Sunday, September 18, 2016

1918 Flu Pandemic

I’ve learned a lot about history as I’ve researched my ancestors, especially when it hit close to home.  So it was no surprise that I’d learn some new things as I continue to transcribe the letters my grandmother, Loraine Gunzendorfer, and my grandfather, Sig Levy, wrote back and forth between 1916 and 1919.  I’ve learned about World War I, Armistice Day in 1918, and now about the 1918 Flu Pandemic.

Wikipedia states “The 1918 flu pandemic (January 1918 – December 1920) was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic, the first of the two pandemics involving HINI influenza virus. It infected 500 million people across the world, including remote Pacific islands and the Arctic, and resulted in the deaths of 50 to 100 million (three to five percent of the world's population), making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.”

One of those victims was Loraine’s Aunt Charlotte.

Of course Charlotte, the wife of Loraine’s uncle Milton Schwartz, was on my tree and I knew a bit about her and that she had died at just 40 years old.  But other than a few dates, I really didn’t know much about her.  But as I was transcribing letters I came to the letter of December 28, 1918 from Loraine to Sig.

Letter to Sig 12_28_1918
“… We're so disappointed - Uncle Milt phoned this morning that they won't be down for New Year's as Aunt Charlotte has the "flu"! She has it very lightly for which we are thankful, but it is disagreeable for the one who has it. I am so sorry you and I live so far apart as I would like to have you with me once in awhile, it is especially nice on holidays, dear, but guess your separation can't be helped this year…”
It hit me that Charlotte Schwartz had passed away on January 15, 1919 so my senses were heightened as I continued to transcribe the letters.  Over the next few days (they wrote to each other daily) Loraine commented on Charlotte’s health but it wasn’t until January 4, 1919 that I could begin to see the gravity of the situation.
“…You don't know how much I enjoyed your letter last night. It was so sweetly written and I liked it very much, sweetheart. It was so full of news too. The main thing, though, is that you are well. The epidemic keeps everyone so uneasy and no one can tell from one minute to the next who will be the next victim. So please, my love, be as careful as possible as we want some of the happiness we are entitled to and I would go crazy if you were to get it again. We haven't heard since Wednesday about Aunt Chas' condition and naturally thought she was improving. Just after I started this to you the phone rang and it was Uncle Milt who said the first bit of encouragement was given him today by the doctor. Aunt Chas has been delirious for three days, she has surely had some siege and I do hope she will improve now…”
And two days later, January 6, 1919, she wrote this:
“…We phoned last night to inquire concerning Aunt Chas' condition and Uncle Milt said her temperature dropped to 99° and now the doctor thinks she will begin to improve. Funny though that she has been delirious for five days…”
But by the next day, things hadn’t seemed to have improved.
“…Sweetheart, I had no idea Aunt Chas. was so very bad until Saturday as New Year's Day she was supposed to be recovering rapidly. We heard from Uncle Milt this morn and he said her temperature was down to normal but that even yesterday she was delirious and kept talking about her trip to Monterey all the time as, you know, they had planned to come down. She probably hasn't read your letter yet and when she does will enjoy it as she will be much better. It was very sweet of you to write…”
While I believe Aunt Charlotte was at home during her illness, I found this photo from Wikipedia interesting, particularly since it was in Oakland which is where Charlotte and Milton lived.  Can you imagine being so horribly sick and being in this environment?

American Red Cross nurses tend to flu patients in temporary wards set up inside Oakland Municipal Auditorium, 1918.  Photo by Wikipedia
I’ve learned about the orders to wear masks and have difficulty picturing my grandmother wearing a mask.  No photos have surfaced but on January 8, 1919 she talked a little about it.
“…Love, the flu is getting bad here again and it keeps one in a sort of excitement all the time. Today I heard there were in the neighborhood of 100 cases but I doubt that. You can bet that I am going to begin to wear a mask. Mrs. Armstrong came to the rescue yesterday as I had an idea I might be getting it - had no symptoms but felt hot due to being nervous, I guess - so she took my temperature and said it couldn't be more normal. This is why I thought I might be getting it - a young girl teacher here whose fiance's parents live right next to Aunt Chas' and they were all out together the night before Aunt Chas. became ill. Saturday she was in the store to inquire regarding Aunt Chas and I talked to her. She said she never took anything in her life so couldn't get the flu - but she has it!! And I am told she was very sick Saturday night. Can you beat it, dear, the way I get mixed up with people who are getting it. But from now on I am going to take every precaution and be so careful…”

