Bob Godfrey

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The cause of death in 1918, whether from influenza or (as in most cases) secondary pneumonia, was generally pulmonary oedema - accumulation of body fluids in the lungs which, along with inflammation, makes breathing increasingly difficult. In effect the patient eventually 'drowns'. Pneumonia, being a bacterial infection, can be treated today with antibiotics. But influenza is caused by a virus, so while some of the symptoms can be relieved, the disease must take its course. It's largely because of the relative ease of control of secondary infections that the death rate from 'flu today is very small - about 0.1% of cases - whereas from the particularly virulent strain active in 1918 it was from 2- 20%, depending on the general health levels and on the level of medical service available in particular communities. Many of us will have suffered (and recovered) from some variation of influenza at some time in our lives, but many people also firmly believe they have "the'flu" when they are suffering from some variation of the common cold!
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Jun 11, 2000
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"...but many people also firmly believe they have the 'flu when they are suffering from some variation of the common cold!"

I think that should read "many men also firmly believe they have the flu etc.", Bob.

I think you can get viral pneumonia too. You can get innoculated against bacterial pneumonia I think. Or maybe against the viral sort, I don't know. Anyway, if you "drown" why on earth is it called 'the old man's friend'? Doesn't sound too friendly to me, though I guess in the elderly the heart gives out first. Not a jolly topic ...
 

Ernie Luck

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As you say Monica, the term Flu is much over-used for mild viral infections's. In my experience, if you are still standing, it ain't Flu.
 
May 27, 2007
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Martin: My feeling is that this calamity would be far more widely-known if it hadn't followed so closely on the heels of WWI.<<

Yep and also the fact that people don't like to dwell on things that frightens them. The Influenza had a lot of people running scared because the papers gave good coverage but not a lot of details if it was Military. As all of you know there was a war on and we didn't want the evil Huns to know how bad this was hitting our fighting boys. As to Civilians, Nobody wanted to start a panic. Most papers gave as few details as possible though there are exceptions to this. Mostly people were told how to guard themselves and what activities were closed or cancelled and what to do with their dead. Life could be pretty bleak and grim in wartime. The ones I feel for were the poor Soldiers and Sailors on the troop transport Ships who got sick with not enough medical personal or supplies. Talk about being in a sticky situation.
 
Feb 4, 2007
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George: >The ones I feel for were the poor Soldiers and Sailors on the troop transport Ships who got sick with not enough medical personal or supplies.<

Problem was, nothing at all really helped against the "flu". You could begin coming down with symptoms on day one, and be dead by day two.
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May 27, 2007
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Hi Jason
Yeah I see what your saying. But basically though in most cases you family was with you or knew what was happening but here you are dying out at sea with tons of other men dying all around you and your family hasn't a clue of even where you are or knowing anything about whats happening to you would really drag. But that's just me. Your right Jason, in that by the time your sick your probably so delirious any way so you really aren't aware of whats happening to you.
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Bob Godfrey

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Here's a graphic first-hand account of the decimation of a US Army camp in September 1918:

"Camp Devens is near Boston, and has about 50,000 men, or did have before this epidemic broke loose. It also has the Base Hospital for the Division of the North East. This epidemic started about four weeks ago, and has developed so rapidly that the camp is demoralized and all ordinary work is held up till it has passed. All assemblages of soldiers taboo. These men start with what appears to be an ordinary attack of LaGrippe or Influenza, and when brought to the Hospital they very rapidly develop the most vicious type of Pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the colored men from the white. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible. One can stand it to see one, two or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies sort of gets on your nerves. We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day, and still keeping it up. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a new mixed infection here, but what I don't know ... any other of the hundred things that one may find in the chest, they all mean but one thing here - Pneumonia - and that means in about all cases death."
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Feb 4, 2007
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Here is a photo showing Red Cross nurses. Notice the masks? A common method of trying to avoid the bug was to wear a mask. There are many historical photographs of people from all walks of life in many different parts of the USA wearing these simple cloth masks as a precaution. It probably didn't work very well.
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Jim Kalafus

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Dec 3, 2000
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>At the risk of sounding distinctly morbid, what exactly did 'death by flu' entail?

