After a devastating first wave of Spanish influenza in Jackson County that began in October 1918, county officials came under significant public pressure to reopen.
The Seymour Daily Republican cited “local health authorities” who considered that the “danger of further spread of influenza is practically over.” In an effort to avoid a general protest, public officials reopened the county prematurely Nov. 2, which led to a second wave.
While 30 other Indiana counties remained closed, Jackson County businesses, churches and other gathering places reopened. Schools opened in Seymour, Tampico, Crothersville, Hamilton, Driftwood and Owen townships. Meanwhile, Salt Creek, Redding, Brownstown and Carr and parts of Vernon, Washington and Grassy Fork remained closed. A few days later, Seymour’s first basketball game of the season took place.
Within 10 days of opening back up, the second wave struck Jackson County. Businesses, schools, gymnasiums, churches and any place people gathered became transmission spots.
A Nov. 13 Republican headline read “Influenza Breaks Out Again in County.” Crothersville was hit hard by deaths. A closeout sale at Hinderlider store in Medora was blamed for 70 new cases in the city and 125 across Carr Township. Schools didn’t even bother reopening.
While Brownstown classes resumed, schools closed or remained suspended in Crothersville, Cortland, Bobtown, Vallonia and Grassy Fork Township.
By mid-November, Fort Ritner reported 60 influenza cases, Brownstown 15 to 20, Medora 200 and several in Sparksville. Meanwhile, the deaths kept mounting in Medora, Fort Ritner, Weddleville, Seymour and Cortland. Four members of the Langdon family in Crothersville died in a matter of days.
Just three weeks after the local health authorities reported the spread of Spanish influenza practically over and that there was no reason to continue the ban, the situation became so dire that Seymour merchants and public health officials had to negotiate a series of self-mitigation measures to avoid another shutdown of the economy.
A few days later, the Banner reported six more deaths in Medora, five of them children. There were outbreaks in Salt Creek Township, Freetown, Brownstown, Starve Hollow and Surprise. Crothersville had suffered 800 cases in the past two months, more than a third of the population of Vernon Township. Seven townships had suspended classes. In a single day, two Seymour men and a Medora woman, all in their 20s, died.
By the first week in December, there were cases in Ackeret Chapel, Brownstown, Beck’s Grove, Buffalo, Cornett Grove, Cortland, Crothersville, Dudleytown, Freetown, Goss Mill, Hobson Hill, Honeytown, Houston, Kurtz, Medora, Oak Grove, Norman Station, Pleasant Grove, Pleasant Ridge, Pleasant Valley, Ratliff Grove, Rockford, Russell Chapel, Seymour, Shields, Surprise, Tampico, Vallonia and Zelma. In Maumee, “nearly every family has the influenza.”
Meanwhile, churches were encouraging worshipers to fill the pews. Charles W. Whitman, minister of First Methodist Episcopal Church in Seymour, wrote that “our church will be thoroughly ventilated on Saturday, so we will be quite as safe in church as on the street or in places of business.”
By mid-December, the county reported 500 to 600 cases of Spanish influenza for a total of 1,547 cases (or 6.5% of the population) since Nov. 1, although Dr. McCormick estimated the actual number was likely double that. Doctors in Seymour had been “busy night and day” treating the sick. Once again, McCormick tried to cast a positive light on the outbreak by citing a “marked decrease … of new cases during the last few days.”
Medora, Vallonia, Crothersville and Cortland schools reopened, but rural schools remained closed until January. “The most serious epidemic in the county” was in “Salt Creek, Owen and the western part of Hamilton.”
In a single day, an 18-year-old senior at Clearspring, a young brother and sister in Freetown, one 25-year-old mother of six in Brownstown and a 46-year-old resident of Washington Township all succumbed to the flu.
As the second wave began to wind down, citizens were rushing to resume any sense of normalcy. For example, in a matter of days in Vallonia, school reopened, 54 people attended Sunday school and the canning factory loaded five cars of tomatoes. And people began traveling all over the state to visit relatives for the holidays.
On Christmas Day, infant Delia Maxine Davis of Kurtz died. A few days later, a Seymour man died. A husband and wife died within a week of each other in Brownstown. In early January, two men in Kurtz died of the flu.
School closings, shuttered churches and other measures during the holidays helped to reduce the infection rates across Jackson County. But no sooner had cases dropped than schools, churches and meeting places got back up and running at the first of the year, which would generate a third wave, every bit as cruel as the last.
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].