Personal histories

During the late summer of 1918, Americans were gripped by news from the European front as World War I neared its end. They didn't dream that a larger, more deadly battle would soon be fought on U.S. soil.

The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed about 500,000 Americans -- more than all of the 20th century wars combined. Its three deadliest months were September, October and November of that year. During October alone, nearly 200,000 people died in this country. It was as if the horrific Sept. 11 attacks happened twice a day. Every day. For a month.

Yet the devastating flu pandemic isn't a part of our national memory. Maybe that is because each death was a personal loss, rather than shared tragedy. Maybe Americans were just more consumed by the last days of World War I than by the flu. Or maybe the writers and photographers were just too sick themselves to fully document the pandemic.

Many of the stories that survive from that time are family lore, passed from generation to generation. We asked for your stories, and heard about life, loss and triumph. Here are some of the stories, compiled by Sun reporter Jason Fraley.

Margaret Burke Allen
Cecelia McGrain of Timonium says her mother, Margaret Burke Allen, often talked about the 1918 influenza epidemic and the devastation it caused the family.

"Her oldest sister, Marie Burke Leonard, died, and so did Marie's only daughter, Betty, who was about 9 years old," McGrain writes. "As I recall the story, there were two nurses who were hired to help, and they also died.

"Imagine four people in one household gone, though I'm certain many families suffered greater losses."

She says Marie left three sons, who were raised by their grandparents, Judge and Mrs. N. Charles Burke of Towson.

"All three brothers were successful in their careers," she writes. "Daniel Leonard became a prominent attorney, Charles Burke Leonard started the Leonard Paper Company, which his sons and grandsons continue to operate today, and David Leonard was a builder of fine custom homes in the Homeland area of Baltimore."

William Walter Appel
When William Walter Appel's aunt, Ida F. Link, died in Baltimore during the pandemic, there were so many people dying that there weren't enough gravediggers to go around. So William Walter Appel and his brother, Bernard, had to bury their aunt themselves at the Baltimore Cemetery.

He told the story to his son Walt Appel of Baltimore years later.

Edna Cross Belt
Edna Cross Belt moved to Baltimore from Indiana just before the influenza hit in 1918.

Though her family was unaffected by the disease -- she herself lived to be 85 -- she remembered the pandemic quite vividly, and passed on stories to her daughter Alice Howe of Baltimore, who was born in 1926.

Howe recalled her mother telling her stories of the neighbors "dropping like flies," and a catchy ditty often heard in the neighborhood:

I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
We opened up the window
And in flew Enza

Jules Bergeret
Jules Bergeret was a "big, strapping man," who owned a New Orleans tavern during the 1918 flu pandemic. By Dec. 11, he celebrated his 32nd birthday and had his second child on the way.

But within the next two weeks, Jules, his mother, his sister and his 25-year-old wife, Alice, all caught the flu. On Dec. 21, Alice suffered a miscarriage, and at 3 a.m. on Dec. 22, Jules himself was dead.

He was buried by 3 p.m. that afternoon. The process was rushed, because so many other people were also dying. To fit his burial into the cemetery's busy schedule, Jules' body was not embalmed, and those closest to him, including his daughter, Lucille, were not able to attend the funeral, because they were all too sick.

After his death, Alice took over the tavern, but said she knew nothing about the business and soon found herself in debt. She sold the tavern and later remarried into the Abernethy family. Her great-niece, Mary Alice Mauser of Glenwood, remembers her as a colorful storyteller. She died in 1983.

Aaron Thomas Bowden
Aaron Thomas Bowden of Sparks was born on Aug. 18, 1918, on East Hoffman Street in Baltimore City. He told his daughter, Ruth Bowden Mascari of Monkton, that Americans didn't know then what a devastating impact the influenza epidemic would have.

"I, of course, do not remember that year but can vividly remember what my parents [Lloyd and Louise Bowden] passed on to me," he told Mascari.

