February of 1919, but nowhere near the numbers reported during the height of the epidemic. Schools reopened on Monday, December 30, the last of the epidemic control measures to be dropped.17 The New Year came and residents celebrated as best they could. For some, the worst had passed, and they could look forward to a better year. For those who had lost loved ones, however, the difficulties of coping with the losses had only just begun.
In the end, Kansas City had experienced a long and hard influenza epidemic. From its start in late-September 1918 through early-spring 1919, over 11,000 cases and over 2,300 deaths occurred as a result of the epidemic.18 As a result, Kansas City experienced an excess death rate of 580 per 100,000 people, placing it among one of the harder-hit cities in the United States.


1 “Influenza Heats Army Here,” Kansas City Star, 27 Sept. 1918, 2; “Spread to Residence District,” Kansas City Star, 27 Sept. 1918, 2; “Civilians Free from Influenza,” Kansas City Star, 28 Sept. 1918, 3. According to the annual report of the board of health, Kansas City’s civilian epidemic did indeed begin officially on September 27, 1918. See Annual Report of the Hospital and Health Board of Kansas City, Missouri for the Year Ending April 21st, 1919 (Kansas City, 1919), 21.
2 “880 Soldiers in K. C. Have Influenza,” Kansas City Post,” 1 Oct. 1918; “11 Deaths Reported in Influenza Spread Here,” Kansas City Post, 3 Oct. 1918, 1.
3 “Stop Gatherings,” Kansas City Star, 7 Oct. 1918, 1; “Close Schools, Theaters, and Churches, New Order,” Kansas City Post, 7 Oct. 1918, 1.
4 “Limit Street Car Crowds,” Kansas City Star, 8 Oct. 1918, 1; “Drive against Influenza in K. C. is Now On,” Kansas City Post, 1; “Found Street Cars Dirty,” Kansas City Star, 8 Oct. 1918, 2.
5 “No Car Crowding Today,” Kansas City Star, 9 Oct. 1918, 1.
6 “Influenza Ban Lifted by City; Epidemic Wanes,” Kansas City Post, 14 Oct. 1918, 1; “Lift Ban under Protest,” Kansas City Star, 14 Oct. 1918, 1.
7 When a health inspector found two ill children in a Union Ave. shack crying from hunger and neglect after their mother had passed away from influenza, Gannon ordered the entire neighborhood placarded with “unfit for human habitation” signs. The next day, he condemned a tenement where a number of influenza victims had been living. See “”Shun a Whole Neighborhood,” Kansas City Star, 14 Oct. 1918, 1, and “Dead from Influenza,” Kansas City Star, 15 Oct. 1918, 7.
8 “C. of C. into Disease Again,” Kansas City Star, 16 Oct. 1918, 1.
9 “K.C. Starts Fight in Earnest against Influenza Epidemic,” Kansas City Post, 18 Oct. 1918, 1.
10 “A Drastic Ban is On,” Kansas City Star, 17 Oct. 1918, 1. Oddly, Gannon also cited Little Italy as an uncooperative neighborhood where residents had refused to clean up their dwellings. A number of homes and flats were placarded as “unfit for human habitation.” Apparently, these insanitary conditions had no negative bearing on the influenza epidemic.
11 “Mayor for Lifting of Flu Ruling,” Kansas City Post, 8 Nov. 1918, 1.
12 “Committee is Named to Urge Lifting of Ban,” Kansas City Post, 7 Nov. 1918, 1; “Schools Not to Open Monday, It Is Announced,” Kansas City Post, 9 Nov. 1918, 1.
13 “K.C. Schools to Resume Sessions Tomorrow,” Kansas City Post, 17 Nov. 1918, 1.
14 “Health Board Drops Gannon,” Kansas City Star, 27 Nov. 1918, 1, and “Dr. A. J. Gannon is Removed by Health Board,” Kansas City Post, 27 Nov. 1918, 1. As early as October 16, Board of Health president Motley had noticed that large discrepancies in Gannon’s reports. See “Call Meeting to Discuss Ways to Fight Epidemic,” Kansas City Post, 16 Oct. 1918, 10.
15 “Schools to Stay Closed,” Kansas City Star, 30 Nov. 1918, 1; “Flu Keeps Ban on School Sessions,” Kansas City Post, 1 Dec. 1918, 1. In the end, the school board decided to extend the academic year by three weeks to make up for the lost classroom time. See “Lengthen School Term Three Weeks,” Kansas City Post, 1 Jan. 1919.
16 “Rigid Quarantine Banishing Peril of Flu in Shop Crowds,” Kansas City Post, 17 Dec. 1918
17 “Hard School Grind Starts Tomorrow,” Kansas City Post, 29 Dec. 1918.
18 Annual Report of the Hospital and Health Board of Kansas City, Missouri for the Year Ending April 21st, 1919 (Kansas City, 1919), 22.

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