Tuesday, April 24, 2018

History’s Worst Flu Epidemic Hit The Niehaus Family

    Winter months often bring the flu into families, passing from one to another until it leaves the household finally and everyone’s functioning normally again.  These past few months have been that way for many families.  In fact, my husband and I are fresh from episodes of body aches, head colds and coughing.  It was no fun, but we’re on the other side now and resting better. 
     However, we know that thousands have died in this latest flu season, as they do each year.   The body’s reaction when the flu virus attacks is to fight it off.  Sometimes when your immune system is already flagging under the weight of a viral infection, bacteria already existing in the body can spread to the lungs and take hold. This secondary infection is called pneumonia.  Pneumonia is often the eventual cause of death when the flu is the initial culprit.  We read each year the warnings about the latest flu virus and the urgings to be vaccinated.  This year, both of us in this household got our flu shots.  Maybe we would have been even more ill if we hadn’t.  Who knows?!
     The risk of a flu tragedy is definitely one that should garner attention in any family.  History’s worst flu epidemic occurred 100 years ago and killed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide.  This flu strain was a bit unusual in that it attacked young adults in their twenties, people whom flu more rarely kills. One of those young adults was Louise Albers Niehaus, a twenty-five year old mother of four and my paternal grandmother. Louise and her son Walter, seven months old, were victims of the third wave of this deadly epidemic that began in 1918, finally ebbing out in spring 1919. Louise and Walter Niehaus died three days apart in February of 1919 and the cause of death for each of them was broncho pneumonia.  Louise died in the Indianapolis City Hospital three days after admission.  Walter died at their home at 1123 Keystone Avenue. This mother and son share a grave at Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Their burial permits are posted below.)  The story is told in the family that Walter was buried in Louise’s arms.   It must have been an agonizing time for my grandfather, John, and his other children, 7 year old Charlotte, 4 year old Robert and 2 year old Frank, my father.  
Burial Permits, Louise and Walter Niehaus, 1919 

     This is a tragic and momentous event that shaped my Niehaus family history dramatically. I’ve been told by those who knew Louise that she was a loving and gentle person. Never having known Louise or Walter I can only imagine how they would have played roles in the lives of not only my grandfather, my aunt and uncle and my father, but all of us who have followed.   I hope that writing about these two family members who were struck down much too soon in their lives recognizes their part in this complicated world.
     If you have more of the life stories of Louise and Walter Niehaus to share, let's do so.  Send me a message!
      Thank you for visiting Indiana Ties,

