A century ago the influenza epidemic came to Midland as it did to the rest of the world. Before it waned months later, it completely disrupted the daily routines of this small community, taking a deadly toll. Even celebrations of the ending of the Great War in Europe were muted by the dangers of communal gatherings. And, like that devastating conflict, the disease often claimed the lives of Midland's brave young men.
The first outbreak of what came to be named the Spanish Flu in the spring of 1918 was relatively mild, when a wave of flu cases broke out around the world. Most who fell ill had the typical flu symptoms of chills, fever, and fatigue and recovered within a few days. Few deaths were reported. However, those who died were often healthy young adults--people whom influenza rarely kills. (1)
The First World War, which had begun in 1914, was grinding irrevocably toward a conclusion by 1918. The entry of Americans into the conflict disrupted the stalemate of trench warfare along the Western Front. The soldiers on all sides had endured some of the most brutal conditions for years. Then, just as the end neared, flu season arrived and a second, highly contagious, wave of influenza appeared with a vengeance. No one knows exactly where it began, but it first appeared in Europe, America, and parts of Asia, then rapidly spread across the world. This illness quickly established its deadly nature. Victims died within hours or days of developing symptoms, their skin turning blue and their lungs filling with fluid that caused them to suffocate. The concentration of those most susceptible--young men--in war zones and military camps contributed to the rapid and devastating spread.(2)
In the United States, the second wave of pandemic flu emerged at Camp Devens, a U.S. Army training camp just outside of Boston, and at a naval facility in Boston.
This wave was brutal and peaked in the U.S. from September through November. An estimated 190,000 Americans died during October alone. In Philadelphia, 500 corpses awaited burial for more than a week. (3)
In Texas, Dallas and San Antonio saw early outbreaks. More than 800 died in Dallas in October alone. In San Antonio, 53 percent of the population got sick. By early October, flu had spread across the entire states, affecting even smaller communities such as Midland.
Estimates put the death toll at more than 20,000 in Texas, including 1,800 troops. (4)
The disease became known around the world as the Spanish flu since Spain was hard hit by the illness and was not subject to the wartime news blackout that affected other countries. The world followed reports of Spain's King Alfonso XII's struggle with the flu.
An unusual effect of this virus was that it struck down many previously healthy young people. It was most deadly to people ages 20 to 40. More U. S. soldiers perished from flu than in battle. An estimated 43,000 servicemen who mobilized for WWI died of influenza.
A third wave began in early 1919, circled the globe, and lasted through the spring. One-fifth of the world's population was infected. By the time the third wave waned, the influenza pandemic had killed more people than the Great War, somewhere between 20 to 40 million people. (5)
28 percent of all Americans fell ill. Somewhere between 675,000 to 850,000 people died, a staggering mortality rate of 2.5 percent.(6)
In 1918, scientists had not yet discovered viruses so there were no laboratory tests to diagnose, detect, or characterize flu viruses. Prevention and treatment methods were limited. There were no vaccines to protect against flu virus infection, no antiviral drugs to treat flu illness, and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia. There was a shortage of professional nurses due to their deployment to military camps.(7)
Efforts to prevent the spread of disease were limited, including promotion of good personal hygiene, and implementation of isolation, quarantine, and closures of public settings, such as schools, theaters, and even churches. Stores could not hold sales, funerals were given time limits.(8)
People were advised to avoid shaking hands and to stay indoors, libraries put a halt on lending books, and regulations were passed banning spitting. Some cities imposed ordinances requiring face masks in public. New York City even had an ordinance that fined or jailed people who did not cover their coughs. (9).
The El Paso city Board of Health ordered the closing of all schools, churches, theaters, lodges and pool halls and soldiers at Fort Bliss were forbidden entry into the city.(10)
In Midland, there were 160 cases of influenza by early October, 1918. The Midland Reporter optimistically reported "none of which seem in a critical condition" but also warned there were new cases daily. As a precaution, the paper added, "it is expected that no public gatherings will be held until the matter is more in hand." Doctor John Thomas, Midland Health Officer, announced that schools and churches were closed to help slow the spread of the disease. The edition also included advice from Uncle Sam who warned that coughs and sneezes were "as dangerous as poison gas shells."(11)
The records in the Midland County History Museum Archives for these years are scarce. The exact number of how many died in Midland during the epidemic may now be unattainable, having faded into a hundred-years gone past. Perhaps some idea might still be obtained in a stroll through the older portions of Fairview Cemetery searching for those interred during the deadly months of 1918 and 1919.
