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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

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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.


Nelia Spinelli
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 illness.

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 as welfare.

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 big cities.

“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.


Shirley Olson
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 the illness.

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 –