Peoria's 1918 Spanish Flu Terror
by Norman V. Kelly
Here in Peoria, Illinois the local newspapers reported the war news daily, listing casualties from the city and county of Peoria, Illinois. Just over 5,500 of our young men went off to ‘Fight the Hun,’ resulting in the death of 211 of them. However, on October 6, 1918 the headlines and stories reported a threat to the folks right here in town. They called it ‘La Grippe,’
the Spanish word for the flu which was at that time reaching epidemic status and apparently heading our way.
Health Commissioner Dr. George Parker reported that Spanish influenza cases in Peoria were growing in leaps and bounds and he warned that the epidemic would only get worse. The news terrorized the area and folks began to retreat inside their homes as much as they could. Still the flu spread and on October 8, 1918 the good doctor ordered theaters, churches, and public gathering places to close. To add to our local problem, thirty-seven of our physicians were in the United States Army. Parker asked that every nurse in the area report to his office so he could get help to the folks that were in dire straights. They responded along with retired nurses and women that had nursing experiences. ‘Hospitals’ were opened up in vacant buildings and masks were handed out by the hundreds to worried Peorians. Still the epidemic spread.
A CLOSED CITY
More orders were issued banning gatherings of any kind, including funeral services. All of the city hospitals were over crowded and more vacant buildings were used to open up temporary, make shift hospitals to care for the influenza victims. Peorians, as always, from service clubs to single volunteers banned together to help wherever they could. Most businesses were closed, and the city took on a vacant look as the disease spread along with the fear and isolation.
Physician’s offices were besieged with new patients even though there was little if anything the doctors had in the way of proper medicines. The patients were advised to stay warm, try to remain isolated, and drink plenty of juices and water.
One set back as far as the epidemic was concerned was a huge gathering of folks downtown when the false news of the war ending became a wild rumor. These people broke the ban on assembling, and Parker was certain the epidemic would destroy the city. The number of flu cases did indeed increase but not as badly as the doctor had predicted. Mayor Woodruff ordered the inhabitants of the city to clean up their area, including the alleys,
declaring that filth was a way for the disease to spread. This order did not come from Dr. Parker who doubted that cleaning up around the house would help. But…it did keep the healthy folks outside and away from their sick relatives.
As the city darkened, the factories began to close, the libraries and many of the restaurants and downtown businesses turned off their lights as well. By now there were 510 confirmed cases of Spanish Influenza in one stage or the other. Parker stated that there were probably many more unreported cases.
Throughout the ordeal the local authorities, led by Dr. Parker reminded people to stay calm, warm and hydrated. They asked every citizen to wear the gauze masks and simply avoid human contact if possible. The real heroes were the nurses that worked above and beyond the call of duty to help keep their city free of additional cases of influenza. Of course, many of them fell victim to the disease as well.
Within three additional weeks 525 more cases were reported, but mixed with the bad news was the fact that the disease seemed to be slowing down. That was good news to the beleaguered medical workers, but the fight was far from over.
MORE GOOD NEWS
Local newspapers reported that the Germans had agreed to treaty terms and it looked like it “Was over over there.” Still there were reports of Americans being killed and our local casualty flu count went up. The final count was 400 communities in the State of Illinois affected by the epidemic, and reports of deaths were coming in from all over. The big weapon against the flu seemed to be Vicks Vapor Rub, which of course was not a cure by any means. The final count here in Peoria, Illinois was 40 dead, many by complications of pneumonia.
By the end of October the major storm appeared to have passed. It was remarkable how a few sturdy doctors and nurses managed to take care of so many sick people. The volunteers, the Red Cross, the churches and the missions worked hundreds of hours to stop the spread of the plague here in town.
It was a prideful time for Peorians and officials praised the folks that fought in the front lines to save their city. Personally I can tell you that the spirit of this town was lifted far beyond what any miracle drug could have provided.
Of course we could have used one during those scary days of October 1918.
Editor’s Note: Norm welcomes your comments and you can also e-mail him: email@example.com