The Flu Epidemic of 1918: accounts from local diaries

Written by Joel Alderfer on March 25, 2020

As we experience and restructure our lives during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, it may be helpful to understand how our community in central Montgomery County, PA was impacted by the global Influenza Epidemic of 1918. Several diaries of local persons in the Mennonite Heritage Center collection offer some glimpses back to that time.

A little background

Some researchers believe that the influenza of 1918 originated on farms in western Kansas in the spring of that year. Most scientists and scholars now agree that the flu surfaced at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas, in March 1918, when soldiers suddenly became sick with an unidentified virus. With the large-scale, war-time movement of troops between and within the United States and Europe in these months, the influenza quickly spread and became a global epidemic. It is now understood that the virus arrived in Philadelphia with a ship full of sailors returning from a base near Boston to the Philadelphia Navy Yard in early September 1918. Hundreds of sailors fell ill there, and the virus soon found its way into the civilian population.

A severe shortage of medical personnel, because of war-time priorities, found the city ill-prepared for the onslaught of the virus. And, with virtually no resistance or major warnings from Philadelphia’s public health officials, a huge Liberty Loan parade was held, which brought about 200,000 people into the city’s streets on September 28th. The virus soon spread like wildfire through the population. It’s estimated that in the six weeks between late September and early November 1918, 12,000 people died in Philadelphia.

There are many articles about the 1918 flu pandemic available on-line. Just google some variation of the words 1918-influenza-Pennsylvania-Philadelphia-Spanish Flu, etc. I found this one helpful:

The virus soon spread to the rural areas outside the city, no doubt helped by the movement of workers back and forth, and by farmers from the countryside traveling weekly to markets in the city. And in these last weeks of the Great War and following, soldiers were beginning to return home from Europe and from camps here in the States, some carrying the virus with them.

Three diaries

For evidence of the impact of the pandemic on the Mennonite community in Montgomery County, we’ll look at diaries from October 1918 of three local persons: Henry D. Hagey, Henry C. Krupp, and Irwin R. Landes.

Henry Hagey, artist and diarist, in his “studio” in Elroy, Montgomery County, circa 1910. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection.

Henry Hagey

Henry D. Hagey (1868-1935) grew up in Franconia Township in a Mennonite family, but never joined the church of his youth. As an adult, he lived in the village of Elroy, became a house painter and paper hanger, but never married. In his spare time, he pursued historical and artistic interests. His diary reflects interest in news from beyond his rural community. The entries occasionally give brief summaries of world and national events and trends, and offer more detail than most diaries from his community. Here are some entries by Hagey from October through early November, 1918:

October 5th 1918. Nathaniel Landes died today. I was at the funeral of Anna Nyce, daughter of Wilson Nyce’s, Hatfield. All hotels and saloons around here and in Philadelphia (as places of gathering for people) closed for 10 days by board of health on account of Spanish Influenza.

October 6th 1918. Automobile-less Sunday. Today all Sunday Schools and church services were closed on account of Spanish Influenza, also called flu.

October 7th 1918. Rain. Yesterday I did not see one Automobile; many people are sick and many are dying.

October 10th 1918. All meeting houses are closed to funerals. [Other local sources also show that large, public funerals were not held during this time, and NO funerals were to be held indoors. Short graveside services were permitted.]

October 18th 1918. From October 1st to October 15th there were in Pennsylvania 7010 deaths caused by Spanish flu, and 3076 deaths caused by pneumonia, indirectly by the flu.
-Henry Hagey

October 20th 1918. The ban on automobiling is lifted. Very little people took advantage of it; many are sick, and many young men are in the training camps, and in the war.

October 25th 1918. Undertakers may not, and do not, open any caskets at places of burial, and funerals cannot go into the churches on account of the flu.

October 30th 1918. A small child of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph L. Freed died today.

October 31st 1918. Mrs. Joseph L. Freed died today.

