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.

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