She stopped asking

Muriel Thumm was born in Manhattan in 1903 and raised by her father and grandmother in Pleasantdale, New Jersey. She was 15 when she was stricken with the flu in 1918. Her grandmother had died the year before Charles, so her father, a lawyer on Wall Street, stayed by her bedside and nursed her back to health.

Once she recovered and returned to school, she would ask for one of her classmates only to find out that the girl or boy had died. Then she would look for another one, and was met with the same response. She said she and her remaining friends soon stopped asking.

Story and photo courtesy of Muriel’s daughter, Muriel Powers

Was cause of death the flu or tuberculosis?

Linda Harms Okazaki spent years trying to track down the cause of death for her ancestor Hattie Mae Lane. Half her family said she died from the 1918 influenza and half said Hattie died from tuberculosis.

Below is a photo of Hattie on her wedding day. She was 37 years old when she died, the mother of 7 children.

hattie mae lane 1.jpg

Once Linda was finally able to find the death certificate, she found that both sides were right. The cause of death was “Tuberculosis Pilmonosis [sic] following Spanish Influenza about one year ago.”  She died November 11, 1919.

Pilmonisis should be Pulmonosis, meaning tuberculosis in the lungs. This was by far the most common type of tuberculosis.

It is not clear whether Hattie had tuberculosis first. If so, this would have made her more susceptible to the flu virus and it is likely that the impact of the flu hastened her death from tuberculosis.

It is also possible, although less likely, that she developed the flu first. The flu was very good at opening up the lungs to secondary infections. Pneumonia was the most common secondary infection and was often a killer as there were no antibiotics at the time. But the flu could also lead to other secondary infections including tuberculosis.

Story and photo courtesy of Linda Harms Okazaki

Most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen


The previous post noted that Floyd West must have seen terrible things while he was serving as a medical tech at Camp Devens (outside of Boston, MA, U.S.A.). While we don’t know exactly what he saw, we do know that young men and women were particularly affected. If they were unlucky enough to contract the worst form of the disease, they could die in a matter of hours from the time they first experienced symptoms.

It was not a pretty death. It could involve high fevers and delirium, hemorrhaging from the mouth or ears, and extreme efforts to try to get oxygen into the blood through rapid breathing. Cyanosis is darkened skin, or blue skin, due to lack of oxygen.

Roy Grist, an army physician at Camp Devens, wrote the following of his experience treating soldiers who had the flu. Note that la grippe, or grip, is another term for the flu.

“These men start with what appears to be an ordinary attack of LaGrippe or Influenza, and when brought to the Hosp. they very rapidly develop the most vicious type of Pneumonia that has ever been seen.

Two hours after admission they have the Mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the Cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face…

It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes …Pneumonia means in about all cases death.

It is horrible. One can stand it to see one, two, or 20 men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies. . . . We have been averaging 100 deaths per day.”



Dr. Grist’s comments:

Photo taken from Wikipedia site on Camp Devens and was taken between 1917 and 1923


Hell in the army camp hospital

Floyd E. West Sr. WW1

Floyd West was a medical tech at Camp Devens, 45 miles outside of Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A. when the flu broke out. His responsibilities included caring for the hundreds of soldiers ill with the flu. He must have seen terrible things.

His grandson, Bill West, wrote ““Some soldiers in World War I saw hell on a battlefield. Others, such as my grandfather, saw another sort of hell in hospital wards full of comrades racked with the Spanish Influenza.”

To read more about Floyd and his experience during the flu epidemic, see Bill’s blog post.

–Story and photo contributed by Bill West


The flu went everywhere

I started my research thinking I did not have any stories about the 1918 flu in my family. I asked my mom and dad and they didn’t know of any stories. In fact, when I asked my mom if the flu ever came to her small hometown of Virden, New Mexico, she commented that Virden was too small and isolated to have come into contact with the flu.

Virden is a farming community, with farms spread throughout the Virden Valley. While the town of Virden is about 5 blocks by 5 blocks, the households on the farms are considered a part of Virden. The 1920 census records 500 people in the Virden community

Out of curiosity, I leafed through the book The Legacy of Virden and found this reference: “Mamie was known as the ‘Angel of Mercy’ for her service during the flu epidemic of 1918. She ranged far and wide in the valley providing both love and nursing. Mamie provided care for everyone in the valley including the Mexican community.”

So, the flu did come to Virden, and it seems that it was fairly heavily hit, as Mamie traveled the valley to care for the sick.

Like Virden, very few places in the world were safe from the pandemic. Quarantines may have delayed the entry of the flu into Australia, but it came in 1919. Isolated villages in Alaska were hard hit. Some of the Samoan islands were the few places in the world that escaped the pandemic.


The Legacy of Virden by Grover Johnson, p 61

1920 census for Virden, Hidalgo, New Mexico (viewed via Family Search)

Photo Credit: Photos taken on Jones Farm in the Virden Valley, Fall 2018, by Annie Jones