The 1918 Spanish Flu In Vermont & Lessons For Preserving Our 2020 Pandemic
Over a century ago, Vermonters — and the rest of the world — faced another historic pandemic, the 1918 influenza pandemic commonly known as the "Spanish flu." We recently spoke with historians about how Vermont weathered the deadly outbreak of the flu that year, and learned how historical organizations are preserving the digital and physical artifacts of our present-day pandemic. Read highlights from our interview below.
Our guests were:
- Mark Bushnell, historian and writer who wrote about the 1918 pandemic for VTDigger
- Amanda Gustin, public programs manager at the Vermont Historical Society, sharing their 1918 pandemic artifacts and how Vermonters should view the artifacts of today
- Andy Kolovos, associate director and archivist with the Vermont Folklife Center, discussing the Listening In Place initiative the center has launched in response to COVID-19.
Broadcast live on Tuesday, April 14, 2020 at 1 p.m.; rebroadcast at 8 p.m.
The following has been edited and paraphrased for brevity and clarity.
Close to 50,000 people fell ill in Vermont’s last pandemic, the 1918 influenza, often called “The Spanish Flu.” The virus arrived and swept through the state in late summer and fall of that year. Deaths of Vermonters during the outbreak are estimated at more than 2,000.
Why is the 1918 influenza called the ‘Spanish Flu?’
Mark Bushnell: Calling it the Spanish Flu is actually a bit of a misnomer. Researchers believe that it probably started in Kansas. The first outbreak was at an army base there.
Of course, this was 1918, and the middle of World War I. Those troops shipped out to Europe and brought it there. And of course it spread rapidly. Spain was a neutral country, the only place where newspapers weren’t censored, and papers there told of how this illness devastated Europe.
Vermonters were reading those papers and must have put two and two together and realized it could return to our shores.
What did Vermont do to prepare and what happened when it arrived?
The federal government was smaller then, and there really weren’t the resources in place to orchestrate a response at the federal level of the scale we see today. At the state level, even though the health commissioner knew it was coming to Vermont, he didn’t know how quickly it was spreading.
On Sept. 21, 1918, the State Board of Health told local health officers they needed to report any influenza cases to the state. They also told them they had the right to placard the houses of people who had the flu, to send warnings to others.
By Sept. 24, 1918, Vermont newspapers were saying “the flu is coming” — but it was already here.
We know that because, on those same days in other papers, there were reports that dozens of students at Middlebury College and Norwich University were sick.
Three days after that, the state got in touch with local health officers, who were really important in making a lot of the decisions on the ground, and told them that they had the right to close places of public assembly like churches and schools. Interestingly, the state also said at that time that it would likely not take that step itself.
Susan Sleeper of St. Johnsbury was a teacher when the flu arrived in Vermont in 1918.
Days later, Vermonters started dying in waves.
Between Sept 28 and Oct 2, in four days, 40 people died of the flu in Barre alone.
Barre was particularly hard-hit. Estimates from the time indicate that almost 10% of the fatalities in the state were in Barre, where it was already known that many residents had weakened lungs from breathing in granite dust.
Earnest Reynolds was a boy living in Barre in 1918, who later grew up to be a physician. He recalled a grim daily reminder of the pandemic, just outside of his bedroom window, which looked up at Bentley Hill.
Today, we think of the world as being pretty connected. It’s interesting to think about how quickly this illness spread, and how far and wide, at a time when we didn’t have the sort of global movement we have now. What do you make of that?
"Day after day in the epidemic, you'd see black horses and black hearses going by... and sometimes three to four funerals a day. Being sick in bed, you got quite the impression looking out the window." — Earnest Reynolds
If it hadn’t been for WWI, I’m sure the death toll would have been a lot less.
Usually the estimates say now that between 20 million and 50 million people worldwide died in this pandemic. Some estimate the death toll was as high as 100 million.
With this current COVID-19 pandemic, there is particular concern for elderly people. But it sounds, from what your saying, as though the 1918 flu hit young people pretty hard too?
Absolutely. For the 1918 flu, the worst stage of life to be at, at that time, seems to have been your twenties or thirties. It hit people in their prime of life, whose immune systems seemed to go into overdrive. People could die within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms. It’s just horrifying what people must have gone through.
The death rate was put at something like 2.5% of people who showed symptoms.
It sounds like there must have been a lot of orphans as a result of the age group that was most affected by this being, often, demographically speaking, young parents. Is that the case?