Nearly every 1918 flu survivor I've talked with described it the same way. One minute you were fine,and the next hit with a wave of exhaustion so severe that you wanted to sit or lay down immediately. After that was a painful blur, but most describe splitting headaches, struggling to breathe, vomiting with such force that abdominal muscles were herniated, hallucinations, and periods of deep sleep, after which either you died or recovered. Of the terminal stages, my interviewees described relatives who vomited up copious amounts of blood and mucus,(with the consistency of molasses, a black color and an indescribable smell) who then convulsed and slipped into a deep stupor, from which they would occasionally rouse and speak- sometimes incoherently and sometimes with a heartbreakingly lucid knowledge of what was happening, before going into a deep coma and dying.

In short- you don't want to catch it.

One of my neighbors recalls a family in Detroit, Texas, who all got into one bed when mother father and children fell ill. Parents died, as described above, and so did some of the children. The two who survived had to remain sick in bed for several days with the bodies of their relatives because no one would enter the house, so great was the fear of contracting flu.

One thing the 1918 survivors speak of is that the speed with which the flu came was one of its principal horrors. One day everyone was in attendance in your class room. Two days later and entire rows of students would be missing. When your parents let you go back to school, weeks later, you'd have to come to grips with how many of your friends had either died or moved away after losing parents. They all described mothers, and to a lesser extent fathers, who were obviously afraid, but trying not to show it, as they waited for it to arrive in one's city or town. And, it was not uncommon to come home from school to discover that your mother had fallen ill, and been taken away, in just 8 hours. Some times she came back, some times she did not.

The pandemic is almost always described as "forgotten," and in the broad "pop culture" sense that is true. Yet, it remains a living anecdote in millions of families- more so than WW1 stories- witness that three of us on this thread recall lost relatives. My paternal family lost at least two. My maternal family lost one- literally. He died in NYC in October, 1918, and although a death certificate was issued even his parents were never sure of where he ended up buried. And, millions of families still recall the same sort of tales so by no means can this be truly described as "forgotten."
 
May 27, 2007
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Bob: Decimation of a US Army camp.

Decimation indeed! Seem a young soldier had two choices in 1918. A get shipped over seas and get blown to pieces, gassed or shot. B. Get sent to a unsanitary Army Camp aka (Death Pit) of which there were probably several and get a dose of Killer Flu. Fun all around.

Jason it seems every picture I've come across is of people wearing masks as well.

Great post Jim. Made me think of my own lost relatives. One of whom was my grandfathers Aunt and Godmother.
 

Jim Kalafus

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If you want to read something really gripping, but sad, regarding 1918, read the segment of Look Homeward Angel in which Thomas Wolfe described his brother's flu death. That, and Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider, are the best written accounts of the flu, one written by a "great" who witnessed the death of a brother, and the other by a "great" who barely survived the illness.
 
May 27, 2007
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I've read Pale Rider Pale Horse By Katherine Porter. I thought it was a good short story. I've got Adolph Hoehling's book about the Spanish Influenza on hold at the Library. So until I get it read I recommend Alfred Crosby's "America's forgotten pandemic : the influenza of 1918". Not Fiction but better. I thought it read kinda like A Night To Remember. Best I've read about the Spanish Influenza.
 

Jim Kalafus

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>what exactly did 'death by flu' entail?

"Ben's long thin body lay three-quarters covered by the bedding; its gaunt outline was bitterly twisted below the covers, in an attitude of struggle and torture. It seemed not to belong to him, it was somehow distorted and detached as if it belonged to a beheaded criminal. And the sallow yellow of his face had turned gray; out of this granite tint of death...the stiff black furze of a three-day beard was growing. The beard was somehow horrible; it recalled the corrupt vitality of hair, which can grow from a rotting corpse. And Ben's thin lips were lifted in a constant grimace of torture and strangulation, above his white somehow dead looking teeth, as inch by inch he gasped a thread of air into his lungs.

And the sound of this gasping - loud, hoarse, rapid, unbelievable, filling the room and orchestrating every moment in it- gave to the scene its final note of horror.

By four o'clock it was apparent that death was near. Ben had brief periods of consciousness, unconsciousness and delirium- but most of the time he was delirious. His breathing was easier, he hummed snatches of popular songs, some old and forgotten...but always he returned, in his quiet humming, to a popular song of wartime- cheap, sentimental, but now tragically moving: "Just a Baby's Prayer at Twilight."

His eyes were almost closed; their gray flicker was dulled, coated with the sheen of insensibility and death. He lay quiet upon his back, very straight, without sign of pain, and with a curious upturned thrust of his sharp, thin face. His mouth was firmly shut.

