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THE FLU IN ALFRED 1918 & 1919

by Bruce R. Tucker, Oct. 2020

The Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than the battlefields of WWI. Only 3% of those infected died from the disease but one fifth of the population of the world was infected, over 20 million. This particular virulent strain of flu was unusual as it was most deadly for those between the ages of 20 to 40, making veterans among the most susceptible. Enduring life in the trenches through brutal conditions was tough enough, the influenza only made it worse. Stateside, approximately 675,000 Americans died during the epidemic, ten times as many as were lost in the war.


Camp Devens in Massachusetts- where Alfred soldiers mustered and trained- happens to have been the first U.S. Army camp affected by the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919. The arrival of the epidemic in the United States has been pinpointed to Tuesday, August 27, 1918, at Commonwealth Pier in Boston. Influenza infected civilians in Boston and on September 8 [1918], the flu arrived “completely unheralded” at the Army's Camp Devens, outside of the city. Within 10 days, the base hospital and regimental infirmaries were overwhelmed with thousands of sick trainees[1].

In September 1918, Dr. Victor Vaughn, acting surgeon general of the army, received orders to proceed to Camp Devens near Boston. On the day he arrived, sixty-three men died from the virus. By the end of September 1918, 14,000 Soldiers at the camp were sick, a quarter of its population- 757 of those men died.

Before any travel ban on soldiers could be imposed, a contingent of replacement troops departed Devens for Camp Upton, Long Island, the Army's debarkation point for France, and took the deadly influenza with them. Influenza reached all Army training camps in America within a month, arriving September 8 at Camp Devens, September 13 at Camp Upton, September 21 at Camp Grant [Illinois], September 26 at Camp Cody, and then on to the West Coast, arriving October 8 at Camp Fremont, [California], and October 9 at Camp Lewis, [Washington]. From September through November 1918, influenza and pneumonia sickened 20% to 40% of U.S. Army and Navy personnel.

Lew Gordon- from Lyman but lived on Kennebunk Rd many years- was drafted late in the war and recalled arriving at Ft. Devens by train. On one side of the tracks sprawled the huge camp; on the other side stood a mountain of boxes, containing – he assumed- military supplies. On closer inspection, Lew determined they were an enormous pile of coffins ready to convey flu struck soldiers back to their families. Lew trained using a wooden stick for a rifle but the war ended before he could put his stick to good use against the Hun- he came home to live a long life.

Reading local newspapers, written at the height of the pandemic, one is struck by the frequent mention of soldiers home from Ft. Deven on leave or holidays. There seemed to be a constant stream of recruiters, enlistees and soldiers moving between Alfred and the fort. Whole families would travel to Devens to bring the comforts of home to their soldier boys. This, of course would provide a perfect opportunity to spread the flu that raged in the camp into the hinterlands. There seemed to be few restrictions on travel or interaction with civilians. The wonder is that more did not die in Alfred from the flu.

The war effort proved to be the perfect vehicle to spread the disease- cramped barracks and troop ships and soldiers moving on a global scale. Many Americans headed to the front funneled through Brest France. At the end of the war, American troops congregated in Brest for transshipment home. An absurd number of sick soldiers in port and in close quarters, made Brest a virtual petri dish of disease transmission. Departing France, part of the 54th Regiment- the primary unit Alfred men were enlisted- sailed 23 February 1919 on the Vedic arriving in Boston 7 March 1919. The remaining part of the Regiment sailed for Boston on February 25th, 1919 aboard the Battleship USS Nebraska and went to Camp Devens, Mass., March 6, 1919. The regiment was demobilized March 13, 1919 at Camp Devens, Mass. and the soldiers headed home- taking their disease with them.

The Brown Emmons American Legion Post was named for two local soldiers WW1 Veterans Lyman W. Brown and Wilbur Emmons. Lyman Brown was born in Lyman but lived in Alfred the greater part of his life. He was stationed in Watertown Arsenal on guard duty and contracted pneumonia. Brown left the Arsenal and returned home, dying a few days later, Jan-12-1918. Brown’s death occurred before the pandemic reached Americas. Wilbur Emmons, cook, Batt D, 54 Coast Artillery Corps, served in France and died Feb-19-1919, in Brest, France of the influenza- days before the regiment sailed for the states. An Alfred boy, his home was in the Gore.

