The “Forgotten Pandemic” of 1918 :: By Freddy Burton

Rapture Ready note:

This article was written by my life-long friend, Freddy Burton, who served as Saline County Clerk, an elective position, from 1993 to 2012.

The article appeared in our local paper, the Saline Courier (formerly the Benton Courier) two years ago. Benton, Arkansas is the town in which Todd Strandberg and I live. I’ve lived here most of my life.

The article gives fascinating perspective, contrasting the current Coronavirus pandemic with the Spanish flu of 1918, which the article chronicles in-depth.

             –Terry James

 “It is an oddity of history that the influenza epidemic of 1918 has been virtually overlooked in the teaching of American history…” National Archives and Records Administration.

More Worldwide Deaths than World War I

World War I, known as the “Great War,” ran from 1914-1918 and claimed an estimated 16 million lives. The influenza pandemic, known as the Spanish ‘Flu’ of 1918 attacked 1/5th of the world’s population and killed an estimated 50 million people. More than 600,000 Americans died; and 7,000 in Arkansas alone.

Greatest Medical Holocaust in History

Within months, it had killed more people than any other illness in recorded history. More people died of the Spanish Flu in a one year than in four-years (1347-1351) of the “Black Plague”.  Some historians described this pandemic as “the greatest medical holocaust in history”.

Attacked Young and Healthy

One of the unusual features of this pandemic was that it killed mostly young adults. In 1918-1919, 99% of pandem influenza deaths in the U.S. occurred in people under 65, and nearly half of which were in young adults 20 to 40 years old.

Unlike Other Strains / Summer and Fall

Another unusual feature of this pandemic that was unlike other strains of influenza, which are primarily active in the winter months; The Spanish Flu outbreak was strongest in the summer and fall, and especially in October of 1918.

Downplayed by Officials

Fearing panic, officials were originally reluctant to admit that the pandemic posed a serious threat. James C. Geiger, a commissioned officer for the Public Health Service who was stationed in Arkansas, downplayed the threat with reassuring statements even after he himself had caught the flu and his wife died from it.

Local Conditions

The dire situation was clearly documented by the October 10th 1918 Benton Courier: “Benton and Vicinity in Grip of Epidemic of Spanish Influenza. Public Places Closed. No epidemic has had its grip on this country and county as has the Spanish influenza, which, during the past week has placed itself in almost every home… it has been announced that many churches will have no services Sunday…The American Bauxite had to shut down its plant on Tuesday on account of so many men being sick, and several have died in that section of the county.”

When I first ran across information on this historical event I was shocked, not only of the magnitude of this pandemic, but that I had never heard of it. Some historians have referred to the1918 Influenza pandemic as: “The Mother of All Pandemics.”

Scientists, doctors, and health officials could not identify the disease which was striking so fast and so aggressive. Some victims died within hours of their first symptoms. Others succumbed after a few days; their lungs filled with fluid and they suffocated to death.

BENTON COURIER October 17, 1918: “Influenza Has Our County In Its Grip: Nearly Every Home is Affected And More Victims Are Reported Each Day…Business is at a Standstill and Little Relief is In Sight…The doctors have had more calls than could possibly be attended to, and the druggists have had problems in securing medical supplies. There have been a number of fatalities, Benton undertakers having supplied thirty coffins in the past five days…”

Undertaker’s Records

The Undertaker’s Records from 1916-1928 indicate that in October of 1916 there were only 3 deaths for the month. October of 1917 there were only 8 deaths, but in October of 1918, the peak of the pandemic; there were an astonishing 72 deaths in that one month! Doug Hawkins, owner of Ashby Funeral Home told me recently that 45 burials are the most that he has ever done in one month. To put this in perspective, the population today of Saline County is 114,404. The population of Saline County in 1918 was 16,781.

BENTON COURIER: October 1918: “Sheriff Cox has received a letter from the State Board of Health advising him to see that all places where public gatherings are held in Saline County are kept closed…To open any place for the purpose of a crowd assembling is in direct violation of the law…”

Below are a few samples of the news in the Courier from different parts of Saline County:

  1. CARMEL: “Heath isn’t very good in this section on account of influenza. We hear that the death angel visited the home of Mr. and Mrs. Ed McClain last Saturday and claimed for its own their darling little girl, Ruby.”