He described Hoffman Street in East Baltimore as "a neighborhood of row houses as tightly packed as oysters in a can, where friends, neighbors, passing 'A-rabbers' with their open carts of produce and goods and others came and went."

"We sat on our front porch or stoop and watched the world go by. But by 1918, the procession that passed the doors was made up of wooden wagons piled with caskets -- some long and heavy and some pitifully small," he told his daughter. "Those same neighbors and friends now dragged wooden boxes (you could hardly call them caskets, really, because they could not make real caskets fast enough) into their homes for funerals and wakes. There were few funeral homes at the time."

Life changed, he told Mascari.

"Neighbors avoided neighbors. Some stopped attending church. My father, a lithographic press operator at Tindeco[CQ] at Boston Street and Linwood Avenue, walked the 50 or so blocks to his job, because my mother was afraid he would get sick if he rode the streetcar. He was a healthy young man -- one of the prime types who seemed to be succumbing to this sickness."

He said that his grandmother, Cassie Jones, traveled from Chincoteague Island, Va., to deliver him, because his mother didn't want anyone from the city. Chincoteague, he said, was "a place seen as safe from the germs because of its remoteness."

Bowden told his daughter that he was "obviously brought into the world successfully, was passed over by the flu, survived two invasions in the Pacific in WWII and have lived to see my great-grandson, Ronald Frere."

He told her, "I count myself a fortunate and blessed man."

Edith Hill Boyd
Edith Hill entered her mother Eliza's room one day in 1918 in Williamston, N.C., and her life was forever changed. There she saw her youngest brother lying on the bed trying to nurse from her dead mother, the latest flu victim. The moment was powerful enough to stick with her the rest of her life. Edith, already a single mother of two, would have to care for her eight younger siblings, five of whom were under 10 years old. Her three oldest siblings went to work sharecropping with relatives, and Edith raised the youngest five with her own two. Eventually, Edith would have nine children of her own, just like her mother. Her youngest child, 72-year-old Evelyn Faulk of Baltimore, provided this account.

She said her mother, Edith, worked in the textile industry and lived to be 98 years old. She did not talk much about the flu pandemic, Evelyn said, only recalling several vivid memories, including a cart traveling the streets to collect dead bodies and the image of her dead mother and hungry brother.

Benjamin Dorman
Benjamin Dorman immigrated from Russia in 1905, settling in East Baltimore and working as a builder and contractor until being killed by the flu at age 68. He didn't go easily, his great-granddaughter Joy Shillman of Pikesville said. Dorman survived nearly three months. He left behind a wife, Golda, eight children and 20 grandchildren.

According to an account in The Sun on Jan. 13, 1919, hundreds turned out for Dorman's funeral. Ten pallbearers carried his casket through the streets of Baltimore in an ancient Russian ritual. This unique last ride, led by a choir, lasted from the Dorman home on 1420 E. Fayette St. to the Aitz Chaim Synagogue on Eden Street, where Dorman had been an active member. There, Rabbi Reuben Rivkin led a memorial service before the coffin was loaded into a hearse and taken to Aisquith Street Synagogue on Aisquith Street. There another sermon was preached, and Dorman's body was finally laid to rest in the Aitz Chaim Cemetery near Lansdowne.

Frances McShea Dougherty
Frances McShea was 16 and living in Manhattan when the flu claimed her mother, Louisa. She later told her daughter, Laura Ragonesi of Chestertown, that her father wasn't around much, and her two brothers were still in Europe, fighting in World War I. Her two older sisters, Clara and Mamie, were training to become nurses.

Winter came early in 1918, and Frances was soon ill. But she tried to continue going to Washington Irving High, where she was a sophomore.

Ragonesi remembers her mother describing the neighborhood.

"Everywhere around, as she said, there were black crepes (or wreaths) on practically every door, indicating the death of someone in the home," Ragonesi said. "Even in her school, the classes got smaller and smaller every day.

