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Deadly siege: Lethal flu couldn’t be stopped

Strict isolation was only decent option

By Natalie St. John

Chinook Observer

Published on February 23, 2018 11:00AM

Last changed on February 23, 2018 12:07PM

The owners of Hackney Cottage in Seaview were decimated when influenza killed a young family member.


The owners of Hackney Cottage in Seaview were decimated when influenza killed a young family member.

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Raymond’s Riverview Hospital, and South Bend General Hospital, pictured here, treated dozens of flu patients, but couldn’t help everyone. There were so many sick people the Army and Red Cross had to open additional volunteer-run flu hospitals.


Raymond’s Riverview Hospital, and South Bend General Hospital, pictured here, treated dozens of flu patients, but couldn’t help everyone. There were so many sick people the Army and Red Cross had to open additional volunteer-run flu hospitals.

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Signs like this were placed in residential windows in Washington state in 1918 and 1919 to warn that the inhabitants were infected with the deadly virus.


Signs like this were placed in residential windows in Washington state in 1918 and 1919 to warn that the inhabitants were infected with the deadly virus.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the second of a two-part series on the 100th anniversary of the 1918-19 flu pandemic and its local impacts.

Public health experts knew flu spread fast in crowded environments, which led them to close down music halls, pool halls and other gathering places. In late October 1918, the Ilwaco Jazz Orchestra canceled a week of “jazzing” at dances for soldiers in Raymond. In Ilwaco, the Pacific Tribune editor observed that “Pesco’s eight billiards tables, darkened, look like a scene from a morgue.”

While Raymond had many flu cases, South Bend had almost none at first. That may be why some of its denizens didn’t take the precautions seriously when the epidemic hit in earnest.

One Spruce Division soldier was caught sneaking out of his camp to play cards in town, and was given 30 days in the brig. At a Jan. 20, 1919, meeting, police said pool halls were still allowing “quite a number” of men to gather for card games. The gamblers were refusing to leave the pool halls because there was no city ordinance requiring them to do so. The council passed an ordinance and threatened the pool halls with closure, but that didn’t solve the problem of people with mild cases who “loafed” downtown while on sick leave.

The ban on gatherings likely did save lives. Other measures were less successful. Throughout October and November, the county’s handful of doctors frantically vaccinated families and workers in the shipyard and timber camps with “flu serum,” but by December, that effort had fallen by the wayside. In a widely-published January article, San Francisco flu expert Dr. Karl Meyer declared the serum to be “of no use whatsoever.” A week later, Meyer caught the flu while lecturing in Portland.

Public health experts also aggressively promoted the use of gauze masks, and many communities mandated their use. The authorities did not realize that an individual flu virus is about 1/100th of the size of a human cell. Blocking the virus with a porous gauze mask was roughly as effective as using a sock to carry water.

A dose of snake oil

Pharmacists did a booming business in disinfectant mouthwashes and throat-sprays. Purveyors of so-called “patent medicines” — cure-all concoctions of dubious vintage — were all too eager to capitalize when those failed.

“Let us sell you medicine that will cure you or your trouble immediately,” pharmacist John B. Sempill wrote in an October ad in the South Bend Journal. One of these medicines was “strictly ethical” Fenosote, which promised to “positively prevent influenza.” The active ingredient was an effective fever-reducer, but the Food and Drug Administration banned it in the 1980s because it causes kidney damage and cancer. Drug dealers still use it to adulterate cocaine. It also contained two disinfectants derived from wood creosote, one of which causes locusts to swarm, according to “Nature: The International Journal of Science.”

Other flu-cures included Purola, which contained a precursor to aspirin, but had the unfortunate effect of turning users’ skin blue, and Pe-Ru-Na, which investigative journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams revealed to be nothing but grain alcohol and flavoring in an exposé about “the patent medicine evil.” Another option was Tanlac, made by a notoriously crooked Atlanta company that sometimes published testimonials about Tanlac’s miraculous healing powers after the authors had died.

“According to its claims, Tanlac is a ‘magic medicine,’” the American Medical Association wrote in 1921. “Its ‘magic’ is derived from the great wizard, alcohol. It’s a disguised booze, and barely disguised at that, except on the label.”

A St. Helens, Oregon chiropractor promised, “If you take scientific chiropractic adjustments you will not take Spanish Influenza.” In South Bend, Swedish-born “shoeist” Charles Andreen said customers would be “safe in my shoes from the influenza.” Claiming damp feet were the primary cause of the disease, he urged readers to “Secure at once my all-wool sox, and fight this pestilential fox.”

‘This last crushing sadness’

As many families learned, almost nothing, aside from total isolation, could protect their children. Pacific County papers documented the deaths of at least 17 children and teenagers, but the real total was likely higher.

Five-year-old Alfred Tyson Hackney’s well-to-do family owned “Hackney Cottage,” a Seaview hotel. When little Alfred fell ill in Vancouver, his parents sent for Chinook’s Dr. Lee W. Paul. As Paul prepared to rush to Vancouver, he received another message, telling him it was too late. When Alfred’s grandfather died a few months later, the Oregonian said his demise was largely caused by a broken heart.

In Long Beach, Charles Stuart, 16, caught flu in the fall and never recovered. In March, he “died a happy death,” after planning his own funeral. Sixteen-year-old Ernest O’Brien won a lifesaving award after he “plunged his pony into the surf” to save a drowning swimmer in 1916, but no one was able to save his life when he fell sick with flu in January 1919.

In Naselle, John and Selinna Nassi and their eight children caught flu in January. Four-year-old Albert Nassi died on Jan. 14, his sister Saima, 13, on Jan. 18, and his brother Elmer, 17, on Jan. 20. Their neighbors mourned “this last crushing sadness,” according to the South Bend Journal.

