Editor’s note: This is the first column in a two part series.
In mid-August 1918, a young woman was laid to rest in the Zorn cemetery. At 23 years of age Emma Lehmann, nee Neutnagel, had only been married for a few months when a sudden mysterious illness took her life within days of contracting it. The Seguiner Zeitung, (still published in German in the midst of the Great War), called it “Nervenfieber (nervous fever). A large crowd of mourners attended Emma’s funeral.
Seguin did not yet have a word — in either German or English — for the wave of lethal infections that was about to crash over the country and take the lives of well over half a million Americans, most of them young and previously healthy.
Elsewhere, public health officials had already sounded the alarm about what was called the “Spanish influenza” because it was first reported in neutral Spain in May 1918. Army trainees in Fort Riley, Kansas, as early as March, died in large numbers and quickly of a pneumonia-like illness that had not been identified or classified yet. Those who did not die of the disease shortly after shipped out to Europe to join the Western front.
By early September sick returning soldiers showed up along the Eastern seaboard. On Sept. 30, Camp Travis, a few miles from downtown San Antonio, reported cases of the deadly influenza. Within days, the camp went into a total shutdown. Fort Sam Houston also reported the disease spreading among soldiers and nurses. Still, the city’s health official was optimistic, even though there were already hundreds of cases reported in the civilian community. This was nothing more than an ordinary wave of “la grippe,” Dr. William Anthony King opined. Good ventilation systems and barring sick people from frequenting entertainment venues would halt the spread of the disease.
It did not. On Oct. 7, acting-Texas Gov. Reinzi Johnston, following the advice of the U.S. surgeon general and his own public health officials, called on localities to ban public gatherings and close schools, churches and entertainment venues if the conditions in the community called for such drastic measures
Local officials did not like this one bit. Dr. King in San Antonio declared that there was no cause for alarm, and that closures or bans on public meetings were unnecessary. His unfounded optimism was echoed in other places. The Denton County health office, for example, did not see the suspension of schools, churches and public gatherings as justified, despite the fact that there was “a great deal of sickness in the county” and Denton’s College of Industrial Arts (now Texas Women’s University) reported many students being ill, including one seriously. “Grippe Situation… Well in Hand” blared the headline in the local paper. On the same page, there was a paid advertisement for Pape’s Cold Compound, which would “end grippe misery.”
Snake-oil salesmen and the denial of facts by local officials did nothing to stop the developing epidemic. The disease spread within communities in schools and colleges and wherever large crowds gathered. Travelers took it all across the state of Texas.
To be continued…