Parkersburg and the pandemic of 1918

PARKERSBURG — The old adage “the more things change the more they remain the same” is true in human history in dealing with health plagues of every sort. Typhoid fever, smallpox, leprosy, the black death (bubonic plague), measles and countless influenza pandemics have challenged mankind from earliest times.

A little over 100 years ago the world and Wood County faced a flu epidemic comparable to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Erroneously labeled “Spanish flu” it swept across the world and into our area in late September 1918.

A review of the Board of Public Health Death Records Vol. 4 1913-1921 from September to December 1918 shows the severity of the influenza in our area. During this time period, I counted 168 deaths recorded for Wood County, of which nearly half can be attributed to the dreaded influenza. Early in the pandemic doctors labeled the deaths as grippe (an old-fashioned word for influenza). A few deaths are recorded as pulmonary tuberculosis. As deaths mounted we see an upsurge in deaths by bronchial pneumonia, pneumonia fever and pleurisy. By October of 1918, doctors began using the term influenza or Spanish influenza in the records. According to the count of the 168 deaths recorded, 43 deaths were by pneumonia, 25 deaths by influenza and three deaths were probable cases. Wood County’s population at that time was nearly 40,000 residents with 70 flu deaths in a three-month period. In comparison today Wood County has a population of 87,000 and we have had two COVID-19 deaths thus far.

Now let’s look at some excerpts of Parkersburg News headlines from October 1918.


Oct. 2: Scourge Still Spreads Rapidly

Spanish influenza continues to spread in army camps. More than 14,000 new cases were reported to the office of the surgeon general during the 24 hours that ended at noon today. This was an increase over yesterday of 3,600 cases. Pneumonia cases also increased with 1,003 and 300 deaths.


Oct. 6: City Takes

Steps to Combat “Flu” Meeting is Held

A meeting of the city board of health, with leading physicians, city officials, prominent citizens including representatives of the local theaters, the street railway, the B and O (railroad), the schools and the Liberty Loan Campaign (liberty bonds to finance World War I), was held last night at the city building with a view to formulating plans to meet and combat the epidemic of Spanish influenza which seems to be getting a foothold here.

To this end, all cases are required to be reported to the city inspector by the attending physicians and these will be immediately quarantined. A series of preventative measures was drawn up and will be given the widest publicity. The list will be found on the front page of this paper. It will also be placed in all street cars and flashed on the screens at local theatres.

Dr. H. D. Price, city health officer, in a brief address, said the disease was nothing more than the old-fashioned grippe (old term for flu) and was so classified in the medical journals.

As a measure to prevent the spread of the epidemic, the city street cars will be scrubbed with soap and bleach and be disinfected every night and thoroughly aired each morning.

The theaters will have their floors oiled thoroughly every day, to lay the dust, which is believed to be a carrier of infection. A suggestion was made to have the streets oiled several times each day, but no action was taken on this.

It was announced that the mayor had received an appeal for help from Keyser (W.Va.), where the disease has attained such dimensions that they are in pressing need of 25 additional nurses. An effort will be made to send some nurses to the stricken town.

All the interests present expressed entire willingness to do whatever should be decided upon by the authorities — to suspend activities entirely if that should be deemed necessary.

Trainmaster Moran, of the B and O stated that, if the epidemic should assume the proportions here that it has already attained in Cumberland (Md.) and Keyser, it would be almost impossible to run trains.

Dr. S.M. Prunty gave it as his opinion that most of the cases of influenza that have appeared here so far, have been brought here by persons who have been employed in Nitro, where the conditions are favorable for the spread of the epidemic.

It was agreed that the best thing one can do is to keep cool, don’t get scared, keep the physical condition as good as possible and observe the rules contained in the list on The News front page.


Oct. 6: Schools, Theatres And Other Meeting Places To Be Ordered Closed

Charleston, W. Va. October 6 — An order was issued tonight by S.L. Jepson, state health commissioner, upon the suggestion of the Governor, calling upon all local health authorities throughout West Virginia to close all schools, theatres and other places where persons congregate upon the first appearance of Spanish influenza.

By advice of the surgeon general of the United States, public health services, the state health commissioner hereby issues an order requiring all cases of influenza to be promptly reported and quarantined until well. Local health officers are hereby required, on the appearance of the disease in a community to close all theatres, pool rooms, schools and other crowded places and all public meetings must be abandoned.


Oct. 9: Drastic Quarantine Measure Adopted Against Influenza

The lid will go on in Parkersburg at 6:00PM today on account of the influenza. A general quarantine, closing the schools, theatres, pool rooms, soda fountains, ice cream parlors and all soft drink emporiums and lodge and society meetings — in fact all public meetings held in halls or buildings of any kind — was decided upon at the meeting of the health board and physicians, city officials and business men held at the city building last evening. A motion to that effect was adopted and the decision of the meeting will be put in effect at once by Dr. H.D. Price, city health officer.

Visiting is forbidden, unless absolutely necessary, residents being required to stay at home and to keep their children at home.