Police in masks
Policemen wearing masks provided by the American Red Cross in Seattle, 1918.  Photo by Wikipedia

By January 9, 1919 it appeared that Charlotte was turning the corner and on the road to recovery.
“…From all reports Aunt Chas. is well on the road to recovery but had a very close call. When I write I shall surely enclose your best wishes to her, dearest…”
But the next day’s news wasn’t quite so positive.
“…We had a letter from Uncle Milt this A.M. in which he said Aunt Chas. was still quite ill. In the mornings her temperature is pretty nearly normal but in the evening climbs to 102° to 102½° and she still continues to be delirious. It is terrible, sweetheart, really, what the people have to contend with these days. It makes one crazy if one stops to think about it, so I try not to…”
Several days went by with no news of Aunt Charlotte.  How was her recuperation going?  Had there been any changes?  But then on January 14, 1919 Loraine wrote:
“…Poor Aunt Chas is still a very sick person. Can you imagine that? And is nearly three weeks since she became ill. Uncle Col wrote yesterday saying they had a heart specialist to examine her heart and it is quite weak. The poison has not entirely left her body yet and naturally Uncle Milt has lots of cause for worry but he seems to be standing the strain very well, and you know he is far from being a well man. All any of us can do is to hope that everything will right itself and Aunt Chas will get her health back in short order…”
Oh no!  And because I was now able to somewhat see into the future, I knew what the outcome would be.  And sometime before 3:00 p.m. (when her letter was postmarked) on Thursday, January 16, 1919 came the news that seemed to have completely shocked the family.
“My own Darling I am afraid this will be anything but a letter of cheer today as I feel quite the contrary. Am so tired and sad after a very sleepless night, and don't feel anything like collecting my thoughts for a letter but I'll do my best, dear. You can imagine the shock when we were awakened at 12:15 A.M. by the telephone and were told by Uncle Col that Aunt Charlotte had passed away a short while before, which was entirely unexpected as she seemed to be getting along very nicely. She was such a dear, lovable woman and it seems such a pity that her kind always have to go, especially in the prime of life. Everything under the sun went through my mind after the call and I didn't close my eyes until 3:30. Honestly, my love, I never wanted you more in my life and just longed to be in our arms close to you but inasmuch as you were so far away I tried to console myself and to think that it is all for the best if that can be though. My heart surely goes out to Uncle Milt as they were such a devoted couple and I wonder how he will bear it, but time heals everything and I certainly hope it will for him. Isn't this a terrible thing, dear, and I wonder so much where and when it will end. There seems to be nothing but misery when everyone would like to be happy if possible. Mother would like very much to go up and be of assistance to Uncle Milt but is far from being strong and we think she would be taking too much of a change right now, she owes so much to her own health so we have urged her to wait a few days or perhaps longer until the flu begins to abate. Had she gone today I would have gone with her and isn't it odd, love, how we planned to go up this week-end, never expecting anything to really happen or sadness…”
And with that I learned first hand about a victim of the Flu Pandemic nearly 100 years ago.  But, of course, that only piqued my interest and I wanted to learn more about Charlotte.  Which led me down the proverbial genealogy rabbit hole…..

Part 2 next week!


  1. What incredible letters... and such a sad story! I recently read a historical fiction book that included this epidemic. It was great! I can share the name if you'd like. Anyway, I enjoyed what you added to it, too. What a treasure those letters are and how they tell so much more than most of us will ever know about our ancestors.

    1. I would love the name of the book, Dana. The letters have helped me to really know my grandmother more than I ever did. And I haven't even started transcribing those that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother.

  2. Poor Charlotte had to have been worn out by delirium. How sad and disappointing for the family when it appeared she was recovering. I'm glad your grandmother was a packrat because she showed us her world in a way history books can't.

    1. Someday those letters will be tossed, I'm sure. Which is why I'm transcribing them hoping that some day someone will care. I sure have learned a lot about my grandparents from these letters!

  3. Thank you for publishing this letter. I had a number of relatives who died during the flu epidemic, but until I read these letters, I had no idea what it must have been like to suffer from this dreadful flu. How terrible. My heart breaks again, thinking about all the suffering.

    1. It's hard to wrap your head around the suffering and death due to the pandemic. I wonder what it would be like now, 100 years and lots of medical advancement later.