Looking back: outbreak of the July 22 Spanish influenza pandemic Time walk at Edmonds Memorial Cemetery

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Ascene of the 2017 Walk Back in Time event, featuring five local Spanish-American War veterans.

The members of the Edmonds Memorial Cemetery and Columbarium board of directors – and a few friends – invite you to join them in person at the cemetery for their annual Walk Back in Time event at 1 p.m. on Thursday, July 22. After a virtual tour last year, it seems we can now move on towards a more normal life. However, visitors are asked to follow applicable national and local guidelines for the use of face masks.

The attached photo shows a scene from the 2017 Walk Back in Time event, when five local Spanish-American War veterans buried at the cemetery were brought to light. A group of visitors gathered around the grave of Spanish-American War veteran George Bolduc (1878-1905) and listened with interest to Larry Vogel, resident, photographer and writer of Edmonds, in appropriate costume, recount the Mr. Bolduc’s story.

This year’s theme for the Walk Back in Time program is based on the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-1920 and will feature the stories of five local residents who fell victim to this deadly flu epidemic. Join the hosts as they stage the life stories of flu victims: Luther Martin Freese, Betsey Anderson Johnson, John Gustave Lambe, Mattie Cornelia Welbourn Otto and Christopher Tuffield “CT” Roscoe. Wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to encounter rough terrain as you walk from grave to grave. The visit usually lasts about an hour.

A lot has changed since my column on August 1, 2020 Retrospective: 102 years ago – 1918 and the Spanish flu pandemic has been published. At that point, I expressed my surprise at the silence regarding the Spanish flu pandemic. From the lack of coverage by the local newspaper, it emerged that this flu epidemic mainly bypassed Edmonds. However, I soon discovered that Edmonds had not been so fortunate.

In the fall of 1918, in Seattle, just over 15 miles to the south, newspapers reported that authorities were concerned and were taking action to protect its residents from a highly contagious influenza virus. The same goes for the town of Everett to the north. In the absence of vaccine to protect against this influenza infection and antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections, control was limited to isolation, quarantine, face coverings, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants and restriction of all public gatherings. In Seattle and Everett, restrictions were put in place to facilitate methods of disease control. However, elsewhere protection seemed uncertain, perhaps because of the lack of communication with the small outlying communities.

A Seattle streetcar driver tells a potential passenger he can’t get on without wearing a face mask. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

As this was a time before radios were made available to the general public, the people of Edmonds probably relied on the small weekly newspaper for their news. The local newspaper seemed to follow the news of the war, which they were publishing, but for some reason the news seemed silent on the events surrounding what had become a major health crisis. There appeared to be no mention of wearing face masks or closing public gatherings. Cinema, churches, and public events continued as always, and with the exception of a three-week school shutdown in late fall 1918, all seemed normal. Even the local scouts had to go camping.

Four days after the armistice of November 11, 1918 ending World War I, the Edmonds newspaper, The Tribune-Revue, on its front page, reported that the townspeople publicly celebrated the end of the war. The article, titled “Peace Has Come,” described a cheerful and noisy celebration in the streets of Edmonds.

Amid the hissing, ringing of bells and hundreds of different noises made up by little boys and girls beating tin cans, ringing cowbells and dragging various kitchen items after bikes, Edmonds celebrated the signing of the peace armistice, as probably all villages and hamlets in the United States have done.

Just below this article was an ad from the Edmonds Federated Church:

The churches are all open; let’s take a break to worship. More, “Peace has come. The germs have fled. And we still live. We hope that the experience has enriched our thinking.

There was silence about the flu danger the Edmonds community still faced and, in fact, the worst was yet to come.

When I first tried to find news about the Spanish flu in Edmonds, on the surface, it seemed that Edmonds was isolated enough that the virus did not reach them. But then, looking at the very noticeable increase in burials at Edmonds Cemetery and the decrease in the number of students in the graduating classes of Edmonds High School during this period, he became clear that something was wrong.

Thinking more about the subject, I decided to do some personal research. This was primarily done by checking burial records at the cemetery from 1918 to 1920, and most relevant, by scanning a plethora of death certificates for Snohomish and King counties.

My research told a completely different story. I was able to confirm that 22 local residents had died from this infectious disease. Fourteen of the victims were reported as buried at the local cemetery, and the other eight in other cemeteries, and it seemed very possible that there were at least 10 other victims. There was no way to determine how many had been infected with the disease and survived. Something to remember, during this period the number of residents of Edmonds was small – only just over 1,000 people.

Globally, it is estimated that at least 500 million people, both military and civilian, have been infected with this virulent strain of influenza. Originally identified as a three-day fever, it has caused more than 50 million deaths worldwide, including more than 675,000 in the United States. The pandemic appeared in three waves and lasted from 1918 until 1920. The source of this flu was an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin.

So there is no finger pointing to the origin of the disease, Spain has never been considered the source of the virus, even though this pandemic has come to be known as the Spanish flu . Meanwhile, even as the war was drawing to a close, censorship was still in effect. Spain, as a neutral, non-combatant country, was free from censorship, and in the fall of 1918, when it became evident that civilians in many places were falling ill and dying at an alarming rate, the country’s rulers took the initiative to get the news to the public. So, as a harbinger of bad news, Spain would be forever associated with this deadly flu epidemic.

The military, both overseas and in the States, were particularly susceptible to this flu, not only those on the battlefields, but also wherever troops were stationed and lived in nearby neighborhoods.

James Nathan Otto, a well-known Edmonds butcher, merchant, and owner of the Home Store in downtown Edmonds, seemed like a man who seemed to be aware of the dangers inherent in this particular flu. The advertisement of his home store in the local newspaper advised residents: “While the flu is still with us, use your phone. Mr. Otto’s butcher and grocery store provided delivery service to those who placed their orders over the phone from the security of their homes. It seems rather ironic that in December 1918, James Otto’s wife, Mattie, became one of the victims of the terrible disease.

Learn about the life of Ms. Mattie Cornelia Otto, 50, and four of her neighbors, as you join the hosts for a 1 p.m. time walk on July 22, 2021 at Edmonds Memorial Cemetery. Rain or shine, we hope to see you there.

Event: Step back in time

Theme: Local victims of the Spanish influenza pandemic of World War I, 1918-1920

In law; Edmonds Memorial Cemetery and Columbarium

Location: One block north of Westgate QFC – entrance 820 15th St. SW

Time: 1 p.m. Thursday, July 22

– By Betty Lou Gaeng

Betty Gaeng is a longtime former resident of Lynnwood and Edmonds, arriving in the area in 1933. Although she now lives in Anchorage, she occasionally writes about the history and people of Lynnwood, Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace. She is also an honorary member of the Edmonds Cemetery Board of Directors.

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