Christa Rice

In the fall of 1918, over 100 years ago, World War I in Europe was ending, the armistice was declared November 11th, and Claremore and the rest of the world prepared to celebrate as their loved ones returned home from “the war to end all wars.” Yet Claremore with its healing radium waters and restorative spa baths was blindsided by a novel adversary as the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 exploded like a bombshell on its home soil. Two decades before penicillin, with no antibiotics or immunizations available to combat this super virus or the bacterial complications of pneumonia that followed, Claremore citizens labored together with wisdom, self-sacrifice, and courage to launch the offense that eventually silenced this deadly foe.

In early October 1918, The Public Welfare board announced that the Spanish Influenza (eventually identified as H1N1) had arrived, and was gaining a foothold in Claremore. The symptoms in the highly contagious, viral, respiratory disease were, as recorded in The Claremore Messenger [10-11-18] “acute from the onset, often very sudden, with bodily weakness and pains in the head, eyes, back and elsewhere in the body. Vomiting may be a symptom and dizziness is frequent. Chilly sensations are usual and the temperature is from 100 to 104, the pulse remaining comparatively low. Sweating is not infrequent. The appetite is lost, and prostration (physical weakness) is marked. Constipation is the rule. Drowsiness and photophobia (intolerance to light) are common. The fever usually lasts from three to five days; but relapses are not uncommon, and complications, particularly pulmonary, are to be feared.”

Claremore’s medical advisors recommended strict compliance with government regulations; the only weapons available to control the disease at the time. “Influenza is spread by contact … sneezing, coughing, and spitting at which times the discharges from the nose and throat are scattered in the air. Avoid crowds as much as possible including moving picture places, theaters, and other assembly halls… When sneezing or coughing, place your handkerchief before your nose and mouth. Make sure that you are properly clothed... Fresh air is always good. Keep your bedroom windows wide open, and secure as much sleep as possible. Keep the digestive organs in good condition. Drink water freely. Avoid common drinking cups, common towels, and similar utensils. Wash your hands frequently… If you have a ‘cold,’ use utensils for your personal use exclusively… Consult family physician at first onset of symptoms suggestive of influenza. …. F.G. Pernoud, Medical Advisor Southwestern Division, American Red Cross. F.A. Anderson, M.D., J.C. Bushyhead, M.D., W.F. Hays, M.D.” [CP 10-10-1918]

Claremore heeded these warnings as self-imposed quarantine was implemented; schools, movie theaters, churches, sports events, and public gathering places were closed.

The influenza epidemic put “a quietus on business. A tenth of the people are down and the other nine-tenths scared to death,” as citizens, newborn to the elderly, fell prostrate under the influence of an illness that was no respecter of persons. Teece Chambers, C.T. McClellan, S.B. North, the whole Kight family, even Dr. W.F. Hays and daughter were stricken by the malady. The Claremore Messenger [10-18-18] recorded the first local fatalities: Dorsey Harn, 28; Ann E. Rollen, 53; Mrs. Walter (Jewell) Marshall, 28, each died of influenza being complicated by pneumonia.

Yet drastic health measures proved effective. With a sigh of relief, by mid-November schools reopened and the quarantine raised. With the ban lifted, local churches designated their first Sunday back as a day of prayer and thanksgiving. Churches “were all well attended and the services were uplifting from every angle. The influenza epidemic and the great world war have more or less turned the minds of the people to the hereafter and all it holds forth to those who are faithful.” [CP 11-14-18]

But the dreaded enemy was not vanquished completely. Sickness persisted as a new wave of flu cases and deaths surged in mid-December. The Claremore Progress [12-12-1918] reported, “It is estimated by physicians and druggists that there are easily 150 cases in Claremore and a total of 500 cases in Claremore and nearby vicinity. All members of some families are down with the malady. Talk of the return of a quarantine is again heard. When the quarantine was lifted the epidemic had practically disappeared. It is at work again. Whether or not lifting the quarantine prematurely did it, is a matter causing much speculation. The druggists and physicians are working overtime again trying to check the ravages of the disease. The doctors shake their heads when asked about the situation.” Forty-four people died in Claremore and vicinity, October through December, “from influenza with pneumonia complications. This does not include those who died in the country and were buried out there” [CP 12-19-1918]. At the time, the population of Claremore was considered to be 5,250, and the population of Rogers County, 20,000 [CP 2-27-1919].

“It was a sad Christmas as well as a glad Christmas – one long to be remembered in the history of this nation and in the lives of individuals of these times,” admitted The Claremore Messenger [12-27-18], as “one paused to remember with sympathy those homes which have been visited by the hand of the Hun and the Grim Reaper through influenza during the year that is gone.” Baby Coble, newborn; Henry Watson, 4; Lola Vincent 15; Floyd Patterson, 23; Lieutenant Commander John Moore Kates, 28; Tan Ward, 31; J.S. Haney, 34; Gus Keeter, 37; and Johnnie Lee, 40, were among those whose places would remain vacant at the family table. Yet as was shared in the obituary of the Maddox sisters, Florence, 11, and Mildred, 3, “We will not think of them as dead, but as living with the angels in heaven, happy, pure, sweet, and safe from all harm. The sympathy of the entire community is extended to the bereaved ones” [CP 1-30-1919].

Eventually, social distancing and healthful hygiene habits had positive effects. Dr. W.F. Hays, city health officer, reported, “the flu situation in Claremore is showing a little improvement. ‘I do not believe there are as many cases now as a few days ago,’ he said.” [CP 1-16-1919]

As spring turned to summer, mention of any Spanish Influenza cases in the Claremore news ceased. Citizens returned to work; children returned to school.

Yet, as fall 1919 arrived, the County Commissioner of Health, J.C. Taylor, M.D., reemphasized that citizens be wise and take precautions. “Out of door life, sleeping with doors and windows open regardless of the weather, taking proper exercise and using common sense with regard to food, are the best preventatives.” He further suggested avoiding contact with those who were sick; not sharing eating and drinking utensils, and washing “the hands and face several times a day.” In his opinion, “plenty of soap and water and fresh air are the best means of prevention.” [CP 10-16-1919]

Claremore had weathered the winter storm and life returned to normal for most, yet heartfelt empathy was extended to those who had lost loved ones during the siege. Despite trials and tragedies, after four long months of uncertainty, Claremore finally triumphed over its enemy, and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 was vanquished.

Christa Rice is a Claremore history buff and enthusiast.

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