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Bars stayed open as churches closed during 1918 Spanish flu that killed 147 in Belleville

100 years ago: Spanish flu hit Southern Illinois

Belleville News-Democrat archival headlines from 100 years ago and Kent Zimmerman, of O’Fallon, talks about the Spanish flu epidemic in Southern Illinois.
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Belleville News-Democrat archival headlines from 100 years ago and Kent Zimmerman, of O’Fallon, talks about the Spanish flu epidemic in Southern Illinois.

This is another installment of “Into the Archives,” a series that looks back on stories from the Belleville News-Democrat archives.

Some hospitals in Southern Illinois have categorized this year's flu season as "one of the worst in recent history." Positive results on flu swabs are up, hospitalizations due to the disease are on the rise and at least 97 children in the United States have died so far.

The season has even affected mankind's best friend as there have been cases of a dog version of the flu.

As unnerving as these reports may be, they are nothing compared to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.

According to a Belleville News-Democrat special edition of medical history published in July 2008, the death toll world-wide from the Spanish flu epidemic was "20 million to 100 million people ... depending on which estimate you believe."

To put those numbers into perspective, around 17 million people died in World War I, which was going on at that time. The Spanish flu was on par with the "Black Death," a medieval plague epidemic that experts estimate killed around 25 million people.

In the spring of 1918, it is believed the men returning from World War I brought the disease home to the United States. The epidemic slowly spread across the country.

Holding back the epidemic

On Oct. 10, 1918, the BND reported, "There seems to be no danger of an epidemic of the disease in Belleville at present." A few weeks later, the paper was proved wrong.

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At first, experts thought the Spanish flu epidemic was going to spare Southern Illinois. BND archives

Bob Brunkow, a historian for the Belleville Historical Society, said the president of the city’s board of health at that time was Buenaventura H. Portuondo, a Cuban-born physician and prominent member of Belleville society.

According to Portuondo's obituary from the BND on March 9, 1939, he was educated at Columbia University's School of Medicine in New York and did post-graduate work at the Sorbonne Medical College in Paris, France.

A devout Catholic, Portuondo was a Knight of St. Gregory, a papal knighthood established to recognize special merit or services rendered to the Catholic church.

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Buenaventura H. Portuondo was the president of Belleville's board of health when the Spanish flu hit in 1918. BND archive

"He lived at 203 Abend Street, across the street from the Koerner house." Brunkow said. "That’s where he practiced medicine. You can pretty well guess that he had flu victims coming into his office in that house."

According to Brunkow, Portuondo lived next door to Christian Knebelkamp, the Belleville alderman who was kicked off city council in early 1918 because it was discovered that he was an undocumented immigrant.

In an effort to prevent the spread of the flu in Belleville, Portuondo and the rest of the Board of Health, in early October 1918, closed all schools and theaters, banned dances, club meetings and public gatherings.

Brunkow said, "Tactics employed were the same here as elsewhere. They tried to contain contagion by limiting interaction — closing schools and businesses at six in the evening, except for saloons initially, as well as restaurants."

Pharmacies were allowed to remain open but could only sell medicines, only one of the many services that they offered.

"Pharmacies might have soda fountains," Brunkow said. "But you didn't want those to be in use at that point."

According to articles in the BND, judges were instructed to avoid large trials so people would not gather together. The railroad was required to "fumigate its cars regularly."

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During the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, Belleville police asked residents to burn leaves from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. BND archive

Belleville police issued a request for residents to burn leaves only between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. The reasoning was "...when the leaves are damp from evening's dews or in the morning when they are soaked, they will not burn, but only smoke" causing further distress to influenza victims.

The Illinois State Council of Defense took the request a step further and issued a 1918 bulletin: "Burning leaves is burning dollars." It suggested residents mix leaves with manure and lime to create compost piles for fertilizer rather than burning them.

The State Council of Defense was created by the Illinois General Assembly and approved by the Illinois Governor on May 2, 1917 to recommend laws "necessary in time of war, to the common defense or the public welfare." World War I officially ended on Nov. 11, 1918.

