War and Pestilence: Kansas City, World War I and the 1918 Influenza

(originally published 3/5/20)

(Note from Summer 2021: When I first ran this piece just over a year ago, the current pandemic was just kicking into super spreader mode. There was much confusion about what to do, who should do it, and how many weeks or (yikes!) months it might take for this to be over. My hope for this story was just to add to the body of knowledge by reaching into our own history and reminding ourselves we’ve done this before, and how we did it. Sadly, not only here in Kansas City but across the world, that approach, like too many others, woefully missed the mark.

As I draft this post for the second time, I’m disheartened to have to run it again, seeing the frightening rise of variants that keep the future uncertain. And I’m though I’m still naively hoping that history has something to teach us, the fact that we are still struggling with this makes it more imperative to never miss the opportunity to try. I know that this pandemic, not yet behind us, has already taught us something, if for once we bother to learn. I also know that for the most part, I am preaching to the choir among my readers. A special thanks for being the watchful and the caring.)

In April 1917, the United States joined its European allies in the fight against Germany. In preparation, the US Army established training camps at 16 forts around America, and Camp Funston, in Fort Riley (130 miles west of Kansas City), was one of them. Some 50,000 troops would eventually pass through Camp Funston on their way overseas, and as many as half of those had already shipped out a year later when sickness hit the trainees in March 1918. That month, the camp physician notified public health officials of what appeared to be an outbreak of influenza among the soldiers. Reports vary as to the number of cases, from 250 to 1000, but agree that 48 resulted in death. When the influenza outbreak was soon followed by a cluster of pneumonia cases, it muddied the diagnosis of influenza. And besides, the contagion appeared to have passed within a month. Nothing apparently came of the camp physician’s report.

Camp Funston, Fort Riley, KS, 1918. Camp Funston was one of the earliest US Army camps to be stricken. Public domain image.

The pandemic was known then as the Spanish flu, misnamed because an early theory that linked its origins to Spain. The disease swept the United States for about a year beginning early in 1918. Experts still debate the origins of the disease. There had been earlier reports of flu outbreaks in Europe – known today to have been a lesser strain, referred to as the first wave. But over the spring and early summer months, sizeable outbreaks were reported in Europe – France, Germany, England, Russia and, of course, Spain – as well as Asia – India, China and the Philippines.

The trenches of Belgium and France proved an ideal breeding ground for more virulent strain of the second wave. By war’s end, it is estimated that one out of every 67 US soldiers would fall victim. When they first shipped out in the spring of 1918, hundreds of thousands of soldiers passed through Kansas City by rail. For once, Kansas City’s position as a transportation crossroads would not serve it well. By the time the troops returned home, again by train, in the fall and winter of 1919, the disease took its toll on Kansas City.

A health reminder clipped from one of the Kansas City papers of the day. Courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri – Kansas City: J.C. Nichols Scrapbooks

The disease first presented with familiar symptoms – fever, congestion, aches and pains – then magnified times ten, with lesions, hemorrhaging, and delirium . It was highly contagious, and for those whom it would prove fatal, it ran its course quickly. But the deaths were not distributed evenly. Evidence showed this strain of influenza was particularly hard on young men and women in their prime, ages 20 to 40. Diseases like this are generally most lethal for the very old, the very young, and the very frail. But this at-risk population included the very people in society who were most apt to care for others – their children, their aging parents, their neighbors. They were also the most likely to be out and about shopping, riding streetcars, going to theatres and amusement parks, anywhere there were large groups. The very part of the population to quarantine if the disease was to be contained.

The medical community had little to offer in terms of understanding or treating the disease. Influenza had been recognized for two hundred years, but had been misdiagnosed or misunderstood – early assumptions held it was a bacteria. The first virus had been identified only about 20 years earlier, and the first flu vaccine was still 30 years in the future. What treatments there might have been often went ungiven. Roughly half of US doctors, and most of the best, had joined the army. Treatment, such as it was, was in short supply, particularly in rural areas. Doctors and nurses fell victim in the act of treating the disease. There was only palliative care to offer, the standard home remedies: stay warm, drink plenty of fluids, and keep the fever down. The focus was then, as it is today, on preventative measures. Doctors advised everyone to wash their hands frequently, to not spit on the sidewalk, and to avoid crowds. The response from the government was not much more.

