October 1918: Outbreak of Spanish Flu Kills Millions

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In 1918, the most severe pandemic in recent history spread across the globe. The Spanish flu, or the H1N1 virus, infected 500 million people (about a third of the world’s population). Before it was over, about 40 million people died worldwide!

Spanish Flu Pandemic
The Spanish flu arrived in three waves. It initially appeared in the spring of 1918. The first wave was mild. Symptoms included chills, fever and fatigue, but those infected recovered relatively quickly. By fall, however, the virus took a dramatic turn. The second wave was deadly, especially for people ages 20 to 40. In addition to the sudden onset of earlier flu symptoms, many developed a virulent strain of pneumonia. Their lungs filled with fluid and many victims died within hours or days after coming down with symptoms. The third wave hit that winter, and by the spring of 1919 the virus had run its course.

Though the origin of the virus is not known, it arrived during WWI, when troop movements and the living conditions in military camps helped it to spread. Governments were slow to report on the flu’s severity, for fear it could be seen as a military weakness. But when the flu arrived in neutral Spain, newspapers reported widely on it. As a result, the virus became known as the Spanish flu. It even infected the King of Spain. When it was over, the Spanish flu killed more than the war did. In fact, of the US soldiers who died in Europe, half of them died from flu and not the enemy.

Back on the home front, in an effort to contain the wildfire-like spread of the flu, gatherings of all types were cancelled, weddings and meetings postponed, and churches shuttered. Schools closed, prompting The Nebraska State Journal to offer students cash prizes for the best written entries on how they were spending their school break.

Unsure how to best combat the spread of the virus, Health Departments advocated fresh air as cure. Restaurants advertised new sterilization techniques, movie theaters required patrons to spread out with empty seats and rows, and drug stores advertised remedies to keep the flu away. Eventually many public gathering places closed altogether.

The human toll of the pandemic was astonishing. Children everywhere were left orphaned when parents succumbed to the virus. Families buried their loved ones one by one. Hospitals were overcrowded and undertakers and coffin makers were unable to keep up with demand. Homes of the sick were quarantined and family members often too sick to care for one another. Officials discouraged gatherings of any type, including funerals. Only close family members could attend the funerals of loved ones, and funerals were limited to 15 minutes!

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 affected everyone in some way. One-quarter of the country became infected and 675,000 Americans lost their lives to the virus. How did it impact your family tree? If you would like to learn more about this pandemic, search our archives today!

Search our archives today to find the obituary for your ancestor!

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The Peshtigo Fire: October 8, 1871

The Peshtigo Fire: October 8, 1871

The deadliest forest fire in American history swept through Northeast Wisconsin on October 8, 1871. The Peshtigo fire, named after the small town it obliterated, claimed 1200 lives. The Peshtigo fire has been somewhat ignored by history because it started the same day as the great Chicago fire.

Painting from Peshtigo Fire Museum
It was an unusually dry summer that year. Small fires used to clear land for farming and railroads had been smoldering, but didn’t cause alarm. That all changed on the evening of October 8th. As parents tucked their children into bed, an ominous rumbling “like the distant roaring of the sea or like a coming storm” had them nervously scanning the horizon. In the distance they could see the glow of a fire. The winds were picking up, but residents still had no idea what was approaching.

About 10 p.m., hurricane force winds, accompanied by lightning, blew into town. Gusts that preceded the firestorm ripped roofs from houses and felled large trees. Alarmed residents ran to investigate and witnessed a huge inferno, described as a tornado of flame, bearing down.

The Guardian, reported that “The wind blew with such tremendous violence that people endeavoring to escape were lifted from their feet and blown into burning houses. The wind blew super-heated clouds of sand on to those running to escape. Each grain burning and blistering.”

Those that could, began a mad dash to the river. Mothers, unable to make it to the water, tried desperately to protect their children from the flames. The fire was an “oxygen-sucking firestorm” whose power has been compared to an atomic bomb. Residents, unable to outrun the fire, burst into flames. Those that did reach the river encountered frightened livestock that trampled over them. Burning logs floated on the river’s surface. Once immersed in the river, faces of those trying to escape were badly burned each time they surfaced for air. Some, unable to make it to the river, jumped in wells to escape the flames. The intense heat caused the water to boil, killing them. Within two hours the town was reduced to ashes.

When relief workers entered Peshtigo after the fire, they found the town and surrounding woods littered with burned bodies. As the magnitude of destruction became apparent, people from surrounding towns stepped up to care for survivors. Those who managed to survive the flames lost everything. Today, Peshtigo is rebuilt and thriving, and as the Green Bay Press-Gazette says, is “Truly reborn from the ashes.”

If you would like to learn more about the Peshtigo fire, or have ancestors from that area, search our archives at Newspapers.com to learn more!

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