Looking Back: 102 years ago – 1918 and the Spanish Influenza Pandemic

A Seattle streetcar conductor tells a potential rider that he cannot board without wearing a face mask. (Photo courtesy National Archives)

In October of 1918, the world was still fighting WWI, and although the end of the hostilities was near, censorship of the news still remained.  Therefore, it was left to the non-combatant country of Spain to report that civilians in many places were becoming ill and dying at an alarming rate.  These circumstances gave rise to the name by which this horrible disease would forever be known—the Spanish flu.

In late 1918, a streetcar conductor on the Green Lake run in Seattle, is informing a potential rider that he cannot board the streetcar without wearing a face mask. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

After first showing up earlier in 1918, and then seemingly abating, in the fall, the misnamed Spanish flu returned with a vengeance, and Seattle was enforcing regulations to protect its citizens.  It was reported on Oct. 5, 1918, that Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson had ordered that every place of indoor public gatherings in Seattle close its doors. That included schools, theatres, motion picture houses, churches and dance halls.  The only public gatherings allowed were those in the open air.

In the United States, the disease, first called a 3-day fever, was identified among military personnel in the spring of 1918. Most people recovered after a few days and only a few deaths were reported.  However, in October, with WWI winding down and the American doughboys trickling back home from Europe, the disease resurfaced with a vengeance. Some victims died within hours after the first symptoms; others after a few days.

As the virus spread throughout the populated areas of the United States, and even into remote villages in Alaska, doctors, scientists and health officials seemed helpless. In one small remote native village in Alaska, influenza appeared where there seemed to be little contact from the outside, and in five days, 72 out of 80 residents died.

It was unknown where this strain of influenza first originated, but it was determined that it was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin, and even though it became known as the Spanish flu, it was very doubtful that Spain was the source.

Worldwide, it is estimated that about 500 million people became infected with the virus, and it is thought that at least 50 million, and probably more, died. About 675,000 deaths occurred in the United States.  A Census Bureau report showed that 1,513 people died in Seattle.

Even though Washington state had a large military and naval presence, it had a smaller number of victims than other states; except Oregon. The death toll seemed highest in the most heavily populated areas of Washington, but touched nearly every community. From late September 1918 through the end of the year, it had killed over 5,000 of the state’s residents. More than half the victims were between the ages of 20 and 40.

It is difficult to determine how Edmonds, a town of approximately 1,000 residents, was affected by this pandemic, as the local newspaper appeared unconcerned. Instead, with the Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice in the news, the publication mainly covered war information—and the ending of the war was the main focus.

As he recalled the history of Edmonds as seen from the eyes of local journalists, even Ray Cloud, longtime editor of the Edmonds Tribune-Review, in his book Edmonds, the Gem of Puget Sound (1953), had no comments about the influenza pandemic.

Under town happenings, the Tribune-Review did mention the influenza deaths of three local people. On Nov.1, 1918 the paper reported that Mrs. O. W. Clark, a recent Edmonds resident, whose home was on Sixth Street, died Wednesday morning of influenza, and on Nov. 15, 1918, the paper reported that Ina Sneed, the sister of Mrs. O. W. Clark, also a newly arrived resident of Edmonds, had died of influenza. The third report was that locally, Jenne Peterson, of Camp 1, Admiralty Logging Company, died Nov. 6, 1918 in a Seattle hospital, a victim of the Spanish flu. A few other 1918 deaths were labeled pneumonia—of course, the Spanish flu may have been the contributing factor.

From my own research, I found that three of the four young Edmonds men who lost their lives while serving in WWI had died as a result of the dreaded influenza.

The first young man to lose his life during WWI was 22-year-old Jesse G. Marshall.  Pvt. Jesse Marshall died Dec. 17, 1917, while serving in the U.S. army on a battlefield “somewhere in France.” He did not die from an enemy’s bullet, but rather from influenza. This raises the question, was he also one of the first to fall victim to what became known as the Spanish flu? Jesse Marshall was born in Washington state on Nov. 5, 1895, the eldest of six children born to Frank W. and Sarah Marshall of Edmonds. Reading the answers to questions on his June 1917 draft registration form, Jesse Marshall seemed to be an interesting young man. He noted that his home was a camp on the Edmonds’ beach, and he received mail at the Edmonds’ post office. He gave his occupation as a trapper, employed by no one, and employment place as everywhere. The exact location of Pvt. Marshall’s “somewhere in France” grave is unknown.  His death was listed as “non-battle,” and he is one of the more than 4,400 men still missing from WWI.

Second to die while serving his country, was a very popular Edmonds native, 22-year-old Victor Hansen, the third son of Louis and Sine Hansen, Edmonds’ pioneers. The Hansen’s longtime Edmonds home was located on the north side of George (Main) Street between 6th and 7th Streets, and son Victor was a very popular figure around town. Pvt. Victor Hansen was drafted and sent to Camp Freemont in California in May of 1918. He was attached to Co. B, of the 22nd Machine Gun Battalion, U.S. Army. While still stationed at the camp in California, Pvt. Hansen became a victim of the Spanish flu and died of pneumonia on Oct. 19, 1918. He is buried at Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park in Seattle. A former student at Edmonds High School, Victor Hansen was a true Edmonds native, born there on Dec. 23, 1895, he lived in Edmonds his entire life before entering the service.

Richard Burbank

The third to die was another popular young man, Richard Bosworth Burbank. Richard Burbank enlisted Oct. 3, 1918 while he was attending college in Pullman. Pvt. Burbank graduated from the Agricultural Department at Washington State College, and had accepted a position as superintendent of the College Dairy. He resigned in order to enter the Officer’s Training Corps of the U.S. Army.  During the Spanish influenza epidemic at the college, he volunteered to attend the sick. While involved in this service, Richard Burbank was himself infected with the virus and on November 2, 1918, he died from the disease. His body was accompanied back to his hometown by a military escort, and he was buried in Seattle at Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park. A 1914 graduate of Edmonds High School, Richard Burbank was born Oct. 5, 1896 in Minnesota, the son of Mr. and Mrs. David Bosworth Burbank whose home was on 4th Street in Edmonds.  Ironically, Mrs. Burbank went to Pullman to care for her son during his illness. After his death and funeral, she became ill with what was thought to be a serious case of tonsillitis. Instead, she had been stricken with influenza, and developed pneumonia. She died Dec. 5, 1918, approximately one month following the death of her son. Mr. Burbank was remembered as a longtime vocational teacher in the Edmonds School District.  Pvt. Richard Burbank’s photo, shown here, is one taken at the college.

An advertisement showing the Spanish flu as extremely communicable appeared in the Tribune-Review on Nov. 1, 1918. Home Stores Co., a downtown Edmonds grocery store, announced: “While the ‘flu’ is still in our midst, use your telephone. We exercise great care in filling telephone orders and while under ordinary circumstances, we prefer to have our patrons come in and shop personally, at the present time we believe it is everyone’s duty to avoid crowds. Phone for Meat, 53 and Groceries, 201.”

For such an extremely virulent health issue in 1918, one that involved the whole world, it does seem strange that the importance of the Spanish flu was apparently overlooked or ignored by some people in the small town of Edmonds.

By the summer of 1919, the influenza pandemic came to an end, as those infected either died or developed immunity. By the time, the pandemic ended, over 6,500 residents of Washington state had died.

— By Betty Lou Gaen

Betty Gaeng is a former long-time resident of Lynnwood and Edmonds, coming to the area in 1933. Although now living in Anchorage, she occasionally writes about the history and the people of both early-day Lynnwood, Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace. She is also an honorary member of the Edmonds Cemetery Board.

 

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