The Spanish flu ravaged Cecil nearly 100 year ago
Special to the Whig
— Although the fighting in World War I did not occur on American soil, an unintended consequence made a huge impact. The Spanish flu began in Europe in January 1918, spreading worldwide, infecting over 500 million people leaving a death toll between 50 to 100 million.
Unlike other flu viruses that impacted primarily the very young and old, this particular strain affected healthy young adults. The flu was spread by sneezing and coughing, quickly spreading through urban areas as American soldiers returned from Europe. But even rural areas like Cecil County felt its impact. It reached its peak locally in the second week in October and lasted until November only to return in January 1919.
Scientists still debate why this virus was able to do some much harm. Some feel that the older population developed immunity due to prior exposure to a similar virus. Another theory poses that the younger adults with the stronger immune systems overreacted to the virus and “ravaged the body” instead. Symptoms of the this flu were typical: fever, aches, coughing and sneezing. However, these symptoms quickly led to pneumonia, killing some as quickly as within two days of falling ill. A review of death certificates from Cecil County from September, October and November 1918 and then again in January 1919 reveal the toll the flu took on this region.
Cecil County saw its first deaths from the flu in the last week of September 1918. Two of the first victims were sisters, 16- year- old Edith Gorrell, who died on Sept. 18, and 17- year- old Irene Gorrell, who died two days later. Their obituary in the Cecil Democrat states they contracted the flu while working a ketchup factory in Newark, Del. Both girls were dead within a week of showing symptoms.
Helen and William Rowan, of Elkton, both 36 years
Advertisements such as this were one way that the U.S. government tried to fight the epidemic of Spanish flu in 1918.
old, died within two days of each other leaving behind five children. Newspaper pages were covered with obituaries. The Midland Journal reported that casket makers in West Grove, Pa., were working seven days a week to meet the growing demand. Finally, the state board of health closed all schools, churches and public meetings in the first week of October to try to prevent further spreading the virus. Normal life did not resume until the last week in October when new cases sharply declined.
The Maryland State Board of Health reports the following statistics:
“In Elkton there were six cases of Influenza in September, 108 in October and 71 in December. In Port Deposit there were five cases in September, 102 in October and 55 in November. At North East, there
were nine case in November. In Perryville, there were 183 cases in November and 165 cases in December. At Chesapeake City, there were 42 cases in November and 38 in December. During December there were 35 cases at Fair Hill, 23 cases at Cherry hill, 32 cases at Zion and 30 cases at Providence. Out of 1,100 reported flu cases about 145 died: 34 in Elkton, 18 in Perryville, 14 in North East, 13 in Port Deposit and 12 in Chesapeake City. The rest were distributed throughout the county. The flu was listed as the primary cause of death in 85 of the deaths and pneumonia as the primary cause with the flu as a contributing factor.”
In 1918, the total death toll in Cecil County was 531, up 10 percent from 1917. The State of Maryland Board of Health reported that normally tu-
berculosis was the main cause of death, but in 1918 influenza caused 20 percent of all deaths in Maryland. In 1910, only 1.6 percent of rural Marylanders died from influenza, and in 1918, 16.59 percent died.
These numbers do not include Cecil County residents who died in other states. For instance, Clara Smith went to Philadelphia to help her brother, Roswell Slicer, who was dying of heart disease. There, she contracted the flu and died within weeks of her brother. Meanwhile, Pvt. Raymond Goodnow, of North East, died at Camp Meade in October 1918.
Today, you can visit any graveyard in Cecil County and see the gravestones of those who died during this epidemic. Many died far too young. Husbands and wives died within days of each other.
The Spanish flu arrived in September 1918 and seemed to have run its course by the end of that November. However, it reappeared briefly in January 1919 to again take the lives of many young adults.
As with any epidemic, families were changed forever by its impact. My grandfather lost his first wife to the Spanish flu. Had that not happened, he would never have married my grandmother and consequently my father was born. Ironically, I would not be here if it weren’t for the Spanish flu.
Jo Ann Gardner is a member of the Historical Society of Cecil County.
The Spanish flu was believed to have been brought back by U.S. soldiers returning home from World War I, where it quickly spread around the nation, including in Cecil County.
At least 145 people died from the Spanish flu in Cecil County in 1918 and more than 1,000 people were infected. Death certificates such as this one shed light to researchers upon the epidemic’s local impact.