How One Family Endured: The 1918 Influenza

Posted in Miscellaneous on May 2015

With the advent of the internet, people have already begun straying from writing their thoughts in tangible diaries and journals. As someone who studied History in college, discovering the most intimate and personal writings from past generations can be quite important and, often, poignant. As more and more people are blogging about their day and personal thoughts, rummaging through a dust attic and finding an old diary will soon be a thing of the past. Which, in my opinion, is very sad. However, because of the interconnectivity of the internet we are able to quickly discover others’ writings, but it might not be as personal. Diaries were often never to be viewed by another, while a journal’s purpose can vary.

In college, writing History paper after History paper, I found these personal writings to be a prolific vision into the past. Which brings me to this article’s topic. Several years ago a paper of mine was published regarding the 1918 Influenza. If you’ve never heard of this pandemic, many haven’t, then you’re missing out on a massive tragedy in the early 20th century. After my publication, I wanted to expand my research—finding firsthand stories about those who lived through the influenza. I spoke to a local newspaper and they were happy to help with my search. I wrote a short article about my publication, and, at the end, asked for firsthand accounts of the pandemic. Within a few days, a woman reached out to me and gave detailed accounts of the influenza as it swept through a small town, 184 miles south of Chicago, within Illinois called Mattoon.

Television wasn’t introduced into households until the late 1920s. Word-of-mouth, letters, and newspapers were the only ways to communication throughout America in the early 20th century. So, when the Influenza began ravaging the United States, at least in the early stages, people were unaware of the prominence of the virus. Going about their daily lives, people were roaming streets, going to church, helping the sick, all catching and spreading the virus.

Like most people, work and life took precedence, and expanding my research of the 1918 Influenza ceased. As I began creating a personal website, and thinking about incorporating a blog, I quickly turned to my ceased endeavor. Like most boxes in attics and basements, they might get thrown out—memories and all. However, I didn’t want that to happen to the woman who reached out to me. I’ve chosen to transcribe her letter, so anyone, researching the influenza to leisurely readers, can get a glimpse into the past. Elaine Ooley gave me four handwritten pages:

Elaine Mecedese Bousha Brown Ooley
I was born 27 January 1914 at Two Harbors, Minnesota to Raymond Dennis Bousha and Flossa Mae Woodworth Bousha. My father was a railroad conductor on the Great Northern and transferred to Mattoon, Illinois working for the Big Four Railroad and Illinois central We lived at 1017 Broadway in a four room house with outdoor privys (toilets) with a henhouse-chicken and duck/geese pens- also off the ground rabbit boxes- large garden space in a fenced backyard. Next door was Mr. & Mrs. McDonald with kids for my little sister Marguerite (Marty) to play with. We each had a pet rabbit & warm rabbit fur coats in the winter. Made with my fathers tanned hides sewed by my mother to wear over our flour sack dresses & long leg underwear.

Apparently my sister and I got the flu from the Mcdonald kids since I remember I couldn’t play with my friend next door. I remember Marty laid on a feather pillow in the “warm room” where there was a large “round stove” with windows (icing glass) with a pot of water or soup on the top. I think I got the flue by don’t remember.

Suddenly mama was in bed but I couldn’t go in for Dad put a gait across the doorway. We all wore long underwear—goose grease in rags on our chests an Vicks Vapor Rub under our noses and on our throats and had castor oil forced down our throats.

We had two window boxes to put food in the winter and a well, with buckets, to take food down in the summer.

I remember Daddy explaining why our pet rabbits had to go to “heaven” to help Jesus feed the hungry. We agreed but cried. We had always eaten rabbits, squirrels, deer chickens, and ducks.

I remember Daddy taking me to the window boxes where there were blue crocks with rabbit and squirl in them. He showed me the tin milk boxes on the porch and said Larry was going to bring things and put in box by door. I was to do what Larry told me to do. I liked Larry he worked with my Daddy and they kept bricks on our stove toward our beds. One morning I woke up Daddy was sitting in his chair with a quilt on. He said “Robbin” that was his name for me- he told me years later the name fit for I was always “chirping”. Robin go out door—bring in milk & our tincups. He took off the cream tops & said take them to mamas bedroom—she was sitting up. I was told to bring meat from boxes which he put in pan on top of “round stove.” Someone brought bread to the back door. Larry came filled the “round stove” with coke and kitchen stove with coal, putting water in the reservoir (Hole I called it) filling bottles with water from the pump over the sink. He took the (“slop jars”) our toilets out & cleaned them. We all, except mama, ate meat, bread, apples & black walnuts our bread had honey on it.

One morning, Daddy sitting in his chair told me to put the slop jars outside, bring in milk bottles & bread and some meat from boxes and get Grandpa’s cane. A nice woman came in put water from the “Hole” bathed Marty and I and gave us candy. Mama walked with the Lady (we called Angel) (my mother said she was an angel).

We didn’t have to take Castor oil because Daddy needed it. Larry kept coming and Daddy went to bed. The Angel came to see mama.

My mother’s comments:

Apparently our illness was so frightening that each winter we were “goose greased-vapor rubbed and given Castor Oil. She said she had the influenza and pneumonia and wasn’t expected to live—that the doctor only came once because he got sick. She said she didn’t know how my father, as sick as he was took care and fed us for so long.

I went to Longfellow school in a year or so and learned two of my McDonald playments[sic] died. Learned that Larry’s wife was a victim of the epidemic.

Yes I knew about war—when the troops would march down Broadway past our house—my mother and Dad carried buckets of water to the curb filled two tincups with water and two little girls (Marty & Elaine) carried them to a soldier.

Imagine today if many drink water out of a the same tin cup—ate fried foods & bakery made with lard—drank non-pasteurized milk—washed their hair in rainwater once a week. Took a bath in a wash tub filled with water used by your sister—had a sundae dress … flour sack dresses and knit stockings and shoes with no toes in the summer time.

My story
Elaine Bousha Brown Ooley

Although not a groundbreaking account, this insight was probably quite common during the pandemic. Not only was a war waging, but a virus was spreading. Children often found themselves learning how to maintain a household if a parent was lost to the pandemic. As the virus engulfed much of the world, no one felt safe. Headlines began springing up, while public venues closed to cease the spread of the unforgiving virus. Elaine Ooley’s story is unique and gives us a glimpse into a rural life as the 1918 Influenza entered her town.

Please feel free to use Ooley’s story, but remember to site as the source.

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