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Terror of the Spanish Lady

A century ago, hope had vanished and terror had returned. Like an unwelcome relative with no place to go, the “Spanish Lady” had come to town. People were overconfident, so certain that she was gone for good. Now, the streets were empty again and behind every locked door someone was waiting to die. The “Lady” was influenza, and 100 years ago, she was promising to end the world.

One March morning in Kansas in 1918, a Fort Riley Army private skipped breakfast and reported to sickbay with a sore throat, headache and fever. By noon, 100 soldiers with the same symptoms joined him. In just four days, the post hospital overflowed into tents, and doctors were treating more than 500 men. Then, soldiers began to die.

Disease spreading within groups of men living in close quarters didn’t worry public health officials. With so little data available, when civilians began to get sick no one seemed to notice and no one sounded the alarm. Besides, Americans were getting used to soldiers dying. For nearly a year now, WWI had transformed high school students into “doughboys,” marching off to France with rifles on their shoulders, unknowingly carrying the most deadly weapon of all, the killer flu.

The speed and deathly efficiency of the virus was astonishing. Newspaper readers in Jackson County intently followed the soaring death toll. In a single day, Boston reported 202 victims — Philadelphia 289 — and then New York City with a staggering 851.

Medford physician Elias Porter, while studying at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, was stunned. “Cases were brought in by the dozens,” he said. “Patients had been ill just a few hours, and, in just a few hours more, they were dead.”

Lulled into believing that modern medical science would defeat even the most microscopic invader, residents of the Northwest ignored the local newspaper’s warning. “The epidemic is sweeping westward rapidly. Its presence here is only a question of a few days.”

Those “few days” were the last week of September 1918, when a troop train from Boston arrived near Fort Lewis, Washington. Within a week, by rail and by highway, the invisible virus hitched a ride down the coast and into the Rogue River Valley.

While many were falling sick, the first known funeral of a Jackson County victim came Oct. 21. There never was an accurate count of the dead, but newspaper reports indicate that in a three-month period, somewhere between 200 and 400 Rogue Valley residents suffered with the influenza virus.

Ashland officials believed only 10 people had died in their city and that three of those were travelers just passing through. That would have been the Bezold family, Bill, his wife, Edna, and their two sons.

The Washington family was moving to Arizona and stopped in Ashland to eat. Within minutes, Bill began to sweat. By the time they reached the hospital, Edna and their infant son had the same symptoms. Bill died the next morning, followed in a few hours by the baby. Two days later Edna was gone too. The family was quickly buried in Ashland’s Mountain View Cemetery. Their orphaned 4-year-old son survived and returned to his grandmother’s Washington home and lived to age 86.

By early 1919, the Spanish Lady had gone missing — yet, not since the Black Plague had so many people around the world died in such a short period of time — more than 2,000 victims died in Oregon, over a half-million in the U.S., and from 30 million to 100 million people worldwide. The national public health service said the influenza killed more U.S. soldiers in the last four months of 1918 than all American losses over the previous 19 months of U.S. participation in the war.

Although it would always be called the Spanish Influenza, it really began in Kansas. Why did Spain get the blame? Because it had dared remain neutral during WWI.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com or WilliamMMiller.com.