Copyright © 2018, Nancy Niehaus Hurley
     There are literally volumes written about the 1918 Flu Pandemic.  Could it happen again?   Where and how it started.  What might have caused the three waves of this strain.  There is research relating to the cultural contributions to the severity of this outbreak.  and on and on…..  An interesting piece of information contained in The Smithsonian Magazine article of November 2017 is about the government’s role in keeping people from recognizing and dealing with the flu epidemic.   Here’s a few sections of that article and I am posting a link to the full piece along with others at the bottom of this page.
Excerpts from The Smithsonian Magazine, November 2017:
Initially the 1918 pandemic set off few alarms, chiefly because in most places it rarely killed, despite the enormous numbers of people infected. Doctors in the British Grand Fleet, for example, admitted 10,313 sailors to sick bay in May and June, but only 4 died. It had hit both warring armies in France in April, but troops dismissed it as “three-day fever.” The only attention it got came when it swept through Spain, and sickened the king; the press in Spain, which was not at war, wrote at length about the disease, unlike the censored press in warring countries, including the United States. Hence it became known as “Spanish flu.” By June influenza reached from Algeria to New Zealand. Still, a 1927 study concluded, “In many parts of the world the first wave either was so faint as to be hardly perceptible or was altogether lacking...and was everywhere of a mild form.” Some experts argued that it was too mild to be influenza.
Yet there were warnings, ominous ones. Though few died in the spring, those who did were often healthy young adults—people whom influenza rarely kills.
In fact, it was more like a great tsunami that initially pulls water away from the shore—only to return in a towering, overwhelming surge. In August, the affliction resurfaced in Switzerland in a form so virulent that a U.S. Navy intelligence officer, in a report stamped “Secret and Confidential,” warned “that the disease now epidemic throughout Switzerland is what is commonly known as the black plague, although it is designated as Spanish sickness and grip.”
The second wave had begun.
What proved even more deadly was the government policy toward the truth. When the United States entered the war, Woodrow Wilson demanded that “the spirit of ruthless brutality...enter into the very fibre of national life.” So he created the Committee on Public Information, which was inspired by an adviser who wrote, “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms....The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”
At Wilson’s urging, Congress passed the Sedition Act, making it punishable with 20 years in prison to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United State...or to urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of any thing or things...necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war.” Government posters and advertisements urged people to report to the Justice Department anyone “who spreads pessimistic stories...cries for peace, or belittles our effort to win the war.”
Against this background, while influenza bled into American life, public health officials, determined to keep morale up, began to lie.
Across the country, public officials were lying. U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.” New York City’s public health director declared “other bronchial diseases and not the so-called Spanish influenza...[caused] the illness of the majority of persons who were reported ill with influenza.” The Los Angeles public health chief said, “If ordinary precautions are observed there is no cause for alarm.”
In Goldsboro, North Carolina, Dan Tonkel recalled, “We were actually almost afraid to breathe...You were afraid even to go out...The fear was so great people were actually afraid to leave their homes...afraid to talk to one another.” In Washington, D.C., William Sardo said, “It kept people apart...You had no school life, you had no church life, you had nothing...It completely destroyed all family and community life...The terrifying aspect was when each day dawned you didn’t know whether you would be there when the sun set that day.”
Then, as suddenly as it came, influenza seemed to disappear. It had burned through the available fuel in a given community. An undercurrent of unease remained, but aided by the euphoria accompanying the end of the war, traffic returned to streets, schools and businesses reopened, society returned to normal.
A third wave followed in January 1919, ending in the spring. This was lethal by any standard except the second wave, and one particular case would have an exceptional impact on history.
On April 3, 1919, during the Versailles Peace Conference, Woodrow Wilson collapsed. His sudden weakness and severe confusion halfway through that conference—widely commented upon—very possibly contributed to his abandoning his principles. The result was the disastrous peace treaty, which would later contribute to the start of World War II. Some historians have attributed Wilson’s confusion to a minor stroke. In fact, he had a 103 degree temperature, intense coughing fits, diarrhea and other serious symptoms. A stroke explains none of the symptoms. Influenza, which was then widespread in Paris and killed a young aide to Wilson, explains all of them—including his confusion. Experts would later agree that many patients afflicted by the pandemic influenza had cognitive or psychological symptoms. As an authoritative 1927 medical review concluded, “There is no doubt that the neuropsychiatric effects of influenza are profound...hardly second to its effect on the respiratory system.”
After that third wave, the 1918 virus did not go away, but it did lose its extraordinary lethality, partly because many human immune systems now recognized it and partly because it lost the ability to easily invade the lungs. No longer a bloodthirsty murderer, it evolved into a seasonal influenza.
Scientists and other experts are still asking questions about the virus and the devastation it caused, including why the second wave was so much more lethal than the first. Researchers aren’t certain, and some argue that the first wave was caused by an ordinary seasonal influenza virus that was different from the pandemic virus; but the evidence seems overwhelming that the pandemic virus had both a mild and virulent form, causing mild as well as severe spring outbreaks, and then, for reasons that remain unclear, the virulent form of the virus became more common in the fall.
Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/journal-plague-year-180965222/#HPp53km59dzrLysx.99
Ten Myths About the 1918 Flu Pandemic ---https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/ten-myths-about-1918-flu-pandemic-180967810/

Richard Gunderman, Chancellor’s Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy, Indiana University

How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/journal-plague-year-180965222/

The ‘greatest pandemic in history’ was 100 years ago – but many of us still get the basic facts wrong:  http://theconversation.com/the-greatest-pandemic-in-history-was-100-years-ago-but-many-of-us-still-get-the-basic-facts-wrong-89841

Other Indiana Ties posts you may want to read:  
Ladies In My Line: Louise Charlotte Albers Niehaushttp://www.indianaties.com/2012/06/ladies-in-my-line-louise-charlotte.html
Walter Johnnie Niehaus: http://www.indianaties.com/2016/06/we-didnt-even-know-he-had-middle-name.html

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