In 1918, ‘the worst thing I ever knew’


By Shelby Boatman - For The News Journal



Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a 2-part series on how the nation, and specifically Clinton County, faced the pandemic of 1918.

Doctors overwhelmed

According to records, there were approximately 40 Clinton County doctors serving the community at the time of the pandemic.

The peak of the epidemic had officially hit the community and research was supporting that the assembling of crowds was causing mass spread. Suggestions of holding private funerals were made, and officials were declaring, “Avoid crowds and you are avoiding danger”.

Influenza was reported in Blanchester by the local paper on Saturday, Oct. 12 stating “influenza has struck the village, but in a light form…”

Community members like barber Harry Bath began to carry out other important duties such as delivering mail, while others operated telephones as workers struggled to recover.

Dr. U. G. Murrell was quoted telling the Wilmington Daily News that the epidemic situation was “very bad, very bad — the worst thing I ever knew. I’ve had from 20 to 50 calls daily, and an average of more than 40 to make for 10 days in two weeks.”

New cases were growing by the day, and families with one member infected were soon seen more often spreading it to their loved ones in shared homes. Pneumonia was the subsequent battle of an influenza diagnosis and also claimed the lives of many locals.

The local Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Co. shockingly closed their offices for two nights during the height of the pandemic. The paper reported for the first time in many years the telegraph operator was also off-duty.

Curfews were installed locally requiring the public to be in their homes by 7 o’clock, and students kept away from school if they were exhibiting symptoms.

Then it returned

After some improvement locally in influenza cases, restrictions were lifted, schools reopened, and life returned to normal.

But, by Dec. 14, 1918, Clinton County had witnessed a resurgence of cases and the local Board of Health implemented new orders: “All public places where people congregate in numbers, are to be closed again Monday morning.” Public schools, pool rooms, picture shows, etc. were closed until further notice. The board expressed “there is no concern for fright or panic, but there is occasion for prudence and common sense.”

After the second short lockdown in Clinton County, case amounts had improved, and by Tuesday, Dec. 17 the “lid [was] lifted” when conditions justified the Board of Health to remove all restrictions.

Local obituaries and burials in Sugar Grove Cemetery continued into the new year, but life began to return to some feeling of normality as the community entered 1919.

Back to the future

These statistics and stories come to us not from 2020, but rather 103 years ago during the 1918 Flu Pandemic. You can note they sound eerily similar to today. Lockdowns, masks, and social distancing were implemented to save lives.

A sudden change in lifestyle took place for the citizens of Clinton County, much like a lifestyle change has been witnessed recently.

What can bring us comfort and hope is that our community survived a previous pandemic, and will survive this one. Years ago citizens and businesses rallied together to support one another much like they have today.

May we take heart in knowing we are not alone during this pandemic. As we social distance from friends and family, may we remember not all too long ago many of our ancestors faced a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, too.

Many of our great-grandparents or even great-great grandparents were forced to cancel plans, stay home, and mask up.

Let us find solace in knowing that although history often repeats itself, we can learn how Clinton Countians, our local medical professionals, and families bravely face a pandemic. We have been Clinton County Strong for well over 100 years; may we continue to be so as we fight COVID-19.

Shelby Boatman is Director of the Clinton County Historical Society.

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By Shelby Boatman

For The News Journal