"The hospitals were filled to capacity, and any large, vacant building would be used to house the ill and the dying. Not too many people wanted to be part of picking up the dead."

Soon Frances began having high fevers, and her father ran to her sisters' hospitals and they came to help her.

"By this time, [Frances] was semi-conscious, continuing to run a high fever, and completely unable to take any sustenance or liquid. They took over her care and were in charge 24 hours a day," Ragonesi said. "The type of care I cannot elaborate on, but what I do know is that they fed her with an eyedropper, never allowed her to be without coolant on her body, and with whatever they did for her, they brought her through. It took them a week to 10 days to bring her temperature to normal."

Before becoming sick, Frances was regarded as skinny, but afterward, she was regarded as skeletal.

"It took her a long while to regain her strength, but she was always so grateful to her sisters for thinking enough of her to spend that amount of time away from their studies," Ragonesi said. "Thank God [my mother] did not become one of the statistics of the great pandemic."

She said her mother had seven children and lived to be 97 years old.

"My mother lived a wonderful, good life, loved by all, especially me!"

Louise Gansauer
Louise Gansauer was the pregnant mother of two children when she contracted the flu in 1918. She lived in Wilkinsburg, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh, and people walking on the sidewalk outside her home could hear her heavy breathing from inside. Years later, Louise talked about the flu with her grandson, Donald Gansauer of Canton. If she hadn't survived, Donald wouldn't have been born. His father, Roy, was the child Louise was carrying when she became sick.

Henry Geisel
Henry Geisel lived across the street from his sister, Elizabeth Crass, and brother-in-law, Charles Crass, on East Montford Avenue at the time of the 1918 flu pandemic. Elizabeth and Charles would later describe Henry as a mixture of might and meekness. According to his nephew, Charles Henry Crass of Ellicott City, his uncle was described as being so strong "he could almost bend a coin in his hands," to being so gentle that "if he was enjoying a beer at a bar and a disturbance occurred, he would set aside his unfinished beer and quietly leave."

When Henry caught the flu in 1918, his brother-in-law Charles would often visit him and bring his 6-year-old daughter Dorothy, who would sit on Henry's lap and take little bites of the food he was eating. Charles remembered being deathly afraid that Dororthy would also catch the flu by using the same spoon, but he didn't say anything because he didn't want to hurt Henry's feelings.

One day, Henry's condition worsened. He was unable to reach a doctor, so Charles went to a doctor's office he knew on East Baltimore Street and begged that someone go see Henry immediately. The doctor at first declined, saying he had no time to make the visit, but Charles then gave him two options: either going see Henry voluntarily or Charles would take him there himself. This time the doctor agreed, and after arriving at the house and examining Henry, he took Charles aside and said, "The man has no pulse."

Morris and Jenny Gold
Morris Zlotnicki was just 13 years old when he decided to flee anti-Semitism in Poland and come to America in 1905. The teen made the trip across the Atlantic alone, entering the country through Ellis Island, where his name was translated to the English "Gold." He settled in Columbus, Ohio, where some cousins lived, and entered into an apprenticeship first with a watchmaker, and then a jeweler.

In 1917, Morris married Jenny, who was two years younger than he was, and the couple moved to Springfield, Ohio. There, he opened M.M. Gold Jeweler, a store he operated until he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1918. He was stationed about 50 miles away in Chillicothe, Ohio, and caught the flu shortly after arriving.

Because so many other soldiers had been stricken with the flu, there were not enough nurses to go around in Chillicothe. When Jenny heard this, she traveled to the camp to provide care for husband herself, without any formal nursing training. Under her care, Morris recovered, but by that time the war was over and he never went to battle.

The couple moved back to Springfield and had a daughter, Janice, and twin boys, Robert and William. Morris ran M.M. Gold Jeweler until he died of cancer at age 41, and Jenny lived to be 55. Janice, who provided this account, moved to Baltimore as a young woman to attend Goucher College, and eventually settled in Maryland. She's 86 now and lives in Columbia.

