The Great Flu Epidemic of 1918

Norwegian-American family lost seven members in one week

Great Flu Epidemic

Photo courtesy of Astri My Astri Publishing
Joe and Emma Hermanson are pictured with their 12 children and one son-in law in the fall of 1919. During one week in February 1920, influenza claimed the lives of Emma and six of the children.

Astri My Astri Publishing

I had a little bird,

its name was Enza.

I opened the window,

and in-flu-enza.

Children skipped rope to the rhyme during the flu epidemic.

The 1918 influenza virus, or Spanish flu, was the worst epidemic the United States has known, taking the lives of an estimated 675,000 Americans, including 43,000 servicemen. More Americans died in one year from the influenza than in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. Yet, most people know very little about the epidemic or have forgotten that period of history.

Unlike any strain ever seen, the mysterious killer virus spread across the country, overflowing hospitals, and filling mass graves. Joe Hermanson, the nephew of my great-great-great-grandmother, Kari Hermanson (Nese) Ekse, lost his wife, Emma (Olson), 42, and six of their 12 children in one week due to the deadly flu. 

Kari Hermundsdatter Nese immigrated in 1861 from Nese in Arnaford, Sogn, and married Nils Nilsson Ekse that same year. Her brothers, Elling and Endre; sister, Anna; and father, Hermund Johannesson Nese immigrated together in 1867. Hermund died in 1886 and was buried in the pioneer section of the Black Hammer cemetery, near Spring Grove, Houston County, Minn. Spring Grove is recognized as the first Norwegian settlement in Minnesota.

A newspaper clipping from February 1920 reads: “The Joe Hermanson family of Black Hammer near Spring Grove is the most severely stricken family ever known in this section of the state. The family was taken sick the first of the month. Mrs. Hermanson died Wednesday, and Saturday the two oldest boys died, and in the night a 9-year-old boy. Monday afternoon and night two more died, and Tuesday still another, making seven dead, while small hopes are entertained for two more. Mr. Hermanson is recovering.”

Joe and two of the children, Evelyn and Henry, were taken to the Spring Grove Hospital. According to a family member, the children survived by the doctor draining fluid from their lungs. Emma’s brother and niece assisted the remaining family members. Others left food on the porch and helped with the livestock chores. 

Because of severe cold and deep snow, the seven flu fatalities were placed in the summer kitchen for a later burial in the Black Hammer Cemetery. All their names, including Joe, who died nine years later, are on one tombstone.

Only one of the children, Leonard Hermanson, survived. In 2004, my mother, Char Nelson, and I visited him, then 92, in the Houston Nursing Home. In earlier years, Leonard and his family lived in Looney Valley near Houston, where he had worked as a farmer and carpenter.

I could sense that deep-down sadness that had never gone away as Leonard described “his wonderful mother,” Emma. Recalling that tragic year, 1920, he cited the names and ages of all 12 children, the six who died from the flu: Edwin, 19; Clarence, 18; Julia, 16; Johnnie, 12; Selmer, 9; Mabel, 7; and the six who survived: Gena, 20; Evelyn, 15; Mina, 13; Henry, 10; Leonard (himself), 8; and Bernice, 4.

Mina’s daughter, Ann Bratland, of Laurel, Mont., relayed to me that her mother had gone to help her older pregnant sister, Gena. Gena and her husband, Chris Hanson, lived a mile down the road from the home farm. Mina found out about the family deaths in the Spring Grove paper, as the families had no phones.

great flu epidemic

Photo courtesy of Astri My Astri Publishing
The back side of Hermanson family gravestone, including the family members who succumbed to the 1918 influenza virus, commonly known as the Spanish flu. Because the fatalities occurred in the deep of winter, the corpses were placed in a summer kitchen for a later burial. Listed first is the father, Joe Hermanson, who died nine years later than the others.

The first wave

The point of origin of the influenza epidemic is thought to have been Camp Funston, part of Fort Riley, Kan., on March 9, 1918. Sandwiched between bone-chilling winters and sweltering summers were blinding dust storms. Stifling, ever-accumulating manure from the camp’s thousands of horses and mules was disposed of by burning. The dust combined with the manure ashes was said to have created a stinging, stinking, yellow haze that turned the sky black. 

Two days later, over 100 men were ill, all complaining of fever, sore throat, and headache. More than 500 were reported sick after another two days, many gravely ill with severe pneumonia. No one knew why. The elusive killer spread, striking military camps throughout the country at the very time draft call-ups and troop shipments were in high gear for a nation at war. 

In March and April 1918, over 200,000 American World War I soldiers sailed across the Atlantic in overcrowded ships. By May 1918, the flu had established itself on two continents. Little did the soldiers know they were carrying with them a virus that would kill tens of thousands by July 1918 and would be more deadly than their rifles. 

The influenza had now extended beyond the United States and Europe, and cases were reported in Russia, North Africa, India, China, Japan, the Philippines and New Zealand. This first wave was a mere prelude of what was to come that fall.

