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State Archivist Explores Vt.'s Past Plagues With Tweet Threads Of Biblical Proportions

A collage of older newpaper headlines
Vermont State Archives via Twitter and Newspapers.com
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A collage of early 20th century Vermont newspaper headlines from the state archives chronicles Vermont's experience with the 1918 influenza pandemic, with headlines reminiscent of the today's pandemic.

The Vermont state archivist is using modern technology to tell an old story that's now new again: how Vermont responded to the 1918 influenza pandemic. And she's chronicling it all on Twitter with epic tweet threads that tease out similarities between plagues past and present. VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Tanya Marshall, state archivist and chief records officer, about how she's plumbed the depths of the state's free archive of newspapers of record and taken to Twitter to share some startling similarities between the present coronavirus pandemic and the 1918 influenza outbreak. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Tell us a little bit about some of the newspaper clippings you've been able to find, from what happened in 1918.

Tanya Marshall: Sure. So, just to back up a little bit, on Nov. 14, the state of Vermont — Gov. Scott, issued an addendum to his executive order that put restrictions on social gatherings. And on that particular day, I decided to look into what has happened in the past. I wasn't sure how it compared to previous pandemics. And it's been 102 years since that happened. And having gone back into our newspapers of record ... I was able to find great comparisons and parallels between the influenza pandemic of 1918 and the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. It's just been amazing.

One of the tweets that I saw that really stood out to me is one from the Rutland Herald, dated Nov. 2, 1918, and it reads: "Notwithstanding the inconvenience and hindrance by the order closing all public gatherings, the citizens have responded loyally. And it is to this observance of the order that we owe the speedy control of the plague." Do you know who was speaking in that particular quote? What can you tell us about it?

This is actually from the editor of the Rutland Herald, and it came out on Nov. 2, of 1918, which is the day before the ban on social gatherings, or what they called "public gatherings" in 1918, was about to be lifted. So in September 1918, a lot of the local health officers, and also local health boards, had already started doing quarantines [and] bans. So they would limit public gatherings. In early October, it was the first time that the state Board of Health, which predates the Department of Health, issued a statewide ban on public gatherings.

And this particular Twitter thread follows that. Starting in October, and it starts with the first statewide ban occurring, and what I chronicled on that particular Twitter thread was, in time, walking through the same way that the citizens of Vermont would have been reading the various newspapers throughout the state. And seeing how that ban, one, affected them, but also, what the outcome was.

This ban, that was implemented by the state in early October, within the first week they saw influenza cases drop. And they continued to see that drop, to the point that the state did lift the ban a month later.

Is there anything that was followed up in the paper, or any of the other papers, about public reaction? You know, were people saying, "This is an infringement on my liberties," or were people saying, "We must all get together and do this"? Was there any way to tell what the reaction was?

There were definitely areas of non-compliance. For example, Rutland and Fair Haven were called out specifically for not closing their bars. And the Board of Health kind of swept in a little bit and had some corrections made within those particular towns.

You know, at the same time, you have to think that these newspaper publications, they would have a lot of influenza information, about the ban and so forth. But at the same time, the volume of deaths being reported daily was constantly there. I didn't see a lot in the papers that I was looking at for this particular threat, but it does not mean it was not there.

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Right. There was a thread, too, about what Vermont did for Thanksgiving during the 1918 influenza pandemic and what happened after that.

Yeah, 1918 post-Thanksgiving and the month of December are very interesting. The ban on public gatherings was lifted in early November. Getting closer to Thanksgiving, you know, the ban is gone. And you see a number of different announcements in the papers, and different follow-ups to events that occurred, showing very large gatherings. It seemed like things were back to normal. You will see still the deaths being reported in the papers. And in fact, Brattleboro held a huge event on Thanksgiving Day, and the newspaper clippings of the time show that hundreds of people participated in the parade, and also, 3,000 to 4,000 people were there as observers.

That conceptually can give, I think, everyone a good perspective of how the ban being lifted, that things really felt like they were going back to normal. And then I looked at what happened after Thanksgiving, and then seeing what the cases looked like by the reports in the paper following those weeks. And so, you'll see different pockets. Morrisville, for example, went right into quarantine almost immediately after Thanksgiving, and continued that right through the rest of the year.

But Brattleboro I thought was particularly interesting because they continuously reported very low cases until about two weeks after Thanksgiving. All of a sudden their cases started to explode. And I'm not a public health official, so I don't know what the incubation period is for influenza. But, when you hear the comparisons to COVID-19 and the 14-day window, it's interesting that Brattleboro actually had one of the largest spikes after [Thanksgiving].

Do we know if masks were part of the health control issues back then?

We are aware of through other sets of records that masks were used. In terms of the members of the public being out on a regular basis, there wasn't a lot that I found inside the newspapers. It doesn't mean it does not exist, but for the newspapers I was looking at, I did not come across a lot of references to masks.

But the newspapers are just amazing in the sense of, you see the headlines, and then it gives other information that we really have not remembered collectively as a state and bring them back to the surface. And sometimes they're fun facts. Sometimes they're sad, you know, information about our past. And other times they just are the typical politics. And, you know, obviously there's scandals at the same time.

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