Absolutely. It’s one of the great tragedies of this event.
Georgina Bottamini remembered how the so-called "Spanish Flu" took her father's life. He was 28 years old at the time.
They banned people who were sick or who had been attending to the ill from attending funerals. It was one of the first quarantine measures they put in place.
What role did the government and its various tiers play in orchestrating the response to this outbreak in 1918? How does that compare with what we’re seeing today?
Communities were making individual decisions. For example: Stowe, Rutland and Shelburne banned all public meetings, school and church services. Middlebury quarantined its entire campus. The State Supreme Court postponed the start of the session.
Companies were required to close, but some of them had as many as half of their workforce fall sick at one time, so in some cases, these were de facto closures.
To talk about infrastructure, there were rural telephone exchanges that went quiet, where you couldn’t dial in because all of the operators were sick.
Were people as concerned about the economic ramifications of a pandemic in 1918 as they are today?
Right now, there’s been a lot of talk about the economic impact of this current pandemic. There was some talk of this in 1918, but in those days, the biggest concern was about hurting the war effort.
Philadelphia had this massive parade that year to promote the purchase of Liberty Bonds — essentially to help finance the war — and something like 250,000 people turned out for it. A week later, something like 20,000 people had died from the flu.
There are debates taking place today about what role the federal government should play in responding to a pandemic, and about what responsibilities and rights mayors, governors and presidents have. What was the conversation like in 1918?
The federal government was almost silent.
The state had a lot of faith in local officials. About 10 days into the pandemic, the state board of health finally ordered the closing of all places of public gathering. It seems late, but that actually put Vermont ahead of the curve. They left the order in place for over a month. When they eventually went to remove it, they told local officials it was up to them to decide whether that ban should remain in place longer. It was a very local decision.
We’ve all seen signs and public health outreach about social distancing and other measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. How did Vermonters learn about what they should be doing to prevent the spread of the flu in 1918?
The state board of health sent out daily notices to state health officials. There were notices in papers, but there weren’t the same public health efforts there are now — being told to wash your hands, not touch your face. There was much more emphasis on
About 4% of the total population in Barre died from the flu in 1918. For the City of Barre, the death rate was close to 1 in 30. — Amanda Austin, Vermont Historical Society
separating people. For example, there was an ordinance in San Francisco to wear masks. There are also reports from the time of frightening signs in Philadelphia trolley cars that read: ‘Spit, Spread Death’ to remind people of hygiene issues.
When you think about how many people were affected by the 1918 flu, about 50,000 Vermonters fell ill. Today we have about 620,000 residents. What was Vermont’s population in 1918 and what sort of an impact did this have?
In 1918, our population was about half of what it is now. One in every 170 Vermonters died. Pretty much everyone would have known someone who died in the pandemic. It would be equivalent of Vermont losing something like 3,700 people today, with something like 20,000 people becoming infected.
It came in two waves. In the Fall, something like 1,700 vermonters died. They started to lift the ban on public gatherings in early November, when the armistice was signed for the war. Then, about 400 more people died in the winter and spring. Like I said, it came in waves, and it wasn’t really gone by winter.
Helen Austin, born in 1912, was in first grade during the Fall that the Spanish Flu arrived in Vermont. Her mother was working as a nurse in Woodsville, N.H. at the time. She recalled the loss her family endured as a result of the flu.
Would you say that some of these things we are learning about social isolation and quarantine and the measures being put in place today, were known in 1918?
They already knew at that time that separating people was going to be key to containment. The idea of quarantine — that you need to separate yourself from the sick — dates back to the middle ages. People have known that for a while; they knew it even before they understood germ theory.
The 1918 influenza doesn’t get taught a lot in schools. There is so much more focus on WWI. Some people say it’s the forgotten pandemic. But when you listen to accounts from the time, you realize that for the people whose families were affected, there is no forgetting.
Be part of history: Help the Vermont Historical Society document the COVID-19 pandemic
Are you documenting life in quarantine or self-isolation? What does social distancing look like to you? How has work, play or daily life changed amid COVID-19? You can contribute your photographs, stories, poems and videos about living through the COVID-19 crisis in Vermont to a special collection to help preserve this moment in our state’s history. The Vermont Historical Society wants to know: What’s different right now in your community?
You can find more information regarding their COVID-19 Archive, what sort of material they are looking for and how to submit, here.
If you would like to make a sound recording, consider connecting with the Vermont Folklife Center’s Listening in Place oral history project.