In early 2003, I attended a lecture on the 1918 influenza at Luther College, presented by retired microbiologist, Professor John Tjostem. He explained that because the world was at war, the Americans and the Germans censored their flu statistics, while Spain, a neutral country, published their flu deaths in the newspapers. The epidemic would later be inaccurately dubbed the Spanish flu. Tjostem further explained that the 1918 influenza pandemic took four months to make its way around the world. With today’s modern transportation, it would take only four days.

The Second Wave

In the fall of 1918, the relentless flu was reintroduced from Europe with troops returning to the United States from World War I. It hit with a vengeance, as the mutated virus was now more deadly than ever. The lethal flu spread from person to person by tiny droplets produced by coughing and sneezing. It was everywhere and no one was safe, as everyone had to breathe. Unlike any other flu, almost every family lost someone. 

Researchers had developed vaccines for diseases, such as meningitis, diphtheria, and anthrax, which were caused by bacteria, but they had nothing, in 1918, to stop influenza. Science was powerless, as the electron microscope needed to see the virus had not yet been invented. DNA and RNA, the genetic material of viruses, had not been discovered. Americans took to wearing gauze masks, but they were as effective as keeping out dust with chicken wire.

Many people turned to folk remedies such as garlic, camphor balls, or kerosene poured on sugar. Schools closed, and laws forbade spitting on the streets. Nothing worked. As the war raged, people gathered for rallies and bond drives where they coughed and infected each other. In October 1918 alone, more than 195,000 Americans died from the epidemic. A public health disaster had been created by the time the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918. In some places, because of a nationwide shortage, caskets had to be guarded from thieves.

So quick, so sudden, so terrifying

Unlike ordinary influenza that kills mainly the very young or elderly, the 1918 flu targeted young robust adults. Tjostem stated: the fact that 20- to 40-year-olds were hit the hardest is difficult to explain. People who had lived during a period when a major flu epidemic had previously hit were partially protected. The very young were likely more vulnerable because their immune systems were still developing.

Twenty-five times more deadly than the normal flu, the 1918 flu pandemic killed an estimated 40-50 million people in the world. Within about 48 hours, most victims were dead. They had high, delirious fevers, bloody noses, and coughed up blood. Eventually, their bodies turned purplish-blue, the lungs filled with reddish fluid, and they drowned in their own secretions.

The influenza viruses

The three types of influenza virus are A, B, and C. Influenza A viruses are found in humans and animals, including pigs, horses, chickens, ducks, and some wild birds. Influenza B and C viruses are found only in humans and appear to be more stable than Influenza A.

In 1918, influenza outbreaks appeared in humans and pigs almost simultaneously. It’s unclear, however, if pigs infected the humans or if humans infected the pigs. Millions of pigs became ill with severe respiratory infection in the Midwest, decimating entire hog farms.

Influenza viruses, like a chameleon, change their coats each year. Thus, one has to be inoculated each year to have sufficient immunity. In 1918, it’s believed a new kind of subtype influenza A-B virus emerged that was closely related to what is now known as classic swine influenza virus. Pigs are thought to be an intermediary or mixing vessel in this process, since they can be infected with both avian and human strains. The new virus was so different, that few had any kind of immunity, so it spread uncontrollably throughout the human population.

In 1998, after 80 years, scientists identified the genetic code of the 1918 virus by autopsying lung tissue samples from three cases that represented the only known sources of genetic material. Two were paraffin wax samples belonging to U.S. servicemen stationed in Fort Jackson, S.C., and Camp Upton, N.Y. The third belonged to a native Eskimo woman, buried in a mass grave, and preserved in permafrost, at the Brevig Mission in Alaska.

China and Southeast Asia are believed to be the epicenter for emerging strains of influenza A virus, due to the region’s enormous numbers and proximity of humans to pigs and aquatic birds. As a result of the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the World Health Organization began a global surveillance of respiratory virus activity to prevent a 21st century pandemic.

Influenza in Minnesota

The Preston Republican in the Oct. 25, 1918, issue reported: “In all health matters follow the advice of your doctor and obey the regulation of your local and state health officers. Cover up each cough and sneeze, if you don’t, you’ll spread disease.”

This headline was published in Levang’s Weekly in Lanesboro on Jan. 29, 1920: “Influenza in Minnesota—Declared epidemic by State Board of Health, St. Paul. Health authorities throughout the state were immediately called upon to put into effect regulation for its control.”

Tjostem contacted his former student, Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, regarding the flu that so tragically struck the Joe and Emma Hermanson family in February 1920. Both Tjostem and Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, agreed that the Hermanson’s flu could have been a case of swine transmission back to humans in a more virulent form than that present in 1918.

Forgotten epidemic

The deadly 1918 influenza disappeared just as mysteriously as it started. Perhaps it ran out of people who were susceptible or the survivors developed immunity. What’s known is that as soon as the dying stopped, the forgetting began.

This content published courtesy of Astri My Astri Publishing,

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.