Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Spanish Flu of 1918 and Family History

US. Naval History and Heritage Command Photo #: NH 41731-A

The Spanish Flu of 1918

Years ago I heard the story of a family member who died during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. It was interesting to me at the time, but even more interesting now with the Bird Flu epidemic.  It is well worth revisiting and re-investigating the story.

Between 1918 and 1919, an estimated 21.5 million people died of the “Spanish Flu” worldwide. However, the exact numbers are unknown. It is thought that about 675,000 Americans died, more than the total number of Americans who died in World War I. The dead were mostly young people, since survivors of an 1890 flu pandemic seemed to have immunity. This is surprisingly similar to what seems to be happening today, with people under 25 having a higher mortality rate than those who survived another flu epidemic in the 1970’s.

Frozen tissue samples show that the 1918 Spanish Flu was a variant on the influenza A virus, subtype H1N1. Sound familiar? However, remember that this was before penicillin could cure the ensuing pneumonia infections, and this 1918 strain had some nasty hemorrhagic side effects.

I was also surprised to read that the first American cases of the 1918 outbreak were in Boston. Several sailors came down with it on August 27th, followed by 8 more on the 28th, and 58 cases on the 29th. Two weeks later over 2,000 military men had the flu, because the sick soldiers were taken to the Chelsea Old Soldiers Home. By September the flu had reached Fort Devens. By January 16, 1919 about 45,000 people had died from the Spanish Flu in Massachusetts alone.

I now live in New Hampshire. It is interesting to note that since it was a rural state, New Hampshire had the least deaths in New England. The city of Manchester had set up some rather severe quarantines and restrictions on closing all soda fountains, and requiring restaurants to boil dishes. These strict regulations may have saved some lives.

In our family tree the flu victim was Waldo Emerson Cooper. He had married my great Aunt Lenora “Lena” Carrie Allen in 1912. On his World War I draft registration card, dated June 5, 1917, Waldo listed that he was a leather worker and bookkeeper, employed by James R. Cooper, his father, in Westborough, Massachusetts. He also listed a wife and two children as dependents, residing at 11 Beach Street. That fall, during the influenza outbreak, he died.

Aunt Lena was left widowed at age 24, with three babies. My grandfather, her brother, stepped in to become the man of the family, and left high school at age 14. He filled in for Waldo’s job at the family tannery, and Lena worked evenings playing the piano at silent movie theaters. To ease her burden, the smallest boy was adopted by the Cooper family, and possibly the other children was adopted, too.

Later, Aunt Lena remarried and lived a new life in Connecticut. Her first children remained in Westborough, but she adopted a new son. However, this story is not just about her first husband dying of the influenza. The death set up a chain of events in the family that could never be reversed. My grandfather never returned to school, and led a life of hard labor, including 40 years as a glazier at a large factory in Beverly. One of the little orphaned boys went to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, and the family rarely heard from his afterwards. Aunt Lena’s children were raised by her relatives. Even though she was able to set up a new life in Connecticut with her new husband and child, I’m sure that the memories of her first marriage were hard ones. And this is the just the story of one death due to the pandemic that took over a half million Americans.

Family Group Information:

Joseph Elmer Allen and Carrie Maud Batchelder, resided in Essex, Massachusetts, had five children, including their oldest child….

Leonore Carrie Allen, born 20 March 1894, Boston, Massachusetts, died January 1973 in Stamford, Connecticut; married first on 29 December 1912 in Essex, Massachusetts to Waldo Emerson Cooper, born 21 March 1890 in Somerville, Massachusetts, died 1918 during the influenza pandemic. He was the son of James R. Cooper and Ada Steves Oram; married second to Thomas J. McCormack.

Three children with Waldo Emerson Cooper

1. Charles
2. Waldo, born about 1913
3. Carolyn, born about 1915




America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, by Crosby, Alfred. (Cambridge University Press). Available online for a limited preview on Google Books


Copyright 2009, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. I had read a book about the 1918 epidemic (Spanish Flu or Spanish Lady) but had never heard about the epidemic in 1890. My grandparents had been born about that time.

    It is interesting how one small event can change lives forever.

  2. This epidemic caught everybody by surprise, because they were just beginning to learn germ theory and had no adequate ideas about how the flu was spread. "The Great Influenza," by John Barry, gives a detailed, scientific, and horrifying account of the effects of this flu in our country.

  3. My gt. grandmother died during this flu outbreak. She was a widow, living with one of her sons in Georgetown, Newfoundland. One of the grandsons came down with the flu also, and, according to his niece, was in a coma like condition for two weeks. He survived but when he woke up, he found he had lost his grandmother, a sister and two brothers while he was unconscious.

  4. The first case was observed in Fort Riley, KS. This was in March 1918.

    I was researching activities around last issue of The Massachusetts Magazine. For one, WWI took people away. Too, many of the contributors and editors were from the Civil War era and were passing on.

    Then, I remembered the flu. That would have kept the MDs, and other medical staff, busy. Who needs a magazine?