Jennie May Graser Habicht
Jennie May Graser was born in southern York County, Pa., and moved to Baltimore in 1913 when she was 17 to begin work at the Baltimore Bargain House. When she contracted the flu five years later, her father, William, and brother-in-law, Lloyd Krebs, drove to pick her up and take her back to her parents' house in Glen Rock, Pa., a dirt-road trip that took about 2 1/2 hours in those days. It took her about six weeks to recover, says her daughter, Dorothy E. Habicht Siegert, of Parkville.

In 1919, Jennie would marry George R. Habicht, who was a member of the 129th Division of the U.S. Army during World War I. They had four children, and Jennie lived to be 101 years old. She died in October 1998, just a month shy of her 102nd birthday.

Annie Belle Harrison
83-year-old Franklin W. Littleton of Bel Air remembers being a boy of about 7, entering Baltimore's Forest Park Presbyterian Church to be baptized, but not knowing he was about to make an important genealogical discovery.

During the ceremony, he became intrigued by an inscription on the baptismal font, reading that it had been dedicated in memory of an Annie Belle Harrison. He questioned his mother, Helen, and learned that Annie Belle Harrison was his grandmother.

Annie Belle Houston was born in Westernport around 1870. She married and had two children, George and Helen. Years later, Helen met Frank Littleton Sr., a soldier in the U.S. Army during World War I, at the same Forest Park Presbyterian Church. After the couple married, Annie Belle Harrison fell victim to the flu. Her daughter, Helen, donated money in her mother's memory for the church's baptismal font, where her son Franklin, would gain a new understanding of his faith and his heritage in the same day.

Karl Haupt
It wasn't until he was 80 that Karl Haupt told his son, Ross, of his family's flu tragedy.

"He told me that when he was 6 years old, the flu was everywhere," the Dundalk man recalls. "When his 2-year-old sister died, his father -- my grandfather -- was so deathly ill that he couldn't go to the funeral. He was even too weak to stand, but they propped him up at the window so he could see the wagon go by with his daughter's coffin. My father stood there with him and saw the coffins, too.

"I never saw my father cry -- and he cried when he told me that story."

Eino Hautala
Life on a farm has to go on, even during a pandemic and a brutally cold winter in northern Minnesota. Eino Hautala lived with 11 brothers and sisters when the flu struck. Not one person in their household became ill, he later told his daughter-in-law, Randi Hautala of Pasadena. But all of the neighbors were ill.

"Each day, he and his siblings would go around to the other farms to tend the livestock," she says. "They would exercise and groom the horses. Clean out stalls and stables. Feed chickens. Milk cows."

One of the most vivid memories he had was of a barn that was being used as a morgue. Because it was too cold to bury the bodies of flu victims, they were "stacked like cordwood until the spring came."

What protected the Hautalas from illness? It could be genetics, Randi Hautala speculates. Longevity runs in the family. Eino Hautala lived to be 90.

Ba-Betty Wilhelminia Herzing Boyer
Eight-year-old Ba-Betty Wilhelminia Herzing suffered from a high fever when the epidemic reached her Baltimore County farm. A man [en dash] either a friend or doctor -- came to the home to help. He told Herzing's mother to cut up onions and pack them around Ba-Betty until the fever went away.

The family credits the home remedy with saving Ba-Betty's life, says her daugher Marie Kramer of Baltimore.

Her aunt told her that the onion remedy was used in the household anytime one of the five siblings became sick thereafter.

In 1932, Ba-Betty Herzing married Harry Burton Boyer. She died in 1990, days after turning 80.

Marie Louise Hidell
As the flu began to fell sailors at the U.S. Naval Base Hospital in Philadelphia in mid-September 1918, nurse Marie Louise Hidell devoted her energies to caring for others. Newspaper accounts from that time say doctors cautioned her about protecting herself.

