One hundred years ago this month, the pandemic of Spanish flu that ravaged the world, also struck Ashland County.
The disease killed an estimated hundred million people worldwide, including over a half-million Americans. Of the 100,000 American casualties of the Great War, 40 percent were due to influenza.
Spanish influenza was an efficient killer that inexplicably targeted the generally young and healthy. Highly contagious, the virus knocked its hosts off their feet and put them in bed for at least a week. Sometimes the flu turned into pneumonia that left victims gasping for air, filled their lungs with blood and fluid, and tinged their skin blue. Essentially, they drowned.
In Ashland County, the death rate for the month of October 1918 spiked to 78, with 59 of those deaths attributed to influenza or its attendant pneumonia. While the youngest victim was newborn and the eldest 63, the average age of those who died of the flu in Ashland was 27.
The flu struck Ashland while the country was fully engaged in the Great War in Europe. In fact, troop movements were instrumental in its spread.
On Sept. 25, the Ashland Press noted the death of a local soldier, Ernest Burns, at the Great Lakes Training Station. On Oct. 2, it reported that Thomas Mowery had died at Camp Sherman.
The epidemic quickly struck Ashland. From Oct. 9 through Oct. 30, each issue of the weekly paper was filled with local death notices.
One prominent local victim was Tierney Moore, aged 32, who ran the Enterprise department store on Main Street. He died after an illness lasting a week, at 4 p.m. on Saturday and was buried within 24 hours.
On the 10th of the month, the Loudonville Advocate stated that there were more than 25,000 influenza cases in Ohio, with numerous deaths. It also said that with one-fourth of the population of Ashland sick, Ashland’s doctors were seeking assistance.
Fifteen deaths occurred at Samaritan Hospital. Most died at home, and many more of the sick eventually recovered.
Ordinary life paused during October. Schools and churches closed. Pool rooms also closed, and all social gatherings ceased. On Oct. 9, it was reported that the courthouse had been fumigated, and stores were encouraged to fumigate their rooms.
The Star telephone company struggled to maintain service because so many employees were sick. The post office also noted that 21 employees had the flu and the remaining carriers were taking double shifts. Even the newspaper had difficulty in getting to press.
All of Ashland’s death certificates were signed by 13 different local doctors. W.F. Emery and G.W. Jacoby each signed eight. Ruth Frye, a 23 year-old nurse, died at the hospital on Oct. 17.
The matter-of-fact nature of official records does not reflect the emotional toll the epidemic must have taken on Ashland’s medical profession. However, one telling clue lies in the obituary of Dr. Wilson McClellan, who died in March 1922.
McClellan’s obituary notes that he died after a lingering illness, which came on after he "became exhausted from the severe strain he was undergoing during the latter days of the war." He had served as the examining physician for the draft board in Ashland County, and during the epidemic, he signed seven death certificates.
Sarah Kearns, who writes the Ashland Memories column for every other Saturday, works at the Ashland Public Library. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.