Think all of this is new? The wearing of masks, quarantines, social distancing, all of that?
More than 100 years ago, influenza swept across the globe, killing tens of millions of people.
The outbreak was know as the Spanish Flu, because it was believed to have started in San Sebastian, Spain. It was later learned to have started elsewhere but Spain was given the dubious distinction because since it was neutral during World War I and didn’t censor its news. The United States, and many other countries engaged in the war, censored bad news so as not to encourage their enemies.
The flu, which has since been identified as a strain of H1N1, hit the United States early in 1918 and intensified by the fall. Symptoms included high fever, cough, dizziness, and heavy perspiration. Frequently bronchial pneumonia developed, with death following in a high percentage of such cases.
This strain of flu was unusual in that it was deadliest to healthy young adults. From October through the end of the year, it killed 974 people in Omaha alone.
The state’s overall death toll was variously reported between 2,800 to 7,500 people—a broad range because Nebraska’s reporting was so woefully incomplete, according to History Nebraska. Federal officials considered Nebraska’s numbers so inaccurate that they omitted them when calculating the nation’s total infection rate and mortality. Medical professionals gave various reasons for this. Many said that the large number of patients left them little time to keep good records.
Globally, World War I killed 15 to 19 million people, military and civilian, including 751 Nebraska soldiers. The influenza pandemic proved far deadlier, taking somewhere between 50 and 100 million human lives.
In Lincoln and Omaha, crowding and travel as well as non-compliance with the ban on public gatherings, allowed the disease to reach out-of-control proportions. In rural areas, things were different. State historians say non-compliance usually entailed local politicians trying to break quarantine to pursue their campaigns, with residents protesting and sticking to the quarantine. To the extent that communities used them, measures such as “social distancing” and quarantines seemed to reduce the spread of the virus.
For example, in October, the State Board of Health ordered closed all public meetings, schools, churches, theaters and all types of entertainment. Mayor Poucher banned any public gathering in Tekamah, including dances, until further notice.
In the original social distancing, large, red “Keep Moving,” signs were posted in every public place in the city. Anyone occupying a particular place for more than three minutes was subject to a $100 fine.
Mail would continue to be delivered, but letter carriers all wore white cloth masks over their faces.
Quarantine rules were issued for affected homes. Anyone in a house with a diseased person had to remain in the house until the quarantine was lifted. Only a doctor or nurse could enter or leave, but trained medical professionals were in short supply due to the war effort.
Necessary supplies could be brought to a quarantined home and left at the door. Soiled clothing could be sent to the laundry if it was in a package covered by paper.
On Nov. 1, 1918, the Burt County Herald reported that the county Board of Health believed the epidemic was subsiding locally, saying, “not a grown-up person had been lost,” to the disease.
Indeed, only one death had been recorded in Tekamah. But by the following March, the city had mourned 13 deaths, Ivan Tuttle being the last on March 21, 1919.
After three weeks, a citywide quarantine was lifted in early November.
The Burt County Herald on Nov. 8 reported the easing came “much to the delight of merchants and the public in general.”
But it didn’t last.
A memorial service for Julius LaFrenz, the first Tekamah resident killed in World War I and for whom the local American Legion Post is named, was postponed indefinitely. Churches and schools were again ordered closed and World War I victory celebrations were postponed across the state.
No Christmas events or entertainments were held and Nebraska merchants sustained severe losses from the slump in trade during the last six weeks of the year. In Gering, a department store arranged for a visit by Santa Claus on Dec. 2, but hundreds of children were shocked when police arrested both Santa and the store owner for violating a local ban.
A strict statewide quarantine also limited revelry on New Year’s Eve. The Jan. 3, 1919, issue of the Herald reported the new year receiving the quietest reception in some time, “with no jollifications of any kind.” They also called it, “the quietest New Year’s Eve in Tekamah since the invention of bells.”
Burt County was not entirely unfamiliar with pandemic disease. In 1905, for example, smallpox was raging.
According to records, an outbreak started in Burt County in the Silver Creek area. To prevent its spread in town, guards were posted at the edge of town. Settlers coming to town for supplies had to give their orders to the guards who then purchased the articles and returned them to the settlers waiting at the edge of town.
At the time, there was a large amount of transient farm help. In case of illness, they were often asked to leave the various homes, especially if there were young children in the home.
Tekamah had what was known as a “Pest House.” It is believed to have been across the highway from where Master’s Hand Candle Co. is today.
Nally “Cotton” Mossberger was willing to be the caretaker of the house because he was reportedly “self-immunized,” against the deadly disease.
Although the county supported the pest house, it was never occupied by more than one person at a time. As additional medical aid became available in later years, the pest house was no longer needed.