A Frightful Anniversary

Autumn in the Midwest is usually a time of great beauty and activity. In Davenport the trees begin to glow red and yellow, orange pumpkins appear on doorsteps, and crops are brought in from the fields to provide food and energy for another year. Ninety years ago this month the citizens of Davenport worried not about fall decorations, but about the Great War raging in Europe and the arrival of the Spanish Influenza, which had been leaving a deadly trail across the globe.

This dreaded illness had been making its way across the United States since March 1918. As the influenza moved closer, the local chapter of the American Red Cross began on October 5, 1918 to help local governments and war organizations prepare for its inevitable arrival. The newly formed Emergency Relief Committee worked to release information to the general public through different means. Street car posters, pamphlets in stores, movie theater slides, and newspaper articles were all used to notify the public on ways to avoid catching the ‘flu. The main tools for fighting the illness were ventilation in street cars, churches, and schools along with rigorous cleaning of facilities after they closed for the day. A group known as the Four Minute Men gave short speeches before the start of movies or plays on covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing. The United States public health service in Washington and the Iowa State board of health required on October 9th that all cases of Spanish Influenza be reported to the a city’s mayor or board of health. On that day four local cases were reported to the Davenport board of health. The dreaded Influenza had arrived.

By October 10th the Davenport Daily Times began to report on event cancelations as officials began to recommend postponing public events of large numbers. On October 11th Davenport’s Mayor Littleton told the Chief of Police to arrest anyone who spit on the sidewalk. This little known ordinance had never actually been enforced in Davenport before, but it now was a means to control the spread of germs. By October 12th, the Davenport Daily Times reported arrangements had been made to turn the large Davenport Turner Hall into an emergency hospital to handle the overflow from regular hospitals. The thought was 150 patients could be housed in the dance hall and meeting room space. A large kitchen would help ease food preparation worries as well.

As the influenza was settling in, one of the biggest fears of local officials was being realized. Many of the 12,000 employees of the Rock Island Arsenal military instillation were Davenport citizens and even with great precautions, the disease was making its way through the Arsenal. These employees, working long hours in close conditions for the War effort, were bringing the disease into their homes after their shifts ended. Grasping for ideas, the Commissioner of Public Works in Davenport approved the burning of leaves by the public in the thought that it would help kill the germs. The city also began to wash downtown sidewalks every day in the hopes of stopping the spread of the disease.

As a result of the increase in cases, on October 12th the Davenport board of health decided that all schools, churches, theaters, and public gatherings would be closed for the foreseeable future. The mayor of Davenport led the way by closing city meetings to the public. Council would still meet to discuss the epidemic and keep city bills in order. Store keepers and street car crews were threatened with arrest if buildings and cars were not kept ventilated and cleaned. Over one hundred and forty cases of ‘flu had been reported in four days.

Over the next few days the numbers of ill citizens continued to grow. Davenport began to work more closely with the local cities of Moline and Rock Island along with the Arsenal to pass joint measures that everyone was to follow. All stores except food and drug stores, laundries, and barber shops were to close at 5:00 p.m. Regulations were also created on the number of people allowed inside a store at any time depending on how many clerks were available. Usually the number was two customers per one clerk. These measures were not meant to only keep the disease from spreading, but also keep production up at the Rock Island Arsenal. It became everyone’s patriotic duty to control the Influenza so the boys overseas did not suffer from a lack of munitions.

By October 18th, cases were still growing in large numbers. New rules were put into motion. Children were not allowed to play on the streets or gather together. They were also not allowed in stores unless with a parent. No one was allowed to visit from house to house and food stores were to close on Sundays. The next day the Turner Hall was opened to receive patients. The hospitals were overflowing with the sick.

The Influenza raged on into November. As the numbers declined, some of the restrictions began to be lifted and theaters, stores, library, and clubs were allowed to reopen on a limited bases. Those last on the list to reopen were schools and Sunday school classes. Children were even forbidden to go to church or other gatherings for a time as well. On November 14, 1918 the Davenport Daily Times printed one of its last statistics on the epidemic. They reported 1,603 had been infected by the Influenza while 61 people had died. The deaths do not cover those who died from secondary infections such as pneumonia, which would have raised the number considerably.

“The Annual Report of Davenport, Iowa 1918 – 1919” lists the official number of those reported ill as 1,978 for October, 1,126 for November, and 1,414 for December. The number of deaths was not reported. Starting in the spring, the number of infected persons declined rapidly. There would be another round of the Influenza in late 1919, but not at the same strength. For the citizens of Davenport October, 1918 did not contain the usual scary jack o’lanterns and ghosts and goblins running around. Instead, they faced a far scarier reality, one that still scares many of us today.

(posted by Amy D.)

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3 Responses to A Frightful Anniversary

  1. Adrian says:

    Wow, that is fascinating! I didn’t realize that the community was prepared and had such an organized response.

  2. Amy D. says:

    Thanks for the comment Adrian! With information coming to Davenport from Camp Dodge in Des Moines, IA and Camp Grant in Rockford, IL of over one thousand deaths of soldiers in the camps from the Influenza, I’m sure officials and citizens knew it was only a matter of time before this area was hit. I can only guess what would have happened if the local cities and Arsenal had not worked together. Scary!

  3. Dafydd says:

    This is right here, in the present, not the future.

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