Loafing is forbidden especially in cigar and news stands, where it is most likely to occur and all persons are required to do their shopping in any store expeditiously and then to go home, so as to reduce the congregation of patrons in any business establishment.

Persons coming from any of the military camps, or any place where they are liable to have been exposed to the influenza, will be treated as under quarantine, and required to be in their home and otherwise conform to the quarantine.


Oct. 18: Epidemic is on Increase; More Drastic Measures Are To Be Taken By Authorities; County Schools Are Being Closed; Judge Dayton Has Vacated the Regular Term of Federal Court

The influenza epidemic continues to spread in the city. Up to 2 P.M. yesterday a total of 85 cases had been reported to the city health department. Those reported between that hour and the previous evening, include patients at the following addresses: 1908 Tefft Street, 212 1/2 Market Street, 400 Third Street…[and several other addresses]

Unless conditions improve, it is expected that the local health authorities will adopt more drastic measures for stamping out the disease in this city.

All are urged to take every precaution against contracting the disease or against spreading it…Those violating the rules laid down by the health authorities will be punished as severely as the law allows.

In pursuance with the telegram received from Dr. Jepson, state health commissioner, Dr. E. W. Crooks, county health officer issued an order closing all the schools in the county and also forbidding the holding of any public meetings including church services. He also directed County Superintendent of Schools H. A. Langfitt to notify all school teachers throughout the county of the order and himself notified the pastors of churches and superintendents of Sunday schools of the ban of meetings.

Such local churches as were contemplating the holding of out-door services today, have called them off. Health Officer Price having announced that gatherings would positively not be allowed.


Oct. 19 Malady Still On Increase; Ninety Cases Up To Saturday Night; 23 New Quarantines Sunday; Little Change in Serious Cases; Local Authorities Have Put Ban On Public Funerals

The influenza continues to spread through this city, with many of the cases of a serious nature.

In pursuance of an order received from Dr. Jepson, state health commissioner, Dr. Price yesterday ordered all local barbers to wear gauze masks while barbering patrons. These masks are being made by the ladies of the local Red Cross and may be obtained by the barbers at Red Cross headquarters in the YMCA building this morning. They are provided free and should be called for at once, as the order was effective immediately.

All the cases of influenza are being strictly quarantined.

The local health authorities have also announced that, until further notice, no public funerals will be allowed, but all must be strictly private, no matter what the cause of death, the object being to avoid the public gathering arising from a public funeral.


Oct. 28: Forty New Cases of Flu Reported; Epidemic Growing

Forty new cases of influenza were reported in this city yesterday. This is the largest daily report of new cases since the epidemic struck this community, about three weeks ago. There were four deaths today and two quarantines were removed, leaving about 270 cases at present in the city.

Dr. H. D. Price, city health officer announced last night that no private parties, receptions or social gatherings would be permitted until further notice. It was not thought a necessary order at first, as it was thought that the ordinary run of residents would know enough not to gather for mere purposes of amusement at a time when church worship, lodge meetings, etc. were forbidden, the schools closed, political meetings called off although in the midst of an important campaign, and with the Liberty Loan gatherings (selling of liberty bonds for World War I) only permitted because of the stupendous nature of the issue involved. But it seems they didn’t and the edict has now gone forth that there may be no more afternoon teas or like functions in Parkersburg while present conditions prevail.

Believing, with the best of authorities to support him, that the practice of spitting indiscriminately in public and especially on the streets is a potent factor of the spread of influenza, C.W. Boso superintendent of public safety stated last night that the ordinance against spitting on the streets will be strictly enforced from now on, during the existence of the epidemic here. The police have instructions to this effect and beginning with this morning, will promptly arrest anyone expectorating on the streets or otherwise in violation of the ordinance.

The vacant Thirteenth Street School has been suggested as a possible place in which a hospital could be located, should the total number of local cases become much greater the two hospitals (Camden Clark, St. Joseph) will be unable to take care of the more serious cases and some provision, as such as that referred to, will have to be made.


Oct. 31, 1918

Decrease In The Number Of Cases But Ban Remains

The number of new cases of influenza reported yesterday dropped again considerably, seven being reported, with 20 removals of quarantine and one death. For the first time since the epidemic became manifest here, the number of quarantines lifted largely outnumbered the new cases reported.

In spite of this apparent decrease, the health authorities are not to, as yet, consider the calling off of the general quarantine against the reopening of schools, churches, theatres and the holding of all kinds of public gatherings. It is realized that, with the disease as prevalent as it is and claiming a victim or more in death every day, there is a grave danger of a second outbreak of the epidemic in which this city’s last condition would be worse than its first, and that the proverbial ounce of prevention is worth whole tons of cure. That the public is with the health board was shown by the spontaneous resolution which was unanimously adopted at the mass meeting of citizens held on the steps of the city building.

Every move that can be thought of is being made to get control of the situation.

A letter was received from Dr. S.L. Jepson, state health commissioner, stating that the writer could not assume the responsibility of fixing a date for the lifting of the general quarantine measures imposed by the different cities and counties. Just that the health authorities of each community must decide that matter according to local conditions.