Board hesitated to close churches

After 19 new flu cases were reported in Belleville overnight, the Belleville Ministerial Alliance voluntarily closed the churches rather than waiting on an order from the Board of Health. The ministerial alliance did not include the area Lutheran and Catholic churches.

Following the ministerial alliance's action, the Board of Health voted to close all of the Belleville churches. It was criticized for not closing the churches sooner.

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Area churches closed during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. BND archive

The BND reported, "The fact that the Board of Health has thus far failed to request the churches to close is the cause of much unfavorable comment among the physicians who say no half-way measures, giving preference to any special thing, should be established."

More public places were closed in addition to the previous list: "Churches, Sunday schools, club rooms, bowling alleys and billiard and pool halls," the BND reported in 1918.

Health benefits of booze

Patrons persisted in frequenting the Belleville saloons, despite the threat of the flu, because they believed the beer would contribute positively to their health.

"It was commonly known that drinking was helpful," Brunkow said. "Because of the benefits of the grains that were used."

"Every effort was made to keep the saloons open," Brunkow said. However, city leaders wanted to address the concern that social contact breeds the flu.

The Board of Health established requirements for saloons to remain open.

"They had to take out the tables and chairs," Brunkow said. "No card playing or kibitzing (chatting with friends). You can come in to drink and then you had to go home."

Because of these assumed health benefits, people started drinking who had not been imbibing before the flu epidemic. The BND reported, "It is stated that in some communities certain parties have not been entirely sober since the first case of the influenza was reported by the local doctors."

On Oct. 22, 1918, the BND covered a disturbing the peace trial for public drunkenness. In front of Judge Ben Lautz, James Wells explained his improper behavior was due to health concerns.

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The BND reported the mayor of New Athens shut down all saloons during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. BND archive

"I'm not a drinking man at all and have never been arrested," Wells said. "But I heard so, so much talk that drinking would prevent influenza, that I guess I did drink a little too much over Sunday and while in that state the trouble must have happened."

In a separate incident, James Redman, an out-of-town visitor to Belleville who came to the saloon looking for "a good time," decided to imbibe "all that his capacity would hold." His capacity was exceeded according to the bartender of the Hill saloon who refused to serve Redman any more alcohol.

The end of the dispute, which the BND reported, was: "Too much whiskey and too much talk results in $5 and the costs."

Rowdy Belleville drinkers were fortunate compared to thirsty New Athens, where the mayor closed down all saloons rather than risk spreading infection.

Eventually, even the Belleville saloons were closed during the week, but because of protests, they were allowed to open on Sundays.

'I am the vine. You are the branches.'

The Rev. W.M. Elliott of the Presbyterian Church of Belleville disagreed with the "no church, open saloons on Sunday" policy in an announcement he made at the home of one of the members of his church.

According to the BND, Rev. Elliott said, "Again the churches of Belleville are called upon to fore-go their regular services. Willing to cooperate and eager to cooperate in every possible way for the advancement of the best interests of our city, there is a growing feeling of protest against the discrimination which allows the saloons to remain open on Sundays."

He added, "We call for a consistent program."

Rev. Elliott asked everyone to give "a thoughtful and prayerful reading" to the 15th chapter of John in the Bible. It references a lesson Jesus Christ gave to his disciples — a metaphor about a vine and branches.

The King James version reads: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing."

Despite any hard feelings, the Rev. Joseph H. Schlarman, rector of St. Peter's Church, offered the cathedral as a place to house and treat influenza victims. Just six years prior to the epidemic, St. Peter's had burned down in a fire, but the space had been rebuilt to its former glory.

The Board of Health approved and the St. Elizabeth's Hospital began using the space in addition to its own buildings.

Friend of lawbreakers and foe of miners

The local justice system was severely affected when the St. Clair County jail refused to accept any new prisoners because it was under quarantine.

"When a man is arrested by a constable of policemen and taken before a justice for a hearing and is then committed to jail, the chances are that he will go free for there is no chance to breaking into jail at present," reported the BND in 1918.

