Kemmeter column: Quarantine violations aided 1918 death toll
By Gene Kemmeter
Stevens Point area residents never got to hold traditional Christmas observances in 1918 because they broke a local quarantine to celebrate the end of World War I, and then cases of the Spanish influenza flared upward after people ended isolation orders by getting together.
Much like today, businesses and schools were closed and residents were restricted to their homes as a disease known as the Spanish influenza, the deadliest influenza in the world’s history, was raging throughout the United States’ home front and the rest of the world.
The influenza was puzzling because it produced violent symptoms. Patients had nosebleeds or bleeding that did not come from wounds. Some coughed so violently that autopsies showed they had torn rib cartilage or abdominal muscles. Others writhed in agony or delirium with headaches behind their eyes. Some were vomiting. Still others had their skin turn colors, darkening their complexion.
The closures began locally in mid-September 1918 when a group of Rosholt children became sick and extended to Stevens Point three weeks later after schools said all children with colds would be sent home from school because of the grippe, an old term for influenza. The city had earlier been stricken with a grippe epidemic from 1888 to 1890.
Conditions worsened, and the Stevens Point Board of Health prohibited all public assemblies in the city on Oct. 11, 1918, until further notice, closing all schools, including the State Normal School (now the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point) and Stevens Point Business College.
The decree also covered the closing of theaters, pool halls, lodges, dance halls, churches, Sunday schools, church suppers, rummage sales, community singing, athletic games, banquets and social affairs. Taverns were expressly subject to the authority of the Common Council which acted three days later to include them in the closures.
The order also prohibited stores from accepting any returned goods or sending any goods out on approval under threat of closing the stores in order to stop the spread of the infection.
As the number of cases increased to more than 20 per day and 500 in a month, further restrictions prohibited business operations between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. and instructed children to stay in their own yards and avoid contact with other children.
Then news of a preliminary armistice for the war was reported Nov. 8, and citizens spontaneously formed a peace parade. Local doctors warned about the consequences of the flu spreading after the parade as local officials lifted some restrictions and reopened schools.
The final armistice was signed Nov. 11, and another parade, one of the biggest in the city according to the Daily Journal, was held to celebrate the end of WWI.
Two days later, however, the flu began spreading again, with 63 new cases of the flu, and the situation was worsening by the end of November, so schools closed again. After 20 new cases were reported at the Normal School, the John Francis Sims cottage on Fremont Street was turned into a hospital to treat flu victims.
The citywide quarantine was strengthened as the situation worsened, with orders that all families must remain in their homes, theaters would have to require patrons to wear masks, and no more than 10 people could be in a store at one time.
The Board of Health decided on Dec. 6, 1918, to set up an emergency hospital in the Lincoln School building, staffed by the sisters from St. Michael’s Hospital and one from Marshfield hospital, because the number of cases in the preceding week had increased to 413.
Finally, on Dec. 18, one day passed without a single case of the flu reported, and officials attributed the reduction to the success of the strict quarantine that cut cases to two or less (five cases in four days) after 100 to 200 per day the two weeks prior.
All Christmas programs were still banned, but only 23 houses in the city remained on quarantine by Dec. 21, so movie theaters were allowed to stop using masks. After Dec. 30, things began returning to normal, as lodges were allowed to hold meetings, but public gatherings were still prohibited until January.
A final calculation of the number of deaths attributed to the flu in Stevens Point or elsewhere in the world was never compiled because of the confusion over the causes of death. Those causes were spread among grippe, pneumonia and others.
Visitors to cemeteries may notice a large number of gravestones engraved with a 1918 death date. More than likely, those deaths were due to the Spanish Influenza. There’s little doubt the celebrations interrupting the local quarantine added to those deaths.