[Hagey gets sick with the flu]
John Mininger cut down a bee tree in his woods. I went along to hive the bees… At noon I started home in good health. Halfway home while a little above Jonas Mininger’s, I felt something a little was wrong with me. And till I came home I was sick, and it turned out to be the Spanish flu. It did not last long as I resorted to the standard cure, whiskey; though I got the doctor before it was ended. [in pencil:] I had not used enough[!]

November 6th 1918. Government ban lifted on hotels. The ban on public meetings was carried out in many or most parts of the United States, remaining in force 32 days.

Page of Henry Hagey’s diary, from the first half of October 1918. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection.

Henry Krupp

Henry C. Krupp (1848-1929) was married first to Elizabeth Nice, second to Lydia Hunsberger, and was a farmer who lived near Souderton. Ordained as the first deacon for the Souderton Mennonite congregation in 1891, he kept a diary for forty years. His entries are not as descriptive as Henry Hagey’s. Here are several from October 1918:

October 3, 1918. I went to the [Franconia Mennonite] Conference [assembly]; nearly all [ordained leaders] were there.

October 4, 1918. Many people are dying from influenza.
-Henry Krupp

October 5, 1918.Annie Nyce was buried at Franconia, age 18[yrs]-10[mon]-8[days]. [Henry Hagey also attended this funeral and burial.]

October 19, 1918. Funeral of Edwin Keeler at Souderton, age 39[yrs]-7[mon]-23[days]. [His obituary says he died from pneumonia.]

October 26, 1918. I went to the funeral of H. D. Kulp, age 20-3-10; a private funeral for relatives at the grave. [Kulp’s obituary indicates he died from “brain fever”.]

October 27, 1918. Sunday. I hope this is the last Sunday without church services (which had been suspended on account of influenza). [There had been no church services for the whole month.]

Souderton Mennonite Meetinghouse in the 1920s. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection.

Irwin Landes

Irwin R. Landes (1860-1941) was married to Mary Ruth, was a butcher and farmer in Skippack Township, Montgomery County, and was ordained a preacher in the Upper Skippack Mennonite congregation in 1909. His diary entries are mainly a record of his Sunday activities and funerals attended:

Sunday Oct 6, 1918. We had no meeting [worship service]. All the Public places have been Quarantined on account of the French Influenza epidemic that was prevailing.

Saturday Oct 12. We have been at the funeral of Annie Reinford at [Upper] Skippack.

Sunday Oct 13, 1918. We had no meeting. Public places quarantined.

Saturday Oct 19, 1918. We have been at the funeral of Paul L., son of Henry and Ellen Alderfer, funeral private. [Ellen was Irwin & Mary Landes’ daughter; Paul L. Alderfer was their two week old grandson.]

Sunday Oct 20. We had no meeting, the public places [still] being Quarantined.

Thursday Oct 24. We have been at the funeral of Bro. Elias N. Bechtel of Salford.

Sunday Oct 27, 1918. We had no meeting, and for dinner we entertained Bro. Harvey Alderfer & family [daughter & son-in-law], Bro. Henry Alderfer & wife [daughter & son-in-law], Bro. Isaiah Landes & family [son & daughter-in-law], Bro. Norman Reinford & family [daughter & son-in-law]. [It’s interesting that Irwin Landes names his sons-in-law and son with the devout, fellow church-member title of Brother.]

Salford Mennonite Meetinghouse, circa 1922. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection.

These three diaries confirm that the quarantine or ban on public gatherings in the Philadelphia area lasted for at least four weeks – essentially the month of October, and into early November. The flu epidemic had run its course in eastern Pennsylvania and soon began to disappear. The news was soon dominated with the end of the Great War in Europe, and the Armistice on November 11. It seemed like the sickness and death of October 1918 was largely forgotten, at least by the news media.

Acknowledgement of source used:
Joyce Clemmer Munro, editor. Some Local History of Franconia Township… by Henry D. Hagey (Souderton, PA, 1979).