Judges refused to try cases that required multiple witnesses because of the injunction to not gather people together in enclosed spaces.

The BND editorialized, "Taking it all in all, it looks that the influenza has one good friend and that is the lawbreaker."

Influenza was not so friendly to the local miners.

Miner John H. Wieck of Belleville and hundreds of his coworkers took the southern railway to work in the mines. He filed an official complaint with city leaders, including Mayor R.E. Duvall, about unsanitary conditions in railway cars after he noticed many miners were falling ill with the flu.

Among the issues Wieck noticed: the cars were not heated or ventilated on cold days, there were no functional toilets and hundreds of men were pressed together in a tight space.

Mayor Duvall replied in a note that he would forward Wieck's concerns to the Board of Health. After waiting for a reply and not receiving an answer, Wieck brought all the communications to the BND, which published the letters in full.

Wieck wrote, "The conditions are getting worse instead of better. Since my letter to the mayor, two of the members of the Shiloh local who rode on that train have died... The miners ride on the train not from choice but of necessity in order to mine the coal that is so badly needed."

After the complaint, the railroad was required to fumigate its cars.

O'Fallon death records and living relatives

Schwarz Undertaking and Furniture kept records of deaths in O'Fallon around the turn of the century.

The Schwarz brothers, Matt K. Schwarz and Leonard E. Schwarz, sold the undertaking part of their business to L.M. Wolfersberger and Othmar J. Meyer in 1946. The Schwarz undertaking records passed to the new business owners and are currently preserved by Jim and Kim Sabella, owners of Wolfersberger Funeral Home in O'Fallon.

From October 1918 to April 1919, there were 55 deaths recorded and 12 had "influenza" listed as the cause of death. The actual deaths from the epidemic may have been higher because some of the records were only partially filled and others had "pneumonia," a symptom of the flu, as cause of death.

Some of the influenza deaths listed in in the records were: Mabel G. Scheibel, age 3; Clarence C. Bridges, a farmhand from Kansas; Genevive Streck, age 75; Christiena Kosnia Monken, age 55; and Frances Ella Mace, age 25.

Frances Ella Mace is listed in the funeral records of Schwarz Undertaking and Furniture. Her cause of death in Dec. 1918 was influenza. Provided

Frances Mace's great-grandparents were Henry and Drusilla Mace, early settlers of the O'Fallon area.

Kent Zimmerman, 57, of O'Fallon, is also descended from Henry and Drusilla Mace. They are his fourth great-grandparents.

Henry and Drusilla Mace had six children. Frances Mace and Kent Zimmerman are related through those children.

Until approached by a reporter about a possible connection, Zimmerman had been unaware of this distant family member who died in the Spanish flu epidemic.

Zimmerman completed some family research and discovered they were indeed related.

"Frances Ellen Mace was born on March 19, 1893 and died on December 2, 1918," Zimmerman said. "She is buried in Shiloh Valley Cemetery, plot 108, across from Shiloh Methodist Church."

"Frances was the daughter of Eugene Mace and Fannie Simmons Mace, granddaughter of John Mace and Rebecca Waite Mace and great-granddaughter of Henry Mace and Drusilla Andrews Mace," he said.

Zimmerman, trustee of the small Mace Cemetery located next to the O'Fallon City Cemetery, believes the funeral record may have been slightly inaccurate.

"It says 'Ella' for her middle name but her tombstone reads 'Ellen'," Zimmerman said.

Belleville flu deaths and the undead

Despite efforts to hold back the epidemic, hundreds became ill in towns across the metro-east. The Illinois State Board of Health sent an order to Portuondo which banned public funerals.

The BND reported in 1918, "Funerals in Belleville from now on and while the epidemic of influenza lasts must be strictly private."

In Belleville alone, Brunkow, local historian, said out of a population of approximately 24,835 people, there were about 2,200 cases of the flu. Almost 10 percent of the population was infected.

For almost three months, influenza deaths appeared on the front page of the BND every day.

