The Spanish Flu

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Pullman and the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918-1919

The great flu epidemic of 1918-1919 was a terrible disaster, almost unprecedented in world history, and yet it is topic overshadowed and masked by the tragedy of World War I. In looking through issues of the Pullman Car Works Standard of the time, it is interesting to see the effects that the flu had on Pullman. Interspersed with the history of the plague are anecdotes from the Standard.

The Spanish flu, as it is commonly known, was a category 5 influenza pandemic that claimed more people than the Black Plague. Between 50 and 100 million people died, some 5% of the world's population, and as many as 25% suffered from it. In contrast, the military and civilian deaths in World War I were about 20 million. It was first noticed at Fort Riley, Kansas, on March 11, 1918. Scientists researching the topic today believe that the disease started as a virulent strain of Avian Flu and rapidly jumped to humans. It is called the Spanish Flu because it was most widely reported in neutral Spain, which was free from wartime news blackouts and as a result had a much freer press. The only place in the entire world that was not affected by the flu was the island of Marajo at the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil.

From the Standard: The wife of Ernest Bradley died of the influenza on October 13th, and the boys of the Iron Machine Shop, where he was employed, made up a fine purse for him as a token of their sympathy and esteem.

Charlie Yucis, of the Iron Machine Shop, died on October 15th and his sister also passed away the same day, both through influenza.

The flu followed a peculiar infection and fatality pattern: the ones affected by the flu were mostly the healthy and young adults. It also struck hardest in the summer and fall, as opposed to most flus which are worse in the winter. The disease struck with terrifying rapidity. Healthy people were suddenly ill on one day and die the next. Many of the deaths resulted from complications of pneumonia.

From the Standard: Mark Fiezeko, a riveter in the Freight Department, passed away on Monday, October 7th; his wife and child also died on Tuesday, October 15th, all from pneumonia.

E. L. Wood, leader of the Rivet Makers at the Freight Department, passed away on Friday, October 11th, after a week's sickness with pneumonia.

The flu first came to Chicago on September 27, 1918. Within 2 weeks, it had spread throughout the state. Chicago experienced an average of 12,000 new cases and 2,200 deaths a week. The city ran out of hearses. People were not allowed on streetcars without protective masks; the many funeral services were not allowed to be held in churches, and the number of mourners was severely limited.

Assuming that Pullman followed the average mortality rate of the rest of the city, in a population (both in the town and at the factory) of 10,000, 500 people died during the epidemic. The names of the deceased that we do know are:

  • Wife of Ernest Bradley
  • Charlie Yucis and his sister
  • Mark Fiezeko, his wife, and child
  • E. L. Wood
  • The infant child of D. B. Richards
  • The adult daughter and infant daughter of George Des Forges
  • Des Forges' brother, Hubert Des Forges
  • P. J. Noteware
  • J. L. Melgren
  • The child of W. J. Nydam

The pandemic burned itself out by the spring of 1919, leaving as mysteriously as it had arrived.

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