The deadly year of the 1918 flu

Scott Wagar


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If individuals make sojourns throughout the northwest section of Oak Creek Cemetery they will notice that the month of October and the year 1918 is located on numerous tombstones throughout that section of the cemetery. Over 90 years ago this month, one of the most violent flu epidemics quickly spread across the world killing anywhere from 20 to 50 million people worldwide. This flu was known as the 1918 Spanish Flu and it was the deadliest flu virus the world, and Bottineau County, has ever seen.

To understand the severity of the 1918 flu, if one takes the high end of deaths by the flu, 50 million, that would have equaled three percent of the world population (which in 1918 was 1.86 billion people) and 500 million people were infected.

The Spanish Flu was an air-bourne virus which caused chills, a fever, headache, backache, sneezing, coughing, a sore throat and nasal discharge. The virus would cause the cells lining the nose, throat and lungs to die. The dead cells would drain into the lungs, causing them to fill up with fluid, which would leave the patients literally drowning to death in their own beds.

Individuals who contacted the flu would die within five to seven days after being infected and suffered terribly as they died.

This flu was so volatile that when it entered into a city, the town which was infected by the Spanish Flu would call or send a wire down the road to the other neighboring towns about its misfortune. In turn, those towns would begin to build coffins in preparations of the flu entering into their communities.

Oddly, with such news, a rhyme about the flu was created which became popular on the playgrounds the school kids skipped rope on:

“I had a little bird,
Its name is Enza,
I opened the window,
And in-flu-enza.”

The flu actually started in January of 1918 and lasted through December of 1920. In America, it is estimated that 30 million people died from the flu, and it’s uncertain how it entered into the country.
In North Dakota, it’s believed that 3,000 individuals perished from the 1918 Spanish Flu and it’s precisely known how the flu came to the state.

In late September of that year, a U.S. Marine was home on leave in New Rockford, N.D., and was recovering from the flu. The Marine, who at that time in late September, had no real idea what he had carried into the state, had a number of visitors.

In short order, the flu captured the town by surprise.

A week after the Marine had been home, it was announced in the Grand Forks Herald that there were 100 cases of the flu and two deaths within New Rockford. Within a week after the Herald’s announcement about the flu cases in New Rockford, the entire state was seeing cases of the Spanish Flu.

The epidemic was becoming so out of hand, the state, like the nation, declared that all public meetings and social activities were to shut down if the flu entered into their cities.

Bottineau didn’t fair any better than any other town in the state in that month of October and lost a number of its residents.

The first mention of the Spanish Flu in the county came on October 10 in the Bottineau Courant with the front page headline, Influenza Cases in City.

“Bottineau has a number of cases of Spanish Influenza but local doctors have the situation well in hand and serious results are not expected,” the Courant stated. “The schools and School of Forestry have been closed and it is expected that action will be taken by city officials to put a ban on public gatherings until the danger period is passed.”

Seven days later, on October 10, local residents reading the Bottineau Courant didn’t have to read too far to discovery the situation wasn’t under control. The front page had numerous death notices and announcements of cancelled public activities due to the “rapidly increasing number of influenza cases over the county.”

Bottineau wasn’t the only town in Bottineau County to be infected with influenza. The virus had made its way throughout the county and made each and every community a ghost town, leaving dozens dead and filling up the county’s cemeteries with graves.

Due to the flu, the county literally ceased to exist – local residents went home, hid behind close doors and hoped the flu wouldn’t find them.

One primary problem during the epidemic was that communities were short of physicians and nurses due to the fact that a large number of the nation’s medical personal were in Europe assisting soldiers in World War I.

The shortage of doctors made it difficulty for the remaining few physicians to care for the large number of people who were ill with the flu.

During that dark month of October in Bottineau County, one man struggled and worked harder than any other person in the county, Dr. J.A. Johnson, a physician in Bottineau who became the principal physician in caring for the 1918 flu.

Johnson spent almost the entire month working day and night attending to those ill with the Spanish Flu. Working so long and hard, and being around so many patients with the flu, Johnson eventually came down with the flu, himself.

Johnson, whose home and hospital was located on Main Street in the same building which is Ali’s Coffee House today, had passed out while attending to the sick and laid unconscious for a number of days.

On a quiet Sunday morning, October 13, just days after Johnson became ill with the flu, a man walked out of Dr. Johnson’s home and hospital, walked across the street to the west, went to the alley in the middle of that block where the local fire bell was located, and he began to ring the bell in honor of one of Bottineau’s most influential resident who had died of the 1918 Spanish Flu.

For Johnson, after spending days unconscious, he awoke on that Sunday morning when his fever broke from the flu. However, on that morning, those who attended to him had to tell Johnson his wife, Emma, had contacted the flu and passed away earlier that morning.

Emma was one of the most beloved and respectable woman in Bottineau. She spent her time carrying for those who were sick in Johnson’s hospital, she was a church and community volunteer and a friend to all.

She became sick on Wednesday with the flu and was gone by Sunday morning. She was 38 years old and she left behind her husband and two young daughters, and her death brought great sadness to the communities of Bottineau County.

As quick as the flu came, it disappeared and the towns of Bottineau County, missing numerous family members and loved ones, adapted, with sadness, but moved forward.

Today, in the northwest corner of Oak Creek Cemetery one will find a large pine shrub. Under the shrub one will find a small headstone with the name “Emma” and the dates March 10, 1880 – October 13 1918. Next to Emma is her husband who passed away in 1956.

No family was safe from the 1918 Spanish Flu and almost every family was affected by the flu. When one sees Emma’s grave it’s a sad remembrance of how a virus came and changed the lives of almost every family in Bottineau County and the world.