Column: Spanish influenza in Jackson County: Wave 1 (October-November 1918)

The first wave of Spanish influenza struck Jackson County in October 1918.

Public officials responded with a countywide quarantine that closed schools, churches and most businesses and began to contain the virus. But public pressure led to the relaxation of restrictions by early November, which led to a second wave.

On Oct. 2, the Seymour Democrat reported the first “cases of the new malady, Spanish influenza” in Seymour. Five days, the entire county had fallen under a general quarantine. Dr. D.L. McCormick, the county health officer, placed a ban on all public gatherings, “including churches, lodges, public entertainments, amusement houses, schools, funerals, social gatherings and even the assembling of small groups of persons on the streets.”

The next day, schools were suspended. A public health bulletin appearing in the Seymour Daily Republican informed citizens that symptoms included “fever, pains in the head, eyes, back or other parts of the body … feeling of severe sickness.”

It could evolve into pneumonia or meningitis. Fever could last three to four days. Those exhibiting symptoms should “go to bed immediately” and rest. “No one be allowed to sleep in the same room with the patient … influenza will attack the same persons repeatedly …”

After just one day of lockdown, official rhetoric took an optimistic tone to downplay the severity of the epidemic. This rhetoric would become the recurrent official message, regardless how bleak the reality.

“Physicians say that no new cases of influenza have appeared here during the last 24 hours … physicians and health authorities declare that the conditions here are very satisfactory,” read the Republican. But the contagion was just getting started.

Within a few days, John Mathers, “second trick operator” of Fort Ritner, contracted Spanish influenza. There were several cases in Seymour, Hobson Hill, Surprise, Freetown and Ratcliff Grove.

On Oct. 12, officials tried again to downplay the extent of the epidemic. With an estimated 300 people infected (Seymour 100, Brownstown 100, Crothersville 20 and 80 spread across the county), “the Spanish influenza epidemic is on the decline in Jackson County.”

With only 18 new cases reported in the county, the situation “looks encouraging,” said Dr. McCormick. He emphasized the need to enforce the quarantine. “Medora and Vallonia and other towns … ” were practically disease-free. “Local physicians feel that it has reached its peak and will decrease daily from this time.”

Three days later, there was another spike in cases. Doctors reported 26 new cases in Seymour in a single day. After two days, again optimistic rhetoric continued to drive public position.

Headlines read “Fewer Influenza Cases Reported … Decided Improvement in Epidemic Situation … Condition in County Good …” Dr. Carter explained the reduction in cases in the past 24 hours was “quite encouraging.”

On Oct. 20, Dr. Carter, the Seymour Board of Health deputy officer, suggested the virus had “reached its height in this city yesterday.”

A week later, an outbreak of influenza hit in Freetown as new cases surfaced all over the county. More deaths from the flu were reported, still many recovered. But the pressure to reopen was mounting.

Optimistic rhetoric again drove public policy. The Seymour Board of Health stated “the influenza situation here is greatly improved … there would be no danger if the schools were permitted to reconvene.”

On Oct. 26, Dr. McCormick placed additional measures on businesses. During the last three days of October, one death was reported in Brownstown. Medora, Acme, County Line, Vallonia, Freetown, Oak Grove, Honeytown, Goss Mill, Sparksville, Cornett Grove, Pea Ridge, East Grassy Fork, Cortland, Surprise, Norman Station and Hobson Hill all reported infections.

Despite the outbreak, public pressure forced authorities to lift the ban. The Brownstown Banner cited Dr. McCormick, who reported that the cases were diminishing in number but “increasing in severity.”

He urged the public “not to relax in the least their efforts to prevent the further spread of the disease.”

The same day, the Republican published an article with an entirely different tone, and Dr. McCormick’s voice was conspicuously absent. It cited “local health authorities” who considered the “danger of further spread of influenza is practically over … the situation in Seymour has greatly improved and there is no reason … why the ban should not be removed Saturday night … Any further attempt to extend the order under the present conditions will result in a general protest.”

On Nov. 2, the ban was lifted, marking a decline of the first wave. But the Spanish flu was not going anywhere.

Craig Davis, who was born in Seymour and graduated from Brownstown Central High School, currently lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and works for a U.S. government contractor on school-based violence prevention. He is the author of “The Middle East for Dummies” and is conducting research for a genealogy and social history book in Kurtz and Freetown. Send comments to [email protected].

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