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Howard County History

1918 Pandemic: Kokomo closed due to the flu

By Gil Porter
HCHS Publications Committee Member

It started when a young Army private with flu-like symptoms reported to sick call at Fort Riley, Kansas, on March 4, 1918. Within days, Fort Riley was dealing with 500 cases with the same symptoms.

Forty-eight soldiers died; pneumonia was blamed. By March 11, the disease was in New York City. Through early summer, the first wave of what would be known as the 1918 Influenza Pandemic was spreading worldwide.

At first it seemed to be largely confined to military men carrying the disease to other military bases as they were deployed to Europe for the “Great War.”

Human society has had disease and contagion as long as there have been humans, but the medical community had never seen anything like this. Autopsies conducted on returning dead soldiers showed lungs that had turned blue and were soaked with fluid. Identified correctly as a new, particularly virulent strain of influenza, the disease claimed most victims through flu-induced pneumonia. By late summer 1918, the second wave hit; the first civilian deaths were reported in Boston.

For the next two months, the statistics were staggering. In the United States, 12,000 people died in September. In October, 851 deaths in one day were reported just in New York. Eleven-thousand people died that month in Philadelphia. With so many doctors and nurses in Europe to deal with war casualties, the intensity of the illnesses rapidly became a public health crisis. Casket-makers could barely keep up with demand, and undertakers routinely resorted to storing surplus pine boxes on the sidewalks and even in the street in front of their stores. As hospital wards swelled, nurses would actually put toe-tags on the living in anticipation of the inevitable. Physicians reported patients dying within 12 hours of being diagnosed. This flu killed with savage efficiency. Death came after raging fever (the victim’s hair often fell out) and intense hemorrhaging from the ears and nose. As lungs filled with fluid, victims literally drowned in their own internal tissues

The imagery was indelible, and incredible. Early 20th-century American cities looked like scenes right out of the Black Plague in medieval Europe, with mass graves and dead bodies left on curbs to be picked up by horse-drawn hearses. Most frightening was who was at risk: everyone. Doctors knew that influenza usually ravaged the old and immuno-compromised. Now they were watching healthy 18- to 29-year-old adults literally drop dead in front of them.

In a 31-day span from September to October 1918, 195,000 Americans died, the deadliest 31 days ever in United States history.

There had been a slight frost one morning in Howard County in early October 1918, but the weather was warmer by week’s end. School work and business activity was transitioning into autumn. Farmers were either preparing for or were in the midst of harvest.

Local physicians had followed the news of the “Spanish Flu” pandemic since summer and had waited nervously for the first case to appear in Kokomo. Most Howard County physicians (including the 70-year-old former mayor and Civil War veteran Dr. John L. Puckett) had signed on to the nationwide “Volunteer Medical Service Corps,” to be deployed stateside as needed to assist communities whose regular physicians were overseas. Adding to the strain, the flu had led many communities to create new “public health” positions to help coordinate a response to the pandemic. Kokomo’s city health officer was Dr. T.C. Cochran. Dr. F.N. Murray covered the county.

By that first week of October, the wait was over in Indiana. Public health edicts and news reports about the flu began exploding like artillery fire. Evansville was among the first, when Vanderburgh County officials closed schools, churches, places of amusement and “all public gatherings until further notice on account of the epidemic of influenza.” Dr. J.N. Hurly, secretary of the state board of health, issued an “advisory directive” recommending such closings, and many cities and counties followed suit.
In particular, officials kept a close eye on the Army installation at Fort Benjamin Harrison, northeast of Indianapolis, which was heavily involved in wartime support and training (some 10,000 railroad specialist engineers trained at the base in 1918 alone). Roughly 12,000 soldiers and civilians were stationed there. The first case was reported on Sept. 26, and by Oct. 8 the Army reported 31 victims of influenza (10 died in one night). In one 24-hour period, 180 patients were admitted to the base hospital. At the peak, some 1,500 patients were being treated for the flu and flu-related pneumonia.

The virus had spread so rapidly thanks largely to one conveniently opportunistic characteristic: multiple hosts congregating in close quarters. Troop transports took the flu to Europe and beyond. In small towns, the local “moving-picture” theater was the ideal incubator. This strain of flu was an airborne disease-causing organism that loved crowds. In some cities, masks were required by law. It was insidious; virtually anywhere humans gathered, the virus joined them. And spread – fast.

In Kokomo, by mid-October 1918, Drs. Cochran and Murray had wasted no time trying to set up a perimeter against the airborne invader. On Monday, Oct. 7, Kokomo citizens were formally informed that by official decree "every place in Kokomo and Howard county where the public are in the habit of congregating must close and remain closed until further instructions are issued” (Kokomo Daily Tribune, Oct. 7, 1918). So as to leave “no doubts or misunderstandings regarding who or what businesses are affected,” the Tribune listed the following that were now officially off-limits for public health reasons until further notice:
  • All churches
  • All theaters, including movies
  • All pool rooms
  • All schools, including private, parochial and the Kokomo business College
  • All places were soft drinks are dispensed, including soda fountains and candy kitchens
  • All lodge buildings or rooms
  • All club rooms
Sweeping and unprecedented in scope, but realistic in intent, the good doctors were in effect trying to quarantine the town from within. 
Other officials similarly leapt into action. Superintendent of City Schools C.V. Haworth met with Dr. Cochran that very afternoon and swiftly ordered all city schools closed, dismissing teachers and pupils and encouraging them to stay at home. A.F. Hutson, county superintendent of schools, was likewise quickly informed by Dr. Murray. Hutson immediately closed county and township schools.

Drug stores were allowed to stay open, but were prohibited from selling soft drinks, so patrons wouldn’t gather and mingle. Rural and neighborhood groceries were permitted to remain open at their own discretion, but were instructed to not allow any “loafing on the premises.”