Alfred Civic Responses

Town report for 1919- ending 2-21-1919- [p. 28, 29][2] School Superintendent report: “The influenza interrupted the work of the fall term [1918] and it will be necessary to continue some of our schools until the last of June to complete the full school year… Our several Boards of Health have carefully and persistently performed their duties and several committees have done all in their power to guard the children and the general public against the ravages of the worst epidemic that has invaded our public schools for many years….the handicap of closing six weeks on account of the influenza will be overcome before the year closes. “

Librarian's report [1919 p.25, 26] “Notwithstanding the scourge of the influenza and other diseases at home, and the ravages of the world war in this as well as other lands, the citizens of Alfred have maintained their interest and pride in the beautiful Memorial Library building and its valuable contents… During the epidemic of influenza in the fall and early winter the library was closed for two weeks…”.

By the date of the 1920 town report, the pandemic and the war seems firmly in the rear view and barely rated a mention. The 1920 report was far more concerned with an epidemic of mumps which greatly disrupted the 1920 school year- apparently more than the influenza pandemic the previous year. “From the middle of December [1919] to Feb 17 many pupils have found it necessary to be absent because of the mumps. This has so seriously hampered school work that it has been found impossible for them to make up their work outside of school hours…”. The principal suggested a couch be put in the girls cloak room for ill out of town students so they would not have to lay on a settee covered by an overcoat. P.35

Alfred Vital Stats

When the annual town report was tallied for 1918, one fact jumps out- no one died of the influenza…or, at least, no doctor stated influenza as a cause of death. Physicians varied greatly in how they described cause of death. Some merely stated the disease was pneumonia [infection of one or both of the lungs caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi] ; Others tried to refine their diagnosis and termed it lobar pneumonia [affects one or more sections (lobes) of the lungs] or broncho-pneumonia [inflammation in the airways]. Hence, crediting Spanish Flu with for a death is highly subjective.

In the 1919 town report [ending Feb 1919, covering much of 1918] you would expect to find the elderly succumbing to pneumonia in a normal year so the presence three Alfredian age 61 to 92 is not a surprise. [3] But they all died by April 1918- before the flu arrived in America. The next possible victim was David W. Jordan [age 38, dod 12-1-18, bron-pnu]- the timing and age of the deceased clearly suggest he died of the flu. David Jordan lived in the village in 1910 with his mother, Liza E. Jordan. They took in a boarder to make ends meet. Jordan’s draft record state he was a lumber surveyor and likely worked for a local sawmill scaling lumber. He was taken back to his hometown and buried at Tory Hill, Buxton.

Under the heading –Died Away, Buried Here- we find Mary F. Hezelton- mother of Evangeline [Van] Clark. Mary Francis Donovan was the wife of Joseph Howard Hezelton of Westbrook and sister to John B. Donovan of Alfred. Mary died in a Portland apartment, age 32, [ Sept-9-1918, Broncho pneumonia]. Van was about five years old, recalls watching her father sobbing at the kitchen table [the only time she saw him cry] and then men brought a large wicker hamper into the bedroom. She never saw her mother again. Van had the flu herself and was put on a train where her uncle was conductor and shipped off to Alfred to live with her uncle John B. Donovan who had acquired the family home. To soothe the sick child during the train ride, Van’s uncle gave her his conductor’s watch which she pressed to her ear for the entire ride. For the rest of her long life, Van found the ticking of a clock peaceful and quieting. Van and her sister lived in the old log jail [Northwind Archives 2020]. Mary Donavan Hezelton’s age and death date corroborate the flu was likely her cause of death, however, since she died in Portland, she is not considered an Alfred death.

By the time the 1920 town report came out, physicians knew what they were dealing with and used influenza as cause of death. Again, the elderly and very young in Alfred made the list; William Litchfield [age 91, dod 2-23-19, infl], Donald Yates [age 7 mos, dod 4-19-19, influ], Forrest Daney [4 days, dod 4-22-19,influ]. So… the Alfred two year total for 1918 & 1919 is four souls- one elderly, two infants and one 38 year old- David W. Jordan.

[2] A single School Superintendent served Alfred, Lyman, Limerick and Waterboro [25 schools] beginning in 1918. Union District #6. Primarily to employ a superintendent but funding was based on town valuation. When appropriations did not meet expenses Alfred and Lyman increased their appropriation to make up the shortfall- Limerick and Waterboro did not. [P. 27] [3] Clara Emery [age 61, dod 2-3-18, lobar pnu.], Sarah M. Kendall [age 92, dod 2-11-18, lobar pnu.], Esther Trafton [age 71, dod 3-28-18, pnu]

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