• Gail S. Blankenau

How did the 1918 Flu Epidemic Affect Your Ancestors?



With physical distancing, lock-downs and quarantines, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is taking a toll in lives and livelihoods. Historians and commentators are already looking to the 1918 influenza epidemic for lessons—and it is clear that our current response builds not only on that experience, but also from other disease outbreaks like SARS, H1N1, and other flu-like viruses.


As we navigate our current circumstances, family historians may also wonder about how the influenza affected their ancestors.



Imagine what it must have been like over a hundred years ago, when antibiotics were unknown, hospitals had fewer resources, and communication channels were far from instant. Although most people in the United States lived in small towns and rural communities, the virus spread throughout the country. Travel, although common, was limited compared to today, and international travel even more so. But the flu outbreak, coupled with World War I, meant that many more people were traveling inside and outside the country, and it is not surprising that the 1918 flu was a true pandemic, killing an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide.


How your ancestors were affected varies greatly. Cities, towns, and rural areas had different experiences. For instance, in Philadelphia, the health service did not respond in a timely manner and with deadly consequences. Indeed, the doctor in charge of public health allowed a large Liberty Loan parade that attracted 200,000 people in September of 1918, and in the aftermath, hospital wards filled quickly. So many people died that there were not enough coffins or gravediggers, and the city eventually dug mass graves with bulldozers. In St. Louis, the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Max Starkoff, reacted quickly and aggressively. He formed a committee with representatives from schools, the Red Cross, public health officials, medical societies, and local businesspeople. St. Louis’s mortality rate was half of Philadelphia’s. The lesson? Leadership matters. [1]


As family historians, we may have heard family stories about the influenza. If not, the first question to ask is if any of your ancestors or their close relatives died during this time period. If you maintain a genealogy database, you can quickly search for all people who died between spring 1918 and spring 1919. You can also compare the 1910 Census to the 1920 census. If someone is no longer in the household, he or she may have died in the flu epidemic.


Once you have identified your candidate or candidates for research, death certificates may help. Bear in mind that many people died of complications from pneumonia or other causes, and it was the doctor’s choice how to answer the cause of death question. Some cities had health departments and these sources can also be checked. Coroners and doctors in hard-hit areas were likely overwhelmed and the quality or accuracy of the data may be questionable. Indeed, there may not even be a death record, as many localities wanted burials to occur as quickly as possible.


Family Sources:

When we can find them, family sources provide stories that bring the reality of how influenza affected families and communities.

Henry Timmerman and wife Barbara Pfeiffer


The Henry Timmerman family of Cuming County, Nebraska, lived on a farm, with eleven children ranging in age from twenty-seven to four. When the flu hit them, it hit hard. The father, Henry, wrote about the experience in 1920. He began with his second daughter Rosa, who “had good prospected to marry a nice young man in the neighborhood, but alas! It was the year 1918":

The armistice had been signed and the terrible world war and mankind were able to breathe a little freer again, when an epidemic-like sickness broke out, called influenza, taking away hundreds and thousand and even millions of lives throughout the world. The hand of the Lord also touched us. Mother and all the children got sick and were bedridden.


I alone did not get sick. But a nameless fear befell me. Not because I was afraid to die but because I was afraid I might get sick too, die, and have to leave my loved ones behind. My loved ones, alone, and unprotected! It was almost impossible to get help from others in those days. Either they were sick themselves or they were afraid to enter other homes. Only outside work was occasionally done by others. In my need and sorrow, I turned to God for help begging HIM not to leave us, persevere until the very last moment. God heard my prayers; I did not get sick. I did all I could do working day and night. The doctor came and went. After about a week I got some help in the person of my sister-in-law who had been sick herself, got better and was willing to assist me. But she was still weak and not able to do any night watch.


On December 24 died Anna, the eldest daughter, the one with the epileptic fits. I laid her out myself, all alone. It was in the evening. Then I took care of my night watch again. I still hoped for the others. Then came the Christmas day and in the afternoon, Rosa departed for a better life, 21 years old. I laid her out, too, putting the two dead sisters together.


My sorrow was great. And yet I felt a great calm in my heart, my soul. I went ahead with my work and nothing could keep me back. Finally, those who had gotten sick earlier began to get better and so on and on. Only son Henry got worse and worse until we finally asked for the help of a specialist from Omaha. But it was all in vain. Henry too, died. He died on the day when his two sisters were laid to rest, December 27, 1918, in his 27th year. All three of them had received the sacraments before they died. The Lord God grant them eternal rest! Thus ended the year 1918, the most sorrowful one ever.[2]

Although not included in Henry’s account, family members were told that Rosa asked to be buried with her sister, with whom she shared so much in life. Henry Timmerman honored her wishes and the sisters were laid to rest together.


In the Oesselke family nearby, young Elizabeth, called “Lizzie,” was Rosa Timmerman’s best friend. She was the sole surviving child of a farm family that had once counted five children. When Rosa and Anna’s funeral was announced, Elizabeth Oesselke wanted to attend, but her mother barred her for fear of contracting the flu there. She cried that entire day, inconsolable that she could not give her friend a proper good-bye. She later related that “I got the flu anyway and I was sick for two weeks.”[3]


Although cities were impacted more than rural areas, the Timmerman case shows that once the virus entered a community, it spread. In the case of the Timmermans, the three oldest children, ages 27, 23, and 21 died, with only 23-year-old Anna having an underlying condition. Doctors looking back at the disease, remark on a so-called, “W-trend,” with spikes in children and the elderly, but with otherwise healthy young adults also affected. The first wave of the disease in the spring of 1918 seemed milder, with mortality rates similar to other outbreaks. It was in August that the more deadly wave hit. Doctors theorize that the virus mutated and “followed the movements of the armies” in Europe. Although the disease was largely over by December, that is when the deadly virus hit the rural Timmerman

family.[4]


There was no effort at contact tracing back then. Examining the nearby West Point, Nebraska, newspaper, for fall and winter 1918, influenza struck hard, particularly at the St. Joseph’s home for the aged, and it may be that the one of the Timmermans or their neighbors visited West Point and exposed themselves, bringing it back with them. The farmers in the surrounding areas attended the same churches and young people often helped their neighbors on a part-time basis. By whatever means the disease reached them, the Henry Timmerman family suffered great loss. At the same time, their strong faith pulled them through their greatest sorrow.


Coming: Part 2 -- How Did the 1918 Flu Epidemic Affect Your Ancestors? Using Online Newspapers.

[1] Jonathan D. Quick, “What We Can Learn from 20th Century’s Deadliest Pandemic,” Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2020, citing John M. Barry, The Great Influenza (New York: Penguin, 2004); “How America Struggled to Bury the Dead During the 1918 Flu Pandemic;” History website, https://www.history.com/news/spanish-flu-pandemic-dead. See also “Mass Grave in NJ contained victims of the 1918 flu epidemic, YouTube, posted January 7, 2019 by www.nj.com [2] Henry Timmerman (1863-1928), from “Our Life Story,” translated from the German, courtesy of James Timmerman. [3] Elaine Ruskamp Blankenau, granddaughter of Elizabeth Oesslke. [4] J. Martini, V. Gazzaniga, N.L. Bragazzi, and I. Barberis, “The Spanish Influenza Pandemic: A Lesson from History 100 years after 1918,” Journal of Preventive Medicine and Hygiene, 60 (1), published online March 29, 2019.

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