In Raymond, Fred and Hilda Bowers were expecting their ninth child when they caught flu in late October. Soon, the whole family was sick. Fred, 43, was an influential member of the Eagles and local union groups, and fellow members pooled their money to hire a nurse for the family.

Hilda, 34, was on her deathbed when she went into labor on Nov. 2. The baby girl lived, but “in her weakened condition she could not survive,” the Raymond Herald wrote. Fred named the baby after her mother.

An unnamed Raymond woman stayed with the children while Fred recovered. A couple of weeks later, he took two of the youngest children to live with his mother-in-law in Astoria. Rose Bates, of South Bend, took in the ailing baby. She gave her “every care,” according to the Willapa Harbor Pilot, but “the weakened condition of the mother at its birth had an effect on the little life.” Baby Hilda Bowers died on Dec. 9.

Someone in every family

When World War I ended on Nov. 11, 1918 Americans were tired of battling both Germans and influenza. This was reflected in frequently over-optimistic news reports. In early November, so many workers were sick that farmers were having trouble getting their cranberry harvests to market, but the Tribune still boasted on Nov. 15 that the habit of eating cranberries had kept most locals from getting sick.

Eager to resume normal life, local leaders lifted quarantines and re-opened schools. Hundreds of Spruce Division soldiers departed for their headquarters in Vancouver. An Ilwaco theater manager promised a special show to celebrate the end of quarantine, and the Jazz Orchestra promoted “the sort of dance that will take the kinks out of your propeller after a long vacation.”

The joy was short-lived. By early December, schools in Chinook, Brooklyn and South Bend had closed again, and Dr. Paul had correctly predicted the epidemic was about to gain a second wind. Fort Stevens, Raymond and many of the logging camps were placed under strict quarantine. South Bend Mayor C.A. Coulter asked Raymondites to stay away from his town.

Health Officer Dr. George Tripp placed the whole county under quarantine. At least 50 cases of flu broke out on the Peninsula, most of them among teachers and students at Ilwaco High School. In Vancouver, 17 of the Spruce Division boys who had recently left the county died of flu.

Conditions were especially bad in the tiny, isolated logging communities along modern-day Highway 6. In Lebam, “someone in almost every family” was sick. Menlo farmer Emil Scholz and his wife became deathly ill, despite having virtually no contact with other people. With no roads near their home and no way of contacting the outside world, the couple had little hope of reaching anyone who could help them.

A stroke of luck saved their lives. In late January, rancher Jessie Smith Johnson, who lived two miles away, spontaneously decided to ride over to the Scholz homestead. She found the Scholzes “helplessly bedridden.” Unable to summon a doctor, she relied on her own nursing training and took care of them herself.

Heroes in white

Due to the war, medical experts were in short supply. Pacific County had only about four doctors and one county-appointed public health nurse, Margaret Hughes. By the second week of January, there was so much demand for home nurses that it was “almost an impossibility to procure any kind of paid help in South Bend,” according to the Pilot. Overworked caregivers neared the point of exhaustion. Hughes was “doing the work of half a dozen women, going from home to home, making fires, washing dishes, cooking and nursing and giving help where it is most needed,” the Pilot said. Between home visits, volunteer-recruiting events and writing advice columns for caregivers, she rushed to Naselle, where terrible weather had made the few existing roads almost impassable, leaving dozens of sick people without the care of a doctor.

By Jan. 20, Tripp, the health officer, had counted about 190 cases of flu in the northern part of the county, at a time when the county’s total population was only about 14,000. Red Cross volunteers had assembled a list of everyone in South Bend and Raymond who had medical training or other useful skills in October. Hughes and Tripp called upon them for help. A cadre of women sprang into action, opening emergency hospitals in a matter of hours and organizing volunteers to make home visits. Teachers, who were on leave due to the quarantine, were among the many women who worked at the hospitals around the clock, without pay.

Some gave all

Pacific County residents finally began to get some relief in February 1919. The number of flu cases began to shrink. Schools reopened, this time for good, and students crammed in extra days to make up for lost time. The quarantines were lifted, and overseas soldiers arrived home to overjoyed families.

By March, life was almost back to normal. But even as the terror of war and disease receded, one final local victim lost her life in service to her country. Jeanette Virginia Barrows was the daughter of Will Barrows, a Chinook Observer artist and writer. A well-known and popular Peninsula girl, Barrows was also remarkably independent for her time. After high school, she went to University of Washington and earned a teaching degree. She went on to a nationally-recognized Army training course for women at Reed College in Portland.

In fall 1918, the Seattle Times announced that she was on her way to New York, and then to an army hospital in war-torn France, as part of the American Expeditionary Forces. Barrows was slated to do “reconstruction work” — physical and occupational therapy with injured soldiers. However, plans changed when the armistice was signed just before her departure.

Army leaders sent Barrows and the other new AEF girls to army bases in the Midwest to wait while they planned their strategy in France. Barrows was assigned to the hospital at Fort Snelling, near St. Paul, Minnesota. While caring for sick soldiers, she caught the flu.

On March 13, her parents received a telegram that said she was deathly ill. Her mother took an eastbound train at the first opportunity, but she never saw her daughter alive again. At a train station in Montana, she learned that her daughter had died of pneumonia on March 15, at the age of 26.

Barrows was buried in Ilwaco. Her grieving friends and family commissioned a plaque to commemorate her service, and displayed it in her family’s church in Chinook. At Chinook School, they planted memorial trees for her and a young soldier who died around the same time. The trees were torn down long ago, but one tribute to her service and sacrifice still stands: the handsomely engraved ornament that decorates her headstone in Ilwaco Cemetery.


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