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Column: A look back at the 1918 plague in Lake Geneva - Part 1

Column: A look back at the 1918 plague in Lake Geneva - Part 1

Masking up for Black Friday shopping

Three ladies mask up for this year’s Black Friday shopping in Downtown Lake Geneva. While this has been an unprecedented year for everyone due to coronavirus, it’s not the first time a pandemic hit America. Lake Geneva like the rest of the country was not immune from the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918.

Never before over the almost 79 years that I have been on this planet have I experienced a year like 2020, the year of the coronavirus or Covid-19 pandemic. And I know that I am not alone in this experience.

The vast majority of people alive today have had a similar experience. Only the very few people alive today who are 102 years old or older have experienced a year like 2020.

The year that they experienced was 1918, the year of the outbreak of the great Spanish Flu Epidemic which occurred during the last year of World War I. The Great War had run from 1914 to 1918 although the U.S. had been involved in the War only in 1917 and 1918.

I have long been interested in the impact of the Spanish Flu of 1918 in Lake Geneva because my maternal grandmother, Lillie Wardingle—who, with her husband and son raised me—lost her older sister Frances Sherman to the Spanish Flu in 1918 and had to raise her sister’s son, Harry Sherman, along with her own three children, who were my mother, aunt, and uncle. Harry Sherman was 13 years old at the time of his mother’s death. He was my Uncle Harry.

My grandmother’s sister, Frances Sherman, was married to a member of the Sherman family who owned the Sherman Livery Stable on the east side of the 200 block of Broad Street across the street from the Ford Opera House, which had been built as Centennial Hall in 1876. The Ford Opera House was on the site of today’s Geneva Theater.

I began my quest for the story of the impact in Lake Geneva of the great Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 by reading Gina Kolata’s excellent book, Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It. Gina Kolata is a science reporter for The New York Times. I read her book in order to place the story of the Spanish Flu in Lake Geneva in a broader context. I then read issues of the Lake Geneva Herald between March and December 1918.

The great Spanish Flu epidemic began in March 1918 and ended in April 1920. Its origin is unknown. It was called the Spanish Flu because of its impact in Spain where the Spanish king, Alfonso XIII, got very sick with the Flu. Spain was not the country most heavily hit by the Spanish Flu; the Spanish Flu in the United States was much worse. It was first observed in Kansas and New York City in March 1918. Estimates of how many people were killed by the Spanish Flu throughout the world range very widely from 17 million to 50 million. Some estimates are as high as 100 million. The Spanish Flu infected 500 million people globally. Expected to have its greatest impact upon the very old and the very young, the Spanish Flu’s greatest toll was actually on young adults between 20 and 40. Because the United States and many other countries were involved in World War I when the Spanish Flu broke out in March 1918, news of it was especially suppressed in newspapers in the United States and Europe.

The first mention of the Spanish Flu in the Lake Geneva Herald appeared on Oct. 4, 1918 when it reported that young men from Walworth County who had been drafted into the U. S. Army and were about to leave for an army base in Texas, had their departures deferred until further notice. On Oct. 11, the Herald, calling the Spanish Flu “the grip,” reported that the epidemic had spread through all of the states except five and that U.S. Army camps had been especially hard hit. It reported that the Surgeon General of the United States had urged that “all steps should be taken to prevent conditions from becoming even worse.” The first reported cases of the Spanish Flu in Lake Geneva were members of three families.

On Oct. 18, the Herald reported that the State of Wisconsin had ordered schools, churches, and lodges closed, but noted that the Spanish Flu had “cut but little figure” in Lake Geneva. The Herald also reported that the Surgeon General had extensively described what the Spanish Flu was and what steps individuals should take to prevent becoming infected with it.

On Oct. 25, the Herald reported that Warren A. Semnicht, who was from Lake Geneva, had died of the Flu on October 17th. He was a soldier in the U.S. Army stationed at Ft. Hancock, Georgia. On Nov. 1, the Herald reported that Mae Sherman, who lived in Lake Geneva, had died in Richmond, Illinois where she had been working at a bank. She was buried in Oak Hill cemetery.

World War I ended on November 11th, 1918, a day that would be initially designated as “Armistice Day” and much later, “Veterans Day.” Also on Nov. 11, my grandmother’s sister, Frances Sherman, died of the Spanish Flu. Frances Sherman’s death was not reported in the Herald.

On Nov. 22, the Herald reported on other residents who had come down with the Spanish Flu. On Nov. 29, the Herald reported the death of Mrs. Albert Saylor of Linn Township from the Spanish Flu. Mrs. Saylor was 27 years old.

As the Spanish Flu epidemic worsened throughout the United States, the Herald ran reports issued by the U.S. Public Health Service describing the Spanish Flu and instructions on how to avoid catching it, which were very similar to the guidelines to avoid contracting Covid-19 issued in 2020 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On December 13th, the Herald reported the death in Lake Geneva of Archie Hoffman, who had died of the Spanish Flu at the age of 19 at his parents’ home on George Street, and the death of Arthur Ganske, who died of the Spanish Flu at the home of his parents at the corner of Williams and Henry streets. Ganske was 31 years old. He was the brother of Mrs. Lewis Malsch, the wife of one of the brothers of my uncle, William Malsch.

On Dec. 20, 1918, the Herald ended the year with the observation: “Lake Geneva and vicinity is certainly blessed in this influenza matter. We have had remarkably few cases, all things considered, and few of them today are serious. Certainly as compared with some of our neighbors we are fortunate.”

The great Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 continued through the following year, 1919, and into the months of January through April 1920. According to the Herald, the impact of the great Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 in Lake Geneva was not nearly as severe as it was in other parts of the United States and the world.

However, the great Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 was, nonetheless, perhaps the most significant phenomenon to occur in Lake Geneva prior to the present coronavirus pandemic. In my next column I will discuss why the great Spanish Flu epidemic in Lake Geneva was much worse than the Herald reported it to be.

Patrick Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.

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