Nov. 5, 1918


The influenza continues to claim victims in this city, four deaths from it being reported on Sunday and Monday. During that time 23 new cases were reported. For yesterday alone, 19 new cases were reported with 12 removals of quarantine.

The citizens committee….were out on their second round of the doctors, last evening. They found reports rather encouraging and it is the general belief that, if things don’t get any worse, the general quarantine may be lifted by next Monday.


Nov. 8, 1918


The flu situation showed marked improvement last night, with a report from Health Officer H. D. Price of only four new cases reported during the day…it looks like the lifting of the quarantine is assured. One death from the influenza and four quarantines removed were reported yesterday.


Nov. 11, 1918

The Parkersburg News front page banner proclaimed World War Over. An armistice had been signed with Germany. Peace celebrations erupted throughout the city and thousands took to the streets to cheer. Though businesses, factories and schools were allowed to reopen most chose to declare a holiday to celebrate the end of the war.


The “flu” situation continues to moderate and the general quarantine will be lifted at 6 o’clock this morning.

All arrangements have been made, anticipatory of a continued moderation of the epidemic to reopen all the tabooed places, and this will be done this morning. The schools will reopen as will the Carnegie Library, and the ban will be off public gatherings generally. The theatres all advertise attractive reopening bills and should be assured of big houses as people have been without their favorite amusement long enough to acquire all new relish for it,


However in a few days things began to deteriorate quickly,

The lifting of the quarantine and restrictions and the crowds pouring into the streets to celebrate the end of the war caused the influenza to raise its ugly head again.


Nov. 15, 1918


The influenza situation is taking on a serious aspect again and it may be necessary to re-establish the general quarantine, which was lifted just last Monday

Mayor Gilbert stated… that the increase in new cases reported during the past few days, was the result of unavoidable conditions during the peace celebration…the mayor urged everybody to be careful in guarding against infection, keep away from crowds, and by observing the other preventative measure recommended by the medical profession and the government.

At the Union Mission, seven new cases were reported yesterday, making thirteen in all now being cared for there. As the seven new cases do not seem to have been reported to the health officer, this would make the total number of new cases in the city yesterday, 21 instead of 14, as given above.

At the Salvation Army headquarters, ten new cases have come in this week, and some of those, Captain Dickinson reports are quite serious.

On account of the use of a part of the Salvation Army home on Third street, as a temporary hospital, all inside meetings there have been discontinued till further notice.

A report came from Belpre, last night, that the epidemic is increasing there.


Nov. 18, 1918


There was a rumor current on the streets Sunday that the health authorities were to close the city again today at noon. Mayor Gilbert denied this rumor most emphatically and stated that there would be no sudden closing order and that there would be no quarantine against public meetings until the opinion of the physicians of the city had been ascertained.

The mayor pointed out that there has been a general quarantine here and that every citizen should be familiar with the precautions to be taken. He stated that it was up to each individual to observe the simple rules of health which put the system in condition to withstand exposure to the disease. It is now a case of protecting the community by each person protecting himself.

The influenza situation caused a light attendance in most of the city churches Sunday. There would probably have been a record attendance if the flu had not interfered for this was the first Sunday services in a period of five weeks.


Nov. 19, 1918

Camden Theatre reopens

The Spanish Influenza pandemic would wax and wane through the end of 1918. Although Parkersburg lifted its restrictions and quarantine on Nov. 11, some cities like Wheeling remained under restrictions until Dec. 30.

The 1918 pandemic that our ancestors faced was far more serious and deadly than the current COVID-19 pandemic. The West Virginia Encyclopedia states that “The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918 was one of the world’s deadliest and swiftest pandemics.” Despite strict measures to contain the virus, over 71,000 West Virginians contracted influenza in a one month period between Oct. 15 and Nov. 15 and more than 2,800 people died. Unlike COVID-19 most of the deaths affected those ages 5 to 39. Nearly 25 percent of all deaths in West Virginia in 1918 were due to influenza and its complications.

The 1918 flu pandemic was so catastrophic because like our current COVID-19 situation, the Spanish influenza was a novel strain of the virus and no one had immunity. The virus often led to pneumonia and doctors did not have the medicines and antibiotics that we have in our toolbox today. Adding to the misery our forbearers endured there was little public assistance from the government. In 1918 there were no stimulus payments or unemployment insurance. People relied on their faith communities, relatives, friends and personal wherewithal at that time.

The Spanish flu left as swiftly as it had arrived. The brutal months of September thru December 1918 bear an eerie resemblance to the March thru June of 2020. Like 1918 it may take years before our society recovers what was lost due to the effects of the pandemic. However as in 1918 and mankind’s other pandemics the countless lives lost can never be replaced.


Note from the author: I would like to dedicate this article in honor of a distant cousin. He was one of the first Nedeff’s to arrive in the United States from Syria, and died in 1918 during the Influenza Pandemic.


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