(THE ATHEIST CENTRAL CHARACTER FINDS HIMSELF IN PRAYER)
"Whoever you are- be good to Ben to-night. Show him the way. Whoever you are, be good to Ben to-night. Show him the way..." He lost count of the minutes, the hours, he heard only the feeble rattle of dying breath and his wild, synchronic prayer.

The body appeared to grow rigid before them. Ben drew upon the air in a long and powerful respiration; his gray eyes opened. Filled with a terrible vision of all life in the one moment, he seemed to rise forward bodily from his pillows without support- A flame, a light, a glory. Ben passed instantly, scornful and unafraid, as he had lived, into the shades of death.

But in their enormous silence wonder grew. They remembered the strange flitting loneliness of his life, they thought of a thousand forgotten acts and moments- and always there was something that now seemed unearthrly and strange: he walked through their lives like a shadow- they looked now upon his gray deserted shell with a thrill of awful recognition...as men who look upon a corpse and see, for the first time, a departed god.

Thomas Wolfe, on the Spanish Flu death of his 26 year old brother, Ben. Look Homeward, Angel (Chapter 35)
 
May 27, 2007
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While I'm pestering my family for Information if anyone is interested, try to see if any of you can find out how the Spanish Influenza effected your family or city. I know I sound like a history professor or sixth grade teacher but this isn't called the forgotten pandemic for nothing and Spanish Influenza effected everyone in some form or other in 1918. If you want you can share what you find out or not. You choice. For a reward you get a pat on the back.
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Feb 4, 2007
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George: >try to see if any of you can find out how the Spanish Influenza effected your family or city. I know I sound like a history professor or sixth grade teacher<

Uhmmm......*raises hand*....Teacher?....Do I get extra points for answering your question already? Can I go home early? Puhleeezz!
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Jim Kalafus

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No, you may not. And, for suggesting such a thing, you may now stand up in front of the whole class and sing "I Got a Mule and Her Name is Sal. Fifteen Years On the Erie Canal" in its entirety.
 
Feb 4, 2007
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*cough* *cough* Ahem,

I've got a mule, her name is Sal,
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal.
She's a good ol' worker and a good ol' pal,
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal.
We've hauled some barges in our day,
Filled with lumber, coal, and hay,
And we know ev'ry inch of the way,
From Albany to Buffalo.

Chorus:
Low bridge, ev'rybody down!
Low bridge, for we're comin' to a town!
And you'll always know your neighbor,
You'll always know your pal,
if you've ever navigated on the Erie Canal.

We better get on our way, old pal,
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal.
'Cause you bet your life I'd never part with Sal,
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal.
Get up there mule, here comes a lock,
We'll make Rome 'bout six o'clock,
One more trip and back we'll go,
Right back home to Buffalo.

NOW can I go home? Huh, huh? Can I, can I?
 

Inger Sheil

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Feb 9, 1999
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Nearly 12,000 dead in Australia, where the 'flu kicked off in early 1919.

Today, Commonwealth agencies have in place an epidemic plan - largely in response to the possibility of Avian Bird 'Flu mutating to the point that it can jump from person to person. Chilling stuff to read through - the estimated number of deaths if it does hit is so high that the government has stockpiled body bags.

I'm someone else who isn't all that keen on reviving old strains of 'flu from permafrost preserved bodies...but then, perhaps I took the opening chapters of Stephen King's The Stand too much to heart! I also know I'd be the first to go, as I'm terribly susceptible to anything of this kind - upper-respiratory tract infections like to make themselves at home where I'm concerned. London 1999 was a bad winter for it, and I had a nasty episode with some memorable hallucinations along with the fever etc. We've had a very bad winter for 'flu here and in NZ, so you folks in the Northern Hemisphere may need to watch out. Its rapid onset was a bit like what Jim describes - I was at my nephew's birthday on Sunday and spent a good deal of time at the side of my sick niece. By midday Tuesday I didn't feel great. By that evening, I was ghastly. Took Wednesday off - and Thursday I stupidly medicated myself severely with a cocktail of anti-nausea tablets, fever and flu medications and tried to stagger into work. Got no further than the next town before the nausea beat the meds into submission. Next day I managed to make it all the way in, only to be packed off home in a cab two hours later. It's feral and fast - the onset was so quick that several toddlers were dead before their parents had a chance to seek medical care, and I knew a few folks who wound up in hospital.
 

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