Wise As It Was: Flu hit county hard a century ago

By Racey Burden | Published Saturday, January 20, 2018

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Influenza Victims

INFLUENZA VICTIMS – Robert and Mattie Thompson, a husband and wife from Wise County, died within days of each other during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. They were buried in Sand Hill Cemetery. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

One hundred years ago, Wise County was struck by the same illness it’s dealing with today – a bad case of the flu.

In 1918, however, the virus was more deadly than today’s strains. The worldwide pandemic, known as the Spanish Flu, is estimated to have killed between 20 million to 50 million people. In a twist from previous pandemics, many of the victims were young, previously healthy men and women.

News bulletins from Washington, D.C. tracked the spread of the flu before it hit Wise, detailing how soldiers in army camps across the country were stricken with the virus. In September of 1918, there were known cases in 25 army camps, with more than 20,000 infected.

By October of 1918, the Spanish Flu had reached Texas. The Wise County Messenger and Decatur News chronicled local victims in contemporary accounts.

The Decatur News reported its first local death on Oct. 11. Morris Province, a 24-year-old from Decatur, died after contracting the flu while attending the Texas Institute for the Deaf in Austin.

In its Oct. 11 issue, the Messenger ran a front-page ad concerning the Spanish flu. Some tips for avoiding the illness included “Food will win the war if you give it a chance-help by choosing and chewing your food well” and “Avoid tight clothes, tight shoes, tight gloves-seek to make nature your ally, not your prisoner.” Decatur Mayor A.C. Bennett also issued a proclamation closing all churches and public schools until Oct. 21, 1918. Bennett himself would later contract the flu.

Local doctors, all members of the Wise County Medical Society, met in October to discuss the flu. They told the citizens not to be too alarmed, but encouraged them to avoid crowds regardless, and to sleep with the windows open at night to get more fresh air.

News from overseas concerning World War I in France ran next to letters from stateside army camps informing local families that their brothers and sons had died from the flu. The papers reported college students returning home because their parents were afraid for them to live in the crowded dormitories.

Some death notices were relatively brief, like that of Annie Smethers in the Dec. 6, 1918 issue of the Messenger. The report simply noted that Smethers, of Bridgeport, had died of the flu and pneumonia, and her six-month-old baby was not expected to live, either.

Other deaths, like that of Robert and Mattie Thompson in Nov. 1918, warranted their own articles. On the front page of the Nov. 8 edition of the Decatur News, underneath an article concerning the armistice with Austria-Hungary, the “sad bereavement” of the Thompsons’ deaths was detailed. The husband and wife, formerly Wise County residents, died of the flu within days of each other at their home in New Mexico. They left behind an infant and two other children, one of whom was sick with the typhoid fever and would soon follow them in death. Their remains were buried in Sand Hill Cemetery in Decatur.

“This is indeed an extreme case of bereavement-one in which words of human sympathy seem inadequate,” the News wrote.

More deaths followed, as did recoveries, which were also noted by the papers. Decatur was reported as having fewer cases, but Alvord, Rhome and Bridgeport all experienced fatalities.

Capudine and Vick’s VapoRub ran ads repeatedly, each claiming to be the best cure for the disease.

“Don’t fear germs or Germans,” the more patriotic notices instructed. And whether the people feared both or neither, war and flu took up much of the news. “Despite peace talk and influenza,” the Messenger reported in November, “the American people have responded for the fourth time to the government’s appeal for war loans with more than was asked.”

The pandemic would ultimately outlast the Great War, continuing on into 1919.

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