The Tribune noted that in a great many instances “the order will work hardships,” especially so in terms of businesses “being at a standstill” and that “some hundreds of employees will be idle.” It was uncertain not just how long the order would stay in effect, but also how it would affect workers’ wages and salaries. Regardless, what the Tribune writer called “the most drastic order of the kind that ever struck this city” was in large measure an understandable response, given the deadly nature of the pandemic.

The prevalence of influenza in Howard County was reflected in the society and "goings-on" reports from the Kokomo newspapers of the day. Here are excerpts from township updates in The Kokomo Daily Tribune, Friday, Nov. 22, 1918:

GREENTOWN: Mrs. Sarah Speck is at the home of her son, Charles Speck at Hemlock, nursing her daughter-in-law, who has been very sick with influenza. Mrs. Mary Reed and daughter, Miss Myrtle Morris, are very sick at their home on Main street. Mrs. Reed is suffering from a severe attack of heart trouble and Miss Morris has had a relapse from an attack of influenza. Miss Merle Manring, one of our local telephone girls, and Miss Ruby Smeltz, employed at Renbarger's grocery, are confined to their homes with influenza. Mrs. Loyd Mast and Miss Lelia Warnock are among the latest victims of influenza. Mrs. Jane Freeman is recovering from a severe attack of influenza. Loren McQuiston and family are recovering from the influenza, all the family having had the disease. Miss Nelda Jarvis, who has been attending high school at Kokomo, is attending the Greentown high school while the Kokomo schools are closed. Roy Doster went to Wabash Wednesday to attend the funeral of his nephew, Ozro Doster, who died from influenza. 

 HEMLOCK  The Friends Quarterly meeting which was to have been held here Friday and Saturday, has been postponed on account of the outbreak of influenza. Mrs. Richmond Pickering of Kokomo is here caring for Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Pickering and three children, who have the influenza.

 NEW LONDON : School closed again Monday indefinitely, on account of sickness. 
Curiously, for a time, there was “scarcely any influenza” in Kokomo, the Tribune reported. It even presented Dr. Cochran as the very authority “for the statement that the disease is on the decline here.” Typhoid fever, the Tribune went on to say, was “prevalent to an alarming degree in the city.”

Merchants and citizens alike nevertheless adhered to the order, and “no violation or attempted violation of the order” was reported. “The public is comporting itself with calmness,” the Tribune said on Oct. 16, acknowledging that a “general spirit of co-operation” was evident in support of a public health department “acting in the best interests of the city.” The closings order was amended shortly thereafter, and rescinded altogether by the end of the year.

When World War I ended on Nov. 11, the influenza pandemic appeared to abate as well. It’s thought that the flu simply “ran out of fuel” as immunities hardened and efforts like quarantines and restrictions on public gatherings deprived the virus of new hosts. The effects of those terrible months though were long-lasting, and the memory of a modern-day plague-like illness that at times all but destroyed social cohesion surely stayed with the generation that lived – and survived – it.

Howard County did suffer the loss of many good citizens – about 200 victims, the Tribune reported on Dec. 31 — but fared better than other parts of Indiana. By mid-October 1918, nearly 22,000 influenza cases had been reported to the State Board of Health. (Marshall County, about 60 miles north of Kokomo, had the most reported cases at 2,453. White County, 50 miles or so northwest of Howard County, was particularly “distressed” by influenza; a general call was issued from the health department for extra nurses to be sent to help in the area. By the end of the scourge, Marion and Lake counties had reported the most influenza-related deaths.)

Sister Thecla wrote about Good Samaritan Hospital in Kokomo during the flu epidemic of 1918 in The History of the Sisters of St. Joseph:

'During the flu epidemic of 1918, the “Sisters responded to the challenge by going into the flu-stricken homes to render the much-needed nursing care. This they did despite the great demands for help within the hospital itself. These arduous days found Sister Blanche isolated in a Galveston home; Sister Martha quarantined with a patient in the pest house; Sister Fidelis alone on the hospital’s second floor with 15 patients; Sister Berchmans on the third floor with all the patients; and others, like Sister Monica on night duty.  No trained help was available. Patients were dying in their homes. St. John’s Mission and St. Patrick’s Sisters were quarantined with some of the Sisters’ patients. There was no one to turn to for assistance. ‘Only the Tipton gals,’ as grandma Fiant used to say, ‘came gallivanting around.’ Nevertheless, their services were gladly accepted. They helped with the laundry, carried bed pans, fed patients, went on special duty, and they were even invited to serve in surgery. No diplomas or degrees were needed, just a willing spirit and a helpful hand, and you were hired.'
“I believe the disease is subsiding” in Kokomo, Dr. Cochran told the Tribune Nov. 26, noting that “there were not so many new cases being reported nor nearly so many deaths.” However, for many more weeks, physicians, the city Welfare Department and many volunteer groups continued to provide care and comfort as the sick required.
The personal physical and mental toll of the experience was most vividly detailed by the story of William Riley, who lived with his family at 119½ West Elm Street on the north side. Seven members of the Riley family were confined to their beds with influenza, and the father had come to the Tribune office Nov. 26 to report the death of his daughter Florence. The four-year-old child had died that very midnight, another victim of the epidemic.

Young and otherwise in good shape, the Tribune reported, Riley looked “pale, haggard and utterly worn-out.” As the only healthy human in his home, he said, he was providing all the nursing care himself. For two weeks, he had been so busy caring for his family that he hadn’t even bothered to change his clothes.

"Influenza 1918." American Experience. PBS. 2 Jan. 2018. Television. Kokomo Daily Tribune, various dates, October-December 1918. Wikipedia.