As December 1918 progressed, the Spanish influenza pandemic that had gripped the country that fall began to ease somewhat in Vincennes. There were 23 new cases reported on Dec. 14 and 14 on Dec. 16, with some doctors unable to report. The emergency hospital that had opened at the Masonic Temple at Fifth and Broadway streets on Nov. 18, stopped accepting patients. That facility then had ten influenza victims being cared for by Red Cross nurses. At mid-month, Dr. Norman E. Beckes, who had been on a leave of absence as Secretary of the Vincennes Board of Health so that he could serve at the base hospital at Camp Taylor Kentucky, returned to the city to resume his duties.
Conflict between local businesses and the need for public safety was still evident. Local theater owners, who had been permitted to reopen their theaters on Dec. 5 after a period of required closing, temporarily refused to advertise in the Vincennes Commercial, believing that the newspaper’s coverage emphasizing the severity of the pandemic was hurting their business.
One concession that downtown businesses did make to the pandemic was an earlier closing time the full week prior to Christmas. Stores closed at 6 p.m. except on Saturday. Shoppers were encouraged to come in the morning hours, which were not as busy. Overall, despite the pandemic, Vincennes merchants did a booming holiday business; they claimed it was one of the best years ever.
By month’s end, Beckes announced (although somewhat prematurely as it turned out) that he believed the illness had run its course in the city. On Dec. 30, Vincennes schools reopened, after being out of session almost the entire fall term, and would remain open through the remainder of the pandemic.
Cases had declined in Vincennes, but there were outbreaks in other Knox County communities. Bicknell schools were forced to close again in January.
A look at the Vincennes Commercial for the first week of January 1919 shows little mention of the pandemic, other than some obituaries of local people who died from the virus. Then, once again, cases started mounting. By Jan. 9, there was another major spike in cases.
The Commercial began a daily list of Vincennes people who were ill with influenza, giving their condition, along with their address, gradually turning it into a special column. The purpose of the column was to let people know which homes they should avoid. There were more deaths as well. Among the victims was popular local businessman F. Webster McClure, Jr., who was manager of the Simpson Lumber Company. McClure was only 28 years old and had a wife and young daughter. He died of influenza on Jan. 9.
Overall, there were not as many cases of influenza in the city as there had been in December, and many of those cases were of a milder form. Still, one of the overriding concerns at that time was the fact that, in some homes in the poorer sections of the city, entire families were down with the virus with no one to care for them. Some of those families were lacking food, medicine, and fuel. That situation was described as “alarming,” and led city officials to establish another emergency hospital where those who were ill with influenza could be transported.
At a special meeting held on Jan. 20, the Vincennes City Council appropriated $1,200 for the Vincennes Board of Health to set up and maintain such a hospital. What was described as a “bungalow” along the river on the city’s south side was chosen for the facility. Patients were accepted there beginning on Jan. 23.
Cases continued to rise out in the county. In early February, the Sandborn High School closed because half the faculty was out with influenza. On March 25, approximately 70 cases were reported in Sandborn and the surrounding vicinity.
While cases of influenza were still significant, they were definitely on the decline. According to Indiana State Board of Health statistics, there were 2,900 deaths from influenza/pneumonia in the state in December 1918, that number falling to 1,375 in January 1919. Between October 1918 and January 1919, the height of the pandemic, 10,498 people in Indiana died from influenza/pneumonia.
In early March, even Vincennes Mayor James McDowell was home with a mild case of the flu. Still, with the coming of warmer weather the pandemic gradually came to an end and life returned to normal.
Brian Spangle can be reached at email@example.com. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published this year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.