"Don't worry about me," she reportedly told them. "I guess I am immune and, moreover, this work must be done."

She took charge of admitting 188 patients one night, and then she fell ill herself.

Her younger brother, Henry Robinson Hidell, visited her in the hospital. From behind a glass partition, they could see her skin grow darker and darker as her health failed.

On Sept. 29, she died. She was 39.

She was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for distinguished service during the epidemic. A plaque at the hospital lists her as having died "in the line of duty" during the epidemic.

Years later, Henry Hidell took his daughter Beatrice to see the memorial.

"You always hear about an angel on your shoulder," says 83-year-old Beatrice Hidell Hrab, who now lives in Clarksville. "She's my angel."

Ann Miller
Ann Miller was 2 years old when the influenza pandemic hit, and her Philadelphia-based family worried that she would be especially susceptible to the disease. To shelter her, they decided to place Ann in a secluded room with her father, Alphonse, who was on bed rest recovering from a gall bladder operation. While there, her father invented a game called "Whisper Wolf," where Ann would tie herself to the bed post, wander around like a ferocious animal and only speak in whispers. Her mother, Florine Greenwald Miller, told Ann that this game kept her quiet for days.

Ann, who is now 90, moved to Baltimore about 50 years ago. She now lives in Columbia. In 1989, she was inducted into the Baltimore City Commission for Women's Hall of Fame for her work as a civil rights activist. The Hall of Fame is no longer in operation.

Mary Portera
Mary Portera was born in Baltimore in 1914. When she was 3, she contracted the flu while living in her home on South Paca Street. Though she was too young to remember, she said that her mother, Nora Cannatella, told her stories about how the 1918 influenza was "terrible" and how caskets would pile up outside of the funeral home across the street. Mary suspects her younger brother, Carmelo, also had the flu, but was not completely sure. Nora would eventually have four children and live to be 95. Mary Portera is 92 and still lives in Baltimore.

Helen Ray
Growing up in Baltimore, 74-year-old John "Jack" Ray Jr. heard stories from his father, John Ray Sr., about the aunt he never knew. Her name was Helen Ray, and she became ill with the flu just a week before taking her first job. She died at age 15 in the height of the epidemic, on Oct. 12, 1918.

Though Helen attended Mass daily at St. Bernard's Roman Catholic Church, she was unable to have her funeral service there, due to flu-time restrictions the city placed on public gatherings. Instead, Helen was laid out at her home on Homestead Street and taken straight to St. Mary's Cemetery in Govans.

John J. Serio Sr.

John Serio's life is a tale of immigration, opportunity and cheating the flu. A native of Sicily, John came with his family to America after his father, Joseph, began struggling with his Sicilian fishing business. They settled in Colorado, where Joseph worked as a miner. After several of Joseph's Italian friends spoke of greater opportunities in the harbor city, the family moved to Baltimore.

Once in Baltimore, Joseph started a produce business in Lexington Market called "Joseph J. Serio and Sons." The plan was for John and his four brothers to join the family business, but John's first priority quickly became the U.S. Navy in World War I. The influenza pandemic of 1918 hit the sailors hard, John later told his son, Charles A. Serio of Perry Hall.

John served on the battleship Missouri, where he observed many of his shipmates falling ill. They were taken below decks to the ship's hospital, where they died. When John himself began to experience chills and a slight fever, he worried that he, too, would be taken below, never to return. So he devised a plan to pass doctor's inspection. Before his examination, John placed ice on his tongue and throat, which fooled the doctors into thinking he was fever-free. His symptoms never worsened, and he eventually recovered. John believed his ingenuity had helped him to avoid becoming a victim of the pandemic.

He returned to Baltimore after the war and joined his father's produce company, a business that he said became well-respected in the area. He even claimed that he once ran into George Ruth Sr., the father of Babe Ruth, while delivering lemons and limes to a Baltimore bar. These stories were passed down through the Serio family before John died in 1957, and they now live on through his son, Charles, who is 84.

