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Dayhoff: Government censorship made the 1918 Spanish flu even worse

An Aug. 8, 1918 Camp Meade letter from the author's grandfather, William Earl Wright, before the first cases of influenza in Maryland appeared at Camp Meade on Sept. 17, 1918. According to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Camp Meade was the first part of Maryland struck by the pandemic and was also the most devastated by it.
An Aug. 8, 1918 Camp Meade letter from the author's grandfather, William Earl Wright, before the first cases of influenza in Maryland appeared at Camp Meade on Sept. 17, 1918. According to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Camp Meade was the first part of Maryland struck by the pandemic and was also the most devastated by it.(Courtesy Kevin Dayhoff)

An article in the Democratic Advocate on Nov. 8, 1918, reported that schools and churches may re-open after being closed in response to the flu epidemic. “Flu Ban Raised — Flu conditions have improved and on Sunday the ban will be lifted in this county… All places in this town, moving pictures, pool rooms, bowling alleys, public meetings, etc., which were closed on account of the epidemic will be opened Monday.”

For those who ponder if history repeats itself, consider that on March 12, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued an executive order that, “Effective immediately, gatherings of more than 250 people … are prohibited at all locations and venues.

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“Planned large gatherings and events must be canceled or postponed until after termination of the state of emergency and the proclamation of the catastrophic health emergency has been rescinded…”

However, the government’s response to the 1918 flu epidemic is in stark contrast to the response to the coronavirus COVID-19 disease outbreak of 2020. This time, the government can talk about it and the press may report upon it. That was not the case in 1918. In 1918 the government essentially banned government leaders and the press from reporting upon the flu epidemic. The results were devastating.

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Let me explain. According to many sources, including a segment on the CBS program, “Sunday Morning,” on March 8, “The 1918 flu epidemic, a cautionary tale,” “The 1918 flu killed 675,000 Americans; 50-100 million people died worldwide. 

Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas, circa 1918.
Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas, circa 1918.(National Museum of Health and Medicine)

“‘That's equivalent to 225 to 450 million people today,’ said John Barry, who wrote a history of the 1918 flu and is on the adjunct faculty of Tulane University. ‘The numbers are staggering… Probably 60-70% percent of the deaths actually occurred in an incredibly short time of probably about 14 or 15 weeks, from late September 1918 through December, maybe a little into January’ …

“In that time, during the final months of World War I, more soldiers died of the flu than were killed on the battlefield during four years of fighting. As opposed to the coronavirus, the most vulnerable were in their twenties.

“It was called the Spanish flu. But that was only because Spain, which was not at war, allowed the press to report on it openly. Unlike here. ... The nation wasn’t told.

“A year earlier, President Woodrow Wilson had rammed through Congress the Sedition Act, making it a crime to say or publish anything negative that would affect the war effort.”

According to Barry, “Wilson created what was called the Committee for Public Information. The architect of that committee said, 'Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms. The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.'"

"In the United States, you had national public health leaders saying such things as ‘This is ordinary influenza by another name.’ At the local level the same kind of thing was occurring. With deadly consequences. ... No more so than in Philadelphia, which went ahead with a huge war bond parade in the fall of 1918 when the virus was at its most virulent. Newspapers killed stories quoting the medical community saying don’t do it. 

"So, 48 hours later, influenza exploded around the city," Barry said. "The result is, it's one of the hardest-hit cities in the world, and the mass graves being dug by steam shovels and so forth." The death toll in Philadelphia was about 14,500.

The 1918 flu epidemic and the end of World War 1 marked the beginning of a complicated social, political and economic matrix of events that continue to have an impact to this day.

Locally 1918 marked the end of the “Golden Age” of Agriculture.  Before 1918, the farm was the social, economic and political center of most people’s lives in Carroll County.

After WW1, that center migrated to the many main streets of Carroll County’s numerous small towns.1918 also began the “Golden Age” of Westminster’s Main Street, 1918–1954. 

1918 also defined what many historians refer to as the “Lost Generation.” The term was first coined by Gertrude Stein. The Lost Generation is a demographic dynamic which is still being felt to this day. From 1914 through 1918, approximately 100 million of the folks born between 1883 and 1900 died from WWI and the flu.

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As a result of the death or absence of so many males, women began to assume leadership roles and became an economic force that demanded participation in making community decisions. This dynamic accelerated women being given the right to vote by the 19th Amendment in 1920. 

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. His Time Flies column appears every Sunday. Email him at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.

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