 BAUXITE: “At this writing the Spanish influenza is about to take hold of everyone. Farry Corn has been quite ill…Lula Elrod has also been quite sick with this epidemic. Jesse Stuckey, son of Mrs. Emma Stuckey, passed away last Saturday… Dewey Hardin has been quite ill for several days…At this writing there are still lots of sickness around. Hardly enough well people to wait on the sick ones. The death angel claimed Susie Bryant from Mr. and Mrs. Joe Bryant last Thursday their oldest daughter.”

 LIBERTY: “MR. Editor and readers, I have nothing to report that is bright, amusing or encouraging. All is sorrow, disappointment and dread. There is serious sickness in many homes, and the death angel visited two homes last Saturday. James Elliot, owner of the Rural Telephone system died Saturday, leaving seven small children. Also Dewell Green, about seventeen years of age, son of John H. Green, died Saturday morning. He will be greatly missed by his many schoolmates of Rural Hill School, especially by his class, the eighth grade. He leaves to mourn his loss his parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Green one sister, Miss Ola and two small brothers , Ernest and Wilbur. There remains were laid to rest in Ten Mile cemetery Sunday evening. Elder O.C. Robinson and Will Daniels have been very sick for several days with the flu, as is also Miss Delpho Shockley, whose case has now developed into pneumonia. Whole families have been down at once, and many could not get the care and attention they needed. The doctors have gone night and day and have been behind with their calls most all the time. Most all who have escaped the contagion are worn out waiting on the sick.

 I am wondering what the future has in store for us. Its best, of course, that we do not know. We should not borrow trouble, nor brood over things gone by. We should make the best of conditions as we get to them, but we never before had universal troubles as now…” (A.B. Stockley)

Cynthia Dunn recalls her grandfather, Paul Rucker, and grandmother, Cynthia Ramsey Rucker, telling her the way it was in the Shaw community in the fall of 1918. “My grandmother Rucker would begin cooking food early in the morning for those families that were sick, and my grandfather Rucker spent the entire day delivering this food.  Funerals of the flu victims were cancelled because everyone was afraid to go to the church for fear of exposure and the other members of the family were often sick themselves.”


Tanlac Tonic

Although there were no cures, desperate times called for desperate measures. People relied on a range of different home remedies, including the wearing of garlic amulets. In some areas people turned to Tanlac; advertized as a “powerful reconstructive tonic.” None of these remedies helped.

Advertisement: Bush Drug Co. ad in BENTON COURIER October 1918: “Persons Weak and Run Down Easy Victims: Fortify Yourself Against Flu by Taking Tanlac…nothing on earth will strengthen you and build you up like Tanlac, the powerful reconstructive tonic, which contains the very elements needed by the system to give you fighting strength and ward off the influenza germ…In connection with the Tanlac treatment, it is necessary to keep the bowels open by taking Tanlac Laxative Tablets, samples of which are included with every bottle of Tanlac…Tanlac is sold in Benton by Bush Drug Co., the only established agency in town.”

Last Article in Courier / First Article October 10th

BENTON COURIER  October 31 1918: “Influenza Situation Improving Rapidly: Although there are several cases of influenza over the county, it is believed that the epidemic has spent its force in Saline County, and the quarantine has been raised, so that churches may hold their regular services Sunday, and the schools of the county can resume Monday.

This has been one of the worst epidemics to strike this section for years, as there were but few homes that were not affected by the disease, and in many instances whole families were ill at the same time, with no one to care for the sick.

 Now, that the danger of spreading has passed and the quarantine has been raised, it is expected that within a few days conditions will become normal again, and the business of keeping business moving will be as brisk as it was before our misfortune.”

Nursery Rhyme

In the years following 1918, Americans seemed eager to forget the pandemic. For several years after the pandemic children could be heard skipping rope to the rhyme: I had a little bird, its name was Enza, I opened the window, and in-flu-enza.

Given the devastating impact of the pandemic, the reasons for this forgetfulness are puzzling. It is possible, however, that the pandemic’s close association with World War I may have caused this amnesia. This has led some historians to call the 1918 Spanish flu; the “Forgotten Pandemic.”