Amelia Torney
One family credits its survival to two shots a day of whiskey.

Born in 1895, Amelia Torney was a young mother when the epidemic hit their Southwest Baltimore neighborhood. Her oldest child, Albert Torney Jr., caught the flu but recovered, as did many neighbors. Their secret to survival, says Amelia's daughter, Constance Lynch of Catonsville, was a remedy suggested by her doctor: take a shot of whiskey in both the morning and evening every day.

Amelia went on to have 13 children, but did not escape the period unscathed. Her nephew and sister-in-law both succumbed to the virus.

James Welling
James Welling was a 5-year-old living in Baltimore's Walbrook neighborhood when his father, 27-year-old Jacob "Ray" Welling, and his mother, 31-year-old Catherine, both died during the 1918 pandemic. James was sent to live with his uncles in Taneytown.

James never talked about the flu pandemic until his final few years, when he told his son John Welling, 65, of Parkton stories of bodies "stacked up like cords of wood" and an iceman coming around to the houses of the deceased to ice down the living rooms. He said two-thirds of his neighborhood had been wiped out, including some friends who would "be there one day and be gone the next." James also recalled the night he was taken away to Taneytown, how his uncles put a bandana over his face and made him leave Walbrook by horse and buggy with nothing but the clothes on his back.

After finding the transition from urban to rural life difficult, James returned to Walbrook several years later to live with his mother's sister, Mary. He survived the Great Depression, worked in the shipyard during World War II and joined the Bureau of Recreation in Mount Pleasant, where he has a park named after him for his commitment to youth recreation. He died at age 62, having lived twice as many years as his father.

John searched for 30 years to locate his grandparents' burial plots. For awhile, the quest seemed impossible. Once he says he was even told by the employees of Green Mount Cemetery that he was wasting his time. They told him that his grandparents were most likely buried on "flu hill," a site where people dug trenches for unmarked, mass graves during the pandemic. John persisted, however. He was able to locate their burial plots in Baltimore County's Woodlawn Cemetery and install tombstones.

Janet Villiers Wernsdorfer
Janet Villiers McSherry was born in 1893 into a family that owned clipper ships that sailed from Baltimore to China and India. But after a series of failed business deals, her father, Eugene McSherry, had lost most of the family money. In 1912, Janet married Anthony Wernsdorfer and gave birth the next year to Rovan Anthony Wernsdorfer, choosing the name from a French history book.

Janet was a rather artistic woman, making pen and ink drawings of Gibson Girls, illustrating the yearbook for the Virginia Military Academy, and designing place favors for her party guests. She also loved the outdoors, often taking Rovan on walks into the woods.

But when Rovan was just 5 years old, Janet developed pneumonia and entered the hospital. There she contracted the flu and died suddenly on Jan. 3, 1919. Her death devastated Rovan, who later passed Janet's story down to his own son, Rovan Vernon Wernsdorfer of Baltimore.

He told his son later how his grandmother, Katie McSherry, picked him up to kiss his mother in her coffin. He also remembered looking out from a small window in the attic to see a big, black hearse, pulled by two black horses, arrive at his house on the corner of Bellview and Groveland Avenue in West Arlington, Va., to take his mother to her burial plot.

Mary Bond Wilson
Mary Bond Wilson was born in Sandgates in St. Mary's County in 1898. At age 20, just as the pandemic was beginning, she moved in with relatives in Baltimore while she studied at Strayer Business College. While there, she received word that her father, John Bond, had died of the flu. She caught the next boat home down the Chesapeake Bay. As soon as she arrived, however, her mother forced her to immediately return to Baltimore, fearing her daughter might also catch the disease. Mary did not even get to attend her father's funeral, despite being very close to him before she left for college.

She would later marry and live in Baltimore until retirement. At that time, she wrote her early life story in 11 pages to her granddaughter, Donna Velean Mulvenney of Crownsville. She died in 1990.

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