Edward D. Budde of 124 S. Chesnut St., Belleville died of influenza on a Tuesday afternoon. His 17-year-old son William had died the evening before. All the remaining members of the Budde family were sick, according to the BND obituary for both father and son.

The BND reported, "One of Belleville's oldest best known and most beloved residents..." Maria Neu, 88, died at 2 p.m. on a Monday at St. Elizabeth's Hospital. The first line of her obituary read "Grandma Neu is dead."

Edward Anderson, a resident of Keck's Boarding House at 116 W. Main St., died of the flu "while sitting in a chair reading."

More deaths from the flu that appeared on the front page of the BND in 1918: Louise Schirmer, sister of Adolph Schirmer, proprietor and manager of the Belleville House; Albert J. Baker, manager of the Baker Stove Works of Belleville; and former Chicago mayor John P. Hopkins.

147 residents died. The BND reported Belleville was the fourth hardest hit city in Illinois for influenza deaths.

With so many deaths in so short a time, it's understandable some reporting mistakes were made.

In a 1918 retraction about a Belleville West End resident, the BND reported, "Louis Menkhausen is not dead. The fact that he was seriously ill with influenza caused a report to that effect to circulate throughout town on Thursday... an item stating that he was dead appeared in Thursday's paper. Menkhausen is much alive and is well on the road to recovery."

Belleville Police Chief Sam Stookey also "denied rumor of his death" when he showed up for work one Monday after he had been ill. Apparently, he had quite a few conversations "before he could convince the people who he met that he was not dead," reported the BND.

Uncle Sam's suggestions and Scott Field

The U.S. Public Health Service issued a nationwide bulletin, published in the BND in 1918, called, "Uncle Sam's advice on the flu." Some of the suggestions for avoiding the epidemic included: "having a proper proportion of work, play and rest," "eating sufficient wholesome and properly selected food," and also "keeping the body well-clothed."

The bulletin included a graphic of a group of men with the words: "Coughs and sneezes spread diseases as dangerous as poison gas shells."

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From the U.S. Public Health Service in 1918: Coughs and sneezes spread diseases as dangerous as poison gas shells. BND archives

Scott Air Force Base, then called Scott Field, also took emergency measures to prevent the spread of disease.

"Capt. C.O. Bayliss has the situation well in hand and has taken every measure possible to prevent the spread of the disease at the camp," reported the BND. "The field has been quarantined and soldiers are not allowed to come to town except on necessary business."

Military bases across the United States were struck with the flu epidemic. The front page of the BND shared the obituaries of many area residents who went to serve and then died away from home on military bases.

Some of the local military men who died and whose names were published in the BND were: Ernst G. Meyer, of Belleville, died in France, Joseph Metze, of Belleville, died at Camp Bradley in Peoria, Walter Stein, of Belleville, died at Camp Taylor in Louisville, Ky. and Charles W. Rausch, of Hecker, who died at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

The flu today

For flu treatment now, medicine has created antivirals and even better vaccines. Laura Texter, an infection prevention specialist, from Memorial Hospital, Belleville, shared recent developments to flu treatment.

"Antivirals are the best thing we have at the moment," Texter said in a recent email. "They can lessen symptoms, shorten the time you are ill, and can also help prevent complications such as pneumonia."

The biggest misconception that people seem to have today in treatment of the flu is "antivirals 'cure' the flu," according to Texter.

Lee French, an emergency preparedness coordinator, also from Memorial Hospital, Belleville, said there are emergency plans in place for epidemics on such a large scale in the United States today, though he could only comment on it from the hospital's perspective.

"...the state and county both have pandemic plans," French said in a recent email. "The state will be responsible for supporting the counties, mainly by providing distribution of antivirals and supplies that come from the CDC."

French said the state police would limit movement throughout the state depending on the scale of the hypothetical pandemic.

How likely is it there will ever be another epidemic like the 1918 Spanish flu?

Texter said, "According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the pandemic flu has happened three times in the 20th century. Most experts agree it is likely there will be another one."

The Associated Press and BND reporter Elizabeth Donald contributed to this article.