By Sue Blesi
Franklin County Historian
Many households are dealing with one of the worst outbreaks of influenza we’ve had for many years so it seems like a good time to revisit the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919.
The present flu “bug,” while unpleasant, doesn’t hold a candle to the 1918-1919 epidemic.
The Spanish Influenza epidemic spread west from Boston to Chicago and on to St. Louis in the fall of 1918. Dr. Max C. Starkloff, who was the health commissioner for St. Louis, watched the progress of the epidemic toward Missouri.
Proactive and ahead of his time, Starkloff wrote an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, advising people on steps they should take to avoid the dreaded influenza, which was often complicated by pneumonia and followed by death. Death certificates during the influenza epidemic often stated pneumonia was the cause of death.
Several men at Jefferson Barracks were reported to be sick with the malady by Oct. 1. A few days later, there were 500 cases. The military base was 10 miles from St. Louis, but it soon spread into the city. Starkloff, along with Mayor Henry Kiel (who was a cousin of Franklin County historian Herman Gottlieb Kiel) eventually decided to take drastic action. He ordered that schools, churches, theaters and all forms of public amusement be closed, and banned all public gatherings.
By January 1919, the epidemic had spent itself and few cases were reported.
It was reported that 31,500 people developed influenza in St. Louis and 1,703 had died. However, that was half the number who had succumbed in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. About 670,000 people across the United States died and the worldwide death figure was between 20 and 40 million.
My maternal grandmother, Belle Dean Lathrom Medlock, 30, died of Spanish Influenza in southern Missouri. My grandfather had died of tuberculosis two years earlier, leaving my widowed grandmother to raise five young girls. She remarried, but died soon afterward, leaving five orphaned children, ranging in ages up to 13. They were taken to different homes where my mother and her sisters were expected to work to help their benevolent caretakers.
The epidemic continued to the West Coast. Phoebe Apperson Hearst, one of Franklin County’s most famous residents, succumbed to the same illness April 13, 1919, at her hacienda in Pleasanton, Calif.
In 1996, Dorothy Kramme Baker stated, “The deadly influenza epidemic spread through the St. Clair area like wildfire during World War I.” Her entire family fell victim to the dreaded malady, but everyone recovered. Dorothy, who was only of preschool age at the time, had to learn to walk again after her health returned.
The epidemic struck the large Henry Schloss family who lived near the Bakers. Dorothy recalled their children — Floyd, Robert, Grace, Everett, Millard, Viola, Claud, Thelma, Charley and Daisy — were all very sick. Viola died. Dorothy remembered that her father went to the Schloss home to take care of the sick children during the funeral because they were too sick to attend. Everett died a few days after Viola’s funeral.
Dr. William E. Kitchell of St. Clair was the county health officer during the epidemic. He was required to go wherever there was a contagious disease. He would tack a “Quarantined” card on the house and no one was allowed to come or go. The man of the house, if healthy, was allowed to put on clean clothes and stay elsewhere so he could continue working until the danger had passed and he could return home. Dr. Kitchell’s daughter, Helen, recalled that her father didn’t take his clothes off for three days and three nights during the influenza epidemic.
Emil Matthias Blumer of Berger died Nov. 8, 1918. He was 24 years old when he was struck down by influenza. He was the son of Esaias Blumer and a brother to Samuel, Herman and Ernst Blumer, Julia Scarbrough, Martha Strothmann, Flora, Anna and Selma Blumer.
Clayton T. Cantley was born near Berger and grew up 4 miles south of New Haven. He was 32 years old and married with one son, Price. He was the son of J. P. Cantley, a brother to Euguene Cantley, Mrs. Otto Althage and Mrs. Edna Sievers. His wife was the former Miss Julia Koch.
Another victim in the New Haven area was Guy Kopp, age 34. He died at Kansas City in November 1918. The son of Theodore Kopp, his siblings were Edwin, Arthur, Frank, George, William, Alfred, Emma Bleckmann, Sister M. Duledia, and Mrs. Henry Luecke.
Well-known Prosecuting Attorney Frank Jenny lost his first wife to influenza when he was a young man. Helena C. (Buescher) Jenny died in March 1919, leaving two young children, Letha and Vance Jenny. Her parents, Anton and Elise (Warnebold) Buescher, helped Frank raise the children, who are remembered by many area residents. Letha married L. J. Williams, who owned several theaters, including one in Union. Frank Jenny married Loraine Mueller in 1928.
Anna Rechenmacher was teaching school in Robertsville when she came down with influenza. Mary Beasley was teaching at Duemler, but the rural school had to be closed due to the epidemic. Richard Pedrotte, who lived in the Hickory Flat School District, lost his son, Ambrose, age 9. The following Friday, his wife died.
Dr. S. F. Wilmesheer, a dentist who once practiced his craft at Pacific, shot his wife then killed himself in Bourbon in 1923. The Franklin County Record reported, “It is said he became mentally deranged as a result of an attack of influenza some time ago.”
The Republic Headlight reported that, “Influenza is very serious all over.” That pretty well summed up the severity of the epidemic in Franklin County and throughout the nation.
There were many other cases of influenza in the county. Perhaps some of you will contact me to tell me your family’s influenza story.
To contact Sue Blesi, call 573-739-9201or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marcella McDonald called me this week to correct a couple of names that were in my last column about early floods. The names of two ladies were misspelled. They should have been Viola Suhre and Bertha Cason. One was misspelled by the old newspaper I was working from and the other was partially blotted out making it difficult to decipher. Anytime readers find an error, I always appreciate being told about errors I have made so I can correct them.
Local History Class
I’m taking advantage of this newspaper space to remind readers to sign up for the local history class at East Central College. It starts Thursday evening at 7 p.m. and will run for eight Thursday evenings in March and April. The classes are held in the one-story training center building that is off to the left of the main campus and has its own parking lot, making it accessible for young and old.
To sign up, call 636-584-6529 or show up at the first class. Walk-ins are permitted for $12 per evening. There are two speakers each evening. Join the group and share in the fun!