In this article:
The Flu’s Death Toll
The great flu pandemic of 1918—which modern scientists study as a model of what could happen in the event of a “bird flu” outbreak—killed up to 675,000 Americans, 0.65 percent of the nation’s population. Most died in a terrifying span of 16 weeks. Worldwide, death estimates range from 21 million to 100 million.
How the Pandemic Affected Your Ancestors
The deadly virus may have first appeared in Haskell County, Kan., from which newly mustered soldiers spread it to Camp Funston, Kan., in February 1918. The gathering of men from across the country into close quarters galvanized the flu: In the spring of 1918, 24 of the 36 largest army camps suffered outbreaks. Barry adds that 30 of the 50 largest US cities—notably, those close to Army bases—also saw outbreaks.
But nobody thought much of it at the time. Then the flu returned with a vengeance in September, striking first in Philadelphia, where it quickly overwhelmed the city’s ability to deal with the dead. Soon, steam shovels were digging mass graves. (Keep this grisly bit of history in mind if you can’t find the burial site of an ancestor who died in late 1918.) Some cities became ghost towns save for municipal workers in masks. In most areas, gathering places from schools to saloons were shuttered and public meeting banned.
If Your Ancestor Died of the Flu
The 1918 flu struck many in the prime of life—half the US dead were between the ages of 16 and 40. So many young people died, according to Barry, because of what’s today recognized as a pathological process called Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. A pulmonary expert describes it as “a burn inside the lungs.” Your ancestor’s death certificate likely ascribed the cause to pneumonia, if not to influenza.
The cycle of infection in each locale typically ran from six to eight weeks; then the incidence of flu dropped off sharply. As survivors gained immunity and the killer virus mutated, the pandemic burned itself out. In Philadelphia, where 4,597 people died from the disease in one October week, influenza had all but vanished by Armistice Day less than a month later.
Most death indexes don’t list a cause of death; so you’ll need to get a copy of your ancestor’s death certificate—typically from the county courthouse or the state archives. See when states began requiring death certificates on our Vital Records Chart. Besides gleaning valuable genealogical data, you may get a glimpse of the killer that stalked the world in the fall of 1918.