Remembering the Spanish
influenza epidemic of 1918
by Scott Wheeler | Special to
the Vermont Guardian
Nobody enjoys a bad case of
the flu, but there are still some Vermonters alive that will tell you
that no flu season compares to that of the Spanish influenza epidemic of
1918, an epidemic that killed as many as 40 million people around the
world, including about 1,770 Vermonters.
“Today’s flu isn’t anything
like the influenza of 1918,” Nelia Spinelli said, remembering back to
the years when tears flowed by the bucketful in her hometown of Barre as
that community, along with other communities around the state, buried
their dead. “There is just no comparison. At the time, people were dying
like flies. It really was a terrible, terrible time. The hearse was
going to the cemetery all the time.”
The flu hit Vermont in
September at a time when many U.S. soldiers, including some from
Vermont, were battling German soldiers in Europe during World War I.
Before the flu reached the Green Mountain State, U.S. troops were dying
from its effects on the battlefronts. The flu swept into Vermont with a
vengeance during the waning days of September. It left as quickly as it
came. By the end of October, the epidemic had let go of its grip on
Vermont, leaving hundreds dead and changing the lives of countless
thousands of others.
These are the tales of the
some of the few remaining survivors in Vermont.
Only five years old at the time of the outbreak, Nelia Spinelli, who
worked in the granite industry for decades, has no problem remembering
bits and pieces of the effects the flu had on the people and on the
community, in part because she had family members who suffered from it.
Although she doesn’t recall
being deathly ill from the flu, she does remember the horrible
nosebleeds she got while she was sick. “I remember crying and going to
my mother,” she said.
Yet, her mother had problems
of her own. She, too, had the flu and her newborn baby boy, Spinelli’s
brother, was deathly ill. It still sticks in her mind what her mother
did to save the baby’s life. She rubbed some kind of oil all over him
and wrapped him in cotton batting. Not only was Spinelli’s mother able
to survive the flu, she was able to save her baby as well.
The flu didn’t take just the
old and the very young; it took many people right in the prime of their
lives, Spinelli said. Although she admits that she doesn’t have any
statistics to support it, she always heard that for some reason the flu
killed the men who had fathered two children. If a man had fathered one
child, or more than two, it seemed like they didn’t die from the
It was also a tough time for
women, Spinelli said. Not only did they suffer from the disease, but
many were left as widows to support themselves and raise their families.
This was back in the days before any formal local or state support such
Matters were even worse for
many of the women in Barre’s Italian community. Many could not speak
English. And people were expected to work or they wouldn’t eat or have a
place to live, Spinelli said. Many women took in borders or served as
housekeepers for other families.
thers resorted to desperate
means to make a living. According to Spinelli, in the years following
1918, Barre had a very active red light district in which prostitutes,
some of the women made widows by the flu, plied their trade. Then in
1920, when the U.S. banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of
alcohol, some of that community’s women, along with many men, began
profiting from the illegal booze trade.
Some of these women scraped up all the money they could, bought a batch
of booze, and opened their homes as makeshift drinking establishments
similar to the well-hidden speakeasies that flourished in the country’s
“Men in Barre were thankful
for the women,” Spinelli said. Without them, they would have had to
search a bit harder to find themselves a stiff drink during a time that
was supposed to be “dry.”
Most of the people who
survived the Spanish influenza are now gone, but there are many
reminders in Barre, and most likely other communities around Vermont,
about the horrible year of 1918, Spinelli said. Those reminders stand in
cemeteries. From her observations, there are a disproportionate number
of tombstones with death dates of 1918.
With age, it’s not unusual for various life happenings to slowly slip
from one’s memory, but for Shirley (Towne) Olson, now of Concord, NH,
the flu epidemic had such an effect on her family, that she doubts those
memories will ever disappear.
“A lot of people were dying,”
Olson said. There was a lot of sadness.
Olson was a nine-year-old
girl growing up in Newport when the epidemic struck the city located on
the shores of Lake Memphremagog. Whereas some families miraculously went
unscathed by the epidemic, her family wasn’t as fortunate.
“My mother, sister, my
father, and I had it,” the Concord woman said. “We were so sick. We had
high temperatures. I remember being sick, very sick.” She can’t remember
exactly why she was isolated in her room away from the other family
members who were dreadfully ill.
“My father took care of us as
long as he could,” she said, speaking fondly of him. By the time his
mother, Mary Sullivan Towne, arrived to help her son and his family, he
had such a high fever that he had to go right to bed. For a time, it was
feared he’d have to be hospitalized.
With few doctors able to make
house calls because they were too busy trying to keep up with their sick
patients, families often struggled to keep one another alive. Some were
able to get medical advice but many were not. Try as she did, Olson
couldn’t remember how her family helped her pull through an illness that
claimed so many lives.
A retired nurse of almost 50
years, Olson said, “Thinking about it now, back then, we had such
primitive care compared to today.”
William “Dig” Rowley
“The undertakers were very, very busy,” William “Dig” Rowley remembers,
thinking back to 1918. At 94 years old, Rowley has vivid memories of
those weeks that kept some people in their houses, some dying from the
flu, others hiding out in an attempt to not contract it.
Although the Richford man was
fortunate not to have caught the flu, three family members were not
quite as lucky. A brother, a sister, and his mother suffered terribly
from the illness.
“You couldn’t get a nurse in
those days,” Rowley said. “In those days the whole community was laid
up.” His family was one of the fortunate ones; they were able to find a
nurse to help attend to the needs of his seriously ill family members.
“They didn’t have antibiotics
in those days,” he pointed out. Instead many people had to resort to
home remedies to survive the deadly strain of flu. Mustard plasters
spread on an ill person’s chest were used to help prevent fluids from
settling in the person’s lungs. The lucky ones were laid up for several
days, he said. The not so lucky were buried in the cemetery within days
of catching the illness.
“You always knew when
somebody died in a house,” Rowley said. “When somebody died, a gray or
black crepe banner was placed over the door.” To the best of his
recollection, the banner remained on the door until after the burial as
a sign that the family was in mourning.
In an attempt to prevent the spread of the flu, he said the state issued
a notice banning large public gatherings, including churches and any
form of community meetings, Rowley recalled. Most parents also kept
their kids close to home, often refusing to let them visit their
friends’ homes, fearing they might come into contact with somebody with
If he remembers correctly,
the flu left town as quickly as it swept in, but not without bringing
much sorrow to his small Franklin County community.
Author’s note: Since this
article was first researched, one of the people interviewed for the
article passed away. Mrs. Olson died in recent weeks. Wheeler is the
publisher of Vermont’s Northland Journal in Derby –