Journal tells of Shore life during 1918 Spanish Flu

Jim Dawson of the Unicorn Book Shop in Trappe with 62 Willis family journals.

A century ago the Eastern Shore and the nation dealt with an influenza epidemic that is chilling in the similarities it shares with today’s Covid-19 pandemic.

By autumn 1918, and through early 1920, the global population was hit by Spanish Influenza, the name then-associated with the H1N1 virus. Although often linked to Spain as a place of origin, it is believed the influenza may have originated in France or China or Russia — or even a U.S. Army base in the state of Kansas.

An estimated 50 million people worldwide — back then about 3 percent of the world’s population — are believed to have been killed by the virus. In America, the fatalities topped 675,000.

American military camps were hard-hit, and the Evening Sun of Baltimore reported in October 1918 that, across the nation,  211,000 soldiers were sick with the flu, and 7,432 had died.

So serious was the situation in Washington, D.c., the newspaper noted: “The grimness of the situation is accentuated by a shortage of coffins and grave diggers.”

On the Easten Shore, the flu was equally deadly.

A witness account of the day was recorded by Charles F. Willis Sr., a farmer living with his family near the mouth of Island Creek, a few miles from Trappe in Talbot County.

Jim Dawson, owner of the Unicorn Book Shop in Trappe, has uncovered details of the sickness and deaths in the area, as recorded by Willis in his detailed journal. 

From 1847 to 1951, men of the Willis family kept daily journals, and the observation made in 1918 by Willis Sr. is one of the very few local accounts of the toll the flu took on families.

It also contains notations on how officials and families dealt with the dangers of socializing.

The parallels between the actions taken then to control the spread of the virus, and those under way now, is eye-opening.

“I don’t think people wrote much about the Spanish Flu, even though it had such a terrible impact on the world, nation and the Shore,” Dawson said. “I’ve been in the bookstore business for 45 years and I have seen very little written about the Spanish Flu, especially following the epidemic,” he said.

Reading Willis’ account is sobering. The following narration is taken directly from the journal and is copied as written.

Baker graves Spring Hill cemetery in Easton.

1918

Oct. 9 — “We had a card from Catherine stating that all of the schools are closed until the 21st next on acc’t. of the Spanish influenza- “to come for her.”

Oct. 20 — “The “flu” is a scourge- 50 died in county this past week.”

Oct. 22 — “The “flue” or grippe has not increased & all his [Dr. Ross’] patients are better. Morris Borden-Smith, who married Miss Edith Powell, of E.A. Powell, was taken sick in Easton & brot. to Trappe & died of the disease Sunday.”

Nov. 4 — “Schools opened again to day. The “flu” has just about spent its self.”

Dec. 13 — “All the schools of Trappe were closed on Wed. (that is no school on that day) not to be opened until the new year. all on acc.t of a recurrence of the “flu.” A vast number of persons of the dist. are sick- some ill.”

Dec. 18 — “The “flu” is general in Trappe & vicinity — many are very ill & one death last night.”

Dec. 29 — “The “Spanish flu” is still in force about & in Trappe — in Easton & St. Michaels district. The health officers have warned not to assemble.”

1919

Jan. 5 — “The “flu” has caused so much sickness and so many deaths, that the health officers have closed all places of public gathering in Easton & Trappe.”

Jan. 9 — “Dr. Seymour is still housed from an attack of the “flu.” Dr. Ross has more than he can do.”

Jan. 10 — “We heard to night that there are several cases of “flu” on “Wilderness.” ( Editorial note, the Wilderness was a nearby large estate about seven miles west of Trappe) 

Jan. 12 — “All at home. All public places are closed in the county & many schools- or neck school included on acct. of the “flu”. Very many deaths are occurring in the district. We heard thru Billy Ollie is improving. Dr. Seymour is out again. Dr. Ross for two weeks was the only Dr. at Trappe — one day he had 59 calls & over 40 at other times. We are trying to escape the disease by keeping at home.”

Jan. 15 — “The epidemic of “flu” is subsiding- not many new cases. Old improving.”

1920 

Feb. 9 — “We are told that J. Frank Baker’s wife & one child has scarlet fever & Jno. Hughlett’s wife & child & wife’s brother the same & that each home is under strict quarantine by the health board. Many cases of scarletina not subjected to being housed & many cases of measles. Sixty cases of “flu” in St. Michaels & all schools closed.”

Feb. 10 — “He [Dr. Ross] stated that there were many new cases of scarletina & the infection is traced to the occupants of the school auto bus from S.E. of Trappe. Mrs. J. Frank Baker is very ill — all others getting on well. Schools indefinitely closed for the week at least.”

Feb. 14 “Mrs. J. Franklin Baker died at her home in Trappe at 3 p.m. on Thursday — aged 31 yrs. of the new disease “flu”.”

1920

Feb. 22 — “We are all tired out with being virtually housed or quarantined. The children have lost two weeks at school from colds or other sickness … Many of our school are sick; Trappe is reported about off the sick list. The “flu” is plentiful about Easton – many deaths occurred in Oxford the past week. The press advises precaution or the disease will be epidemic. It is advised not to assemble in groups and  avoid visiting unless the family is known to be well. No sunshine to day.”

Feb. 24 — “I heard today that our school, Island Creek Neck, is closed from want of pupils – whole families are sick.”

Willis noted the death of Mrs. J. Frank Baker of Trappe on Feb. 14, 1920. She was Ottilie R. Baker, the wife of famed baseball third baseman, John Franklin “Home Run” Baker. 

Baker (1886-1963) was a player with Major League Baseball player with the Philadelphia Athletics and New York Yankees from 1908 to 1922.

Born in Trappe in 1886, the legendary player died there in 1963. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.

Even though families tried keeping to themselves, the virus spread through towns and the countryside. It was not uncommon for multiple deaths in a family in a week.

And now — today — history seems to be repeating itself.


Helpful Coronavirus links

Maryland Department of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage

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