Looking Back

Spanish flu sweeps through county


[[[The Spanish flu had already swept through… when it arrived in Crawfordsville.]]]

“The only way an epidemic of this kind can be checked is to close up all public meetings, and not allow people to associate together in numbers,” the Crawfordsville Review warned on Oct. 8, 1918, after four residents became ill.

Montgomery County was one of the first areas in the state to battle the Spanish flu, which received its name despite a lack of consensus on where it began. All schools, churches and “places of public amusement” were ordered shut down, and students in Wabash College’s newly-opened Army training corps were granted leaves of absence as the virus spread through campus.

“Some public meetings continued and some organizations continue to announce meetings while the order forbids such meetings in the county,” the Review observed.

It was the second, far more deadly wave of the global pandemic, which had ignited in the spring before cases tapered off. The first U.S. case was reported at a Kansas military base in March 1918.

In all, an estimated 50 million people died over the two-year pandemic worldwide, more than the number who perished in World War I. The flu was blamed for about 675,000 deaths in the United States, where the average life expectancy dropped by 12 years over the course of the pandemic.

At Wabash’s training corps, ill cadets lined up for roll call. “The two companies had scarcely lined up when two men pitched suddenly to the floor,” historians James Osborne and Theodore Gronert wrote in “Wabash College, the First Hundred Years.”

“They were being carried out when another man in the ranks fainted. The man next to him bent to pick him up, and he too fainted. Before roll call had been completed ten men had fainted in the sight of the badly demoralized camps.”

A fraternity house was converted into a hospital. Classes at the college were suspended and football games called off.

The sick were urged to go to bed after the first symptoms, take a laxative and eat “plenty” of nourishing food. Seeking to avoid panic, doctors said the flu itself wasn’t highly deadly, but “the chief danger lies in complications arising, attacking principally, patients in a run down condition — those who don’t go to bed soon enough, or those who get up too early,” the Review reported on Oct. 15, 1918.

Many of the victims died from pneumonia, including 34-year-old prominent local dentist William Raymond Kirtley. Kirtley’s wife, Laurel, also caught the flu but survived.

In his memoir “Kirtley Kronicles,” the dentist’s son Dr. J. Marion Kirtley, who was eight when his father died, remembered the funeral at the family’s West Wabash Avenue home. He and his brother stayed with neighbors until their mother recovered.

“He was man of the house all of a sudden,” said his grandson, Ray Kirtley.

By late October as fewer people died and new cases slowed, doctors hoped colder weather would end the local epidemic.

As November arrived, most public schools returned to class, and theaters and businesses prepared to re-open.

There was reason to celebrate on Nov. 11, when fighting ended in the war and the county put on a massive parade.