Living with the ramifications of the deadly Spanish flu of 1918

War and flu a deadly combination in 1918

It was Oct. 11, 1918, and the headline of the Democratic Advocate addressed the local impact of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918.

The headline read, "The Grip Epidemic: Disease Spreading, But No Occasion for Panic," according to research for the Historical Society of Carroll County by historian Mary Ann Ashcraft.

Paradoxically, the article then explained the apocalyptic ramifications of the flu epidemic.

"The article mentioned the outbreak had begun about 10 days before and 'drastic steps throughout the nation are called for' … It disclosed the flu was 'unchecked' in army camps where the country's youth were being trained for the fight overseas. Hospitals in Washington, D.C. were filled to capacity," reported Ashcraft. "Just a week after the October 11th article appeared, death notices filled four columns in the Advocate."

Many may know of this dark moment in history as the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. It was still discussed in hushed tones in Carroll County families as late as the 1950s and 60s.

The next time you are in one of Carroll's older cemeteries, take note of all of the tombstones with a 1918 date or early 1919.

To this day, the 1918 outbreak of the flu is still considered this country's worse epidemic. It continues to shape a current approach to public policy that emphasizes annual vaccination initiatives and concerted measures to fight the spread of the disease.

Some historians define the epidemic as beginning in March 1918 and lasting through November.

However, deaths in Carroll County continued well into 1919.

According to some accounts, the epidemic killed more than 50 million people world-wide. For some context, the total of killed, wounded or missing casualties in World War I was approximately 39 million world-wide.

According to the National Archives, "One fifth of the world's population was attacked by this deadly virus. Within months, it had killed more people than any other illness in recorded history…. The flu afflicted over 25 percent of the U.S. population. In one year, the average life expectancy in the United States dropped by 12 years."

For social and economic historians, the 1918 flu epidemic and the end of World War 1 marked the beginning of a complicated set of social, political and economic 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 in Carroll County.

After World War I, that center migrated to the many main streets of Carroll County's numerous small towns. At about the same time, Westminster was assuming the role of the center of an increasingly bureaucratized county government and was becoming a well-organized social, economic and mercantile center. In fact, 1918 began the "Golden Age" of Westminster's Main Street, 1918–1954.

For many historians, the era is referred to as the "Lost Generation." The term was first coined by Gertrude Stein, who got the idea from her auto mechanic. 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 World War I or the flu.

One of the immediate results of the "Lost Generation" on society was the role of women in society was changed forever as they left the farms and entered the mercantile and industrial workforce in unparalleled numbers.

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.

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