Yet, in studying something so devastating as the Spanish Flu the scale of the numbers can cause one to lose perspective. To forget that each of the numbers represents a human being who once held the same measure of living reality as those alive today. Even narrowing the focus to Midland, the remove in time can create an impersonal patina.
But also within the sparse records in the museum, there are traces that breathe life back into a few of those long-dead Midlanders. The front page of that October 18 newspaper is dominated by flu-related articles.
Among the news items is the funeral oration of young Oran Edwards, victim of the flu at age 33. Despite the growing dangers of congregating, people gathered in the small Methodist church on Main Street to hear Reverend J. W. Cowan's tribute.
At age eight, Edwards came to Midland in 1893 with his family. As he grew to manhood, the good influences of church and school molded him into "a strong, sturdy, stalwart, influential and useful young man." With his brothers, he built a successful ranching enterprise. Though beyond draft age, he enlisted because his "heart of a true patriot" made him long "to have some part in the great struggle being waged by his fellows for the cause of righteousness." He was sent to South Carolina, then to Quantico, Virginia, where, within a few days of contracting influenza, "his manly and useful young life came to a sudden and untimely end."
A powerful sense of angry frustration at such a seemingly senseless death echoes throughout Revered Cowan's sermon. He comments on the bitter irony that someone dedicated to serving in the war would perish without ever having seen a day of combat. He struggles to affirm that Oran's death was "truly heroic as if he had fallen before the enemy's guns" and he leaves a "pleasant and sacred memory." Yet, in the end, there remains a sense of almost wasted loss. In his closing passage, Cowan speaks directly to dead young Oran. "We yield thee up and say farewell for a while."(12)
Reverend Cowan had good reason to speak bitterly of the frustration of seeing young men struck down by illness. His own son, Luke, had enlisted in the U. S. Navy, only to die of meningitis at the New Orleans Naval Hospital on November 28, 1917, the day before Thanksgiving. In his January 1918 Conference report, the Methodist minister wrote in rough and jagged entry that still displays his pain. "The death angel has brought to us sore sadness and bitter sorrow of heart."(13)
Oran Edwards and Luke Cowan help put flesh and bone on all those thousands of dead young men. Their tombstones in Fairview Cemetery remain a silent testimony of those who died in such a sadly unheroic manner, without glory, leaving family and friends with pain and grief at the unfairness of it all.
Multiply the story within Reverend Cowan's oration 1,800 times for Texas; 43,000 times for the United States, and one begins to gain a deeper sense of the scale of this epidemic.
The archives contain one other item that helps make these events from a century ago more "real." On the same front page of The Midland Reporter that detailed the funeral of Oran Edwards is the notice of the death of another young Midland man. Carroll Holloway died from influenza on Wednesday, October 2 in Algiers, Louisiana. Following his enlistment in the Army, he was stationed in the radio department there. His illness was brief; death came quickly. Holloway left behind a wife and infant to mourn him, as well as his aged parents. He too joined Edwards and Cowan in Fairview.
Among the archive photographs are several related to Midland Christian College, which operated during these years. The vast majority of the students attending the school came from Midland or the surrounding area. Just a short time before his enlistment, Holloway had been a student.
One of the photographs was donated by early-day Midland resident Mollie McCormick, whose own son served in the Great War and fortunately escaped the influenza. In a real photo postcard, the Midland College Band poses on the steps of the Midland County Courthouse, sometime between 1915 and 1918. Fortunately, though there is no exact date, Mrs. McCormick or some archivist recorded the band members' names.
And there on the back row, third from the left, is young Carroll Holloway, decked out in a different uniform than the one he would die in, solemnly posing proudly with his classmates. Neither he nor any of those standing with him had any idea he would be dead within such a short time.This weathered image puts a face on an all too brief biography.
As one examines these frail artifacts--yellowed newspapers, faded photographs, threadbare journals, and weathered tombstones--the Midland of the year of the great flu epidemic becomes a far less distant place.