In 1918-19, Spanish flu killed thousands in the US, including many in Superiorland

MARQUETTE – Despite annual concern over varying forms of influenza, it is unlikely the country will ever again see a flu season like that of late 1918 and early 1919.

In the winter of 1918, influenza gripped the nation and the Upper Peninsula was no exception.

Though the flu was not uncommon, concern began to grow locally that fall. A front-page article in the Oct. 14 issue of the Marquette Chronicle reads: “Spanish Influenza today took its first victim in Ishpeming, and immediately a proclamation was issued … ordering all schools, churches, theaters, and other public places closed, and forbidding all public gatherings until the danger of a serious epidemic has been abated.”

Two days later, an Associated Press story in the paper stated that 6,122 people in 30 cities died from the flu in the previous week alone.

In mid-October of 1918, the state board of health offered a warning about the flu, which was “disseminated directly from one person to another by coughing, sneezing, or violent talking directly into another’s face.” The body urged caution, but said “you will not get influenza unless someone coughs, sneezes or spits in your face.”

Despite that warning, Marquette County residents were undoubtedly concerned about the spread of the bug. In a 1973 interview transcribed for the Marquette Regional History Center, Hazel L. Merwin Drury – wife of Marquette City Health Officer Charles Drury – stated that the mayor of the city had her husband’s military assignment canceled, as he was needed to combat the illness.

“People had to wear masks,” Hazel Drury said. “I don’t remember, but I think the movies and churches all closed. It was a very frightening time.”

Her husband’s recounting of the influenza epidemic can be found in his annual reports to the city.

Charles Drury reported that in 1918, there were 528 cases of influenza reported in the city, with 20 resident deaths. The first cases, he said, came to the city from Newberry.

“Subsequent cases came from the boats, the railroad men and from the surrounding camps,” he wrote. The widespread illness resulted in a 10-week “ban on all public assemblies, including schools.”

The following year, Drury had a better vantage point from which to comment on the epidemic.

“Epidemic influenza appeared October 17th of 1918,” Drury wrote in early 1920. “This first outbreak subsided by Christmas, but beginning a few days before New Year’s, 1919, there was a second outbreak. … By March 8th the city was free from the disease. Just following and partly as a result of the Upper Peninsula basketball tournament, there was a third outbreak.”

During this time, he said, quarantine procedures were swift and strict.

Likely recalling the same ordinances as his wife, Drury said that “at the height of the second outbreak, an order was made requiring the wearing of masks by all persons entering places of amusement, churches, the library and clubs. The number in stores and street cars was limited. This order lasted four weeks.”

A similar ban took place during the third outbreak, which subsided by June of 1919.

The spread of the illness can also be followed through local news reports of the day. On Oct. 18, 1918 Escanaba High School canceled a basketball game with the team from Marquette due to a flu outbreak. Shortly after Christmas, headlines boast that there are no flu cases being reported in the area.

Then, on Dec. 30, a short story buried near the bottom of the page tells of a report from Jacobsville in Houghton County. A Red Cross representative there was asking for assistance with a new flu outbreak.

Between October of 1918 and June 1919, there were 1,759 cases of the flu reported in the city of Marquette, and 51 residents died as a result.

The following fall, flu swept through the town once again, but Drury said that bout was less threatening. No bans were imposed, but large meetings were advised against.

Finally, in 1921, Drury reported to the city that “for the first time in four years, no epidemic influenza occurred.”

Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.