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The pandemic of the Spanish Lady

They called the pandemic of 1918 the attack of the Spanish Lady, an influenza outbreak that raced from human to human and continent to continent with such incredible speed that many people feared they were watching the end of the world — and rightly so.

Not since the Black Plague had so many people around the world died in such a short period of time. Over 2,000 victims in Oregon, over a half-million in the U.S., and perhaps 30 to 100 million people died worldwide.

Ironically, Spanish Influenza didn’t start in Spain, but rather in America’s heartland — Kansas.

One March morning, a Fort Riley Army private skipped breakfast and reported to sickbay, complaining of a sore throat, headache and fever. By noon, 100 soldiers with the same symptoms joined him. In just four days, patients at the post hospital overflowed into tents, and doctors were treating over 500 men.

Then, soldiers began to die.

Disease spreading within groups of men living in close quarters was common and didn’t worry public health officials, and so, when civilians began to get sick, no one noticed and no one sounded the alarm. Besides, Americans were getting used to soldiers dying.

For nearly a year, 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 flu.

Rogue Valley residents read newspapers and watched the death toll set new records. In just one day, Boston recorded 202 victims, then Philadelphia followed with 289, then New York City surpassed them all with 851 in a single day.

Medford physician Elias Porter, while studying at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, wrote home about the “horror” he saw each day. “Patients have been ill just a few hours,” he said, “and within a few hours more they are dead.”

The plague had stayed away from the Northwest, and everyone was sure there was nothing to fear. They ignored the Mail Tribune editorial that warned, “The epidemic is sweeping westward rapidly. Its presence here is only a question of a few days.”

In September 1918, an army troop train arrived from Boston at Ft. Lewis, Washington. Within a week, the invisible virus hitchhiked by rail and highway down the coast and into the Rogue Valley.

The Spanish Lady now began knocking on valley doors. Over 200 confirmed cases in less than a week, and at least 12 of those died.

Washington state resident Bill Bezold was hoping to beat the snows in the Siskiyou Pass. With wife, Edna, two children and everything they owned stuffed into their car, the family was moving to Arizona.

They stopped in Ashland to eat. Bill began to sweat and needed medical attention. By the time they reached the hospital, Edna and an infant son showed the same symptoms.

All three died within hours and were buried in Ashland’s Mountain View Cemetery. Only their orphaned 4-year-old son miraculously survived and returned to his grandmother’s Washington home.

There never was an accurate count of the valley dead, but newspaper reports indicate that in just a three-month period, somewhere between 200 and 400 valley residents died from the influenza virus.

The “Lady” disappeared almost as quickly as she arrived, but the swift and painful deaths she left and the panic she provoked are still a part of our fading memory.

And every few years we have to wonder. Could it ever happen again?

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