A summary timeline of Kansas City’s public management of its Spanish Influenza crisis. Source: Missouri Historical Review

The City of Kansas City started by denying the problem, an approach that many places adopted and all came to regret. The reasons are many – the impulse to maintain calm, the lack of knowledge about the disease that would suggest a plan of action, the speed with which the disease spread. But Kansas City was no doubt also like other cities in that behind the scenes, there was infighting among local health officials, kowtowing to political bosses, buckling to the demands of business for exceptions to quarantines and restrictions, and lack of coordination with other cities in the metropolitan area. This refusal to come to terms with the problem seems even more egregious when reviewing copies of the local newspapers at the time. The Kansas City Star was covering the story of the outbreak as early as the summer of 1918, with accounts that gave every indication the threat real and present. It tracked its course from the first outbreak of the second and worst wave in Boston, to the point at which it reached the Mississippi River.

Advertisement from the Kansas City Star shows businesses like the Jones Store were complying with closures, and even using the occasion to entice shoppers. Image courtesy: Newspapers.com

In Kansas City, the first cases appeared at the city’s two army motor corps schools. Before the schools were quarantined late September, 1918, almost 1,000 student soldiers were diagnosed with the disease. By then, of course, the civilian population was infected, too. The September 27 issue of the Kansas City Star reported the first official local non-military case, an inspector at the Hotel Muehlebach. By early October, five more cases were reported, three of them staff members at the Fred Harvey’s restaurant in Union Station. Outbreaks from service workers in high traffic areas like hotels and restaurants were harbingers of how quickly the contagion would spread.

Just one of many WWI military parades honoring the returning soldiers. Held between 1918 and 1920, most like this one paraded up or down Grand Street. This scene is near 10th and Grand. Courtesy Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Nine days passed since the first report of the local outbreak with reports of the mounting casualties filling the newspapers. Still, the city had no official response. Publicly, the city’s Health Board Director continued to characterize the epidemic as “not yet dangerous.” Yet the city hospital was already turning patients away, and the director was privately lobbying for daily cleaning of the streetcars, and the closure of public spaces, including schools, movie houses, any place that attracted lots of people. He was thwarted at every attempt by those whose interests – like the Metropolitan Railway Company – would be damaged under the proposed restrictions. It was only when the Commercial Club (the chamber of commerce of its day) became involved that was there any progress. The Club’s membership included the most prominent and experienced businessmen in the city, those who understood the potential harm to the city at large was greater than that of any one interest. Two weeks later, on October 8, the city declared a public emergency. All churches, schools, and theaters were closed. The health department banned public gatherings of more than twenty people. But it was an act done in isolation, and too late to be useful.

Kansas City was not alone; outbreaks occurred in every town in the area. Coordination among cities was tried, but didn’t prove very effective, especially when it was tried across the state line. Ultimately, Kansas City, Kansas was much more effective at organizing an approach. The school system, the transit company, the business sector and the faith community all agreed restrictions were necessary. Yet a month after the restrictions were placed, the city backtracked. On November 7, the order was rescinded, only to be reinstated on November 30. The bans were finally lifted on December 23, 1918. By the spring of 1919, the contagion had all but passed through Kansas City.

A snapshot of tragedy: These figures were sent via telegram to the Washington DC by KC Mayor Cowgill when he finally requested federal assistance near the end of the Kansas City outbreak. Source: Missouri Historical Review.

When all was over, the pandemic of the Spanish Influenza lasted just 15 months. It killed between 50 and 100 million people around the globe. Of the approximately 30 million Americans who contracted the disease, less than one percent died. Still, it was about a half million people. France lost 400,000, Great Britain 250,000. In Japan, 390,000 died, but in Indonesia it was 1.5 million. India lost 5 percent of its population – 17 million people.

The epidemic struck some of humanities most vulnerable people, as is the custom of disaster. It also took some of the most notable people of the day. Included among the world’s fatalities were Max Weber from Germany, whose works were foundational in political and economy theory; Austrian Gustav Klimt, noted painter whose works include “The Kiss;” Phoebe Hearst, mother to William Randolph Hearst; Rose Cleveland, sister to President Grover Cleveland and acting first lady for her bachelor brother’s first term in office (1885-1896); Bill Yawley, owner of the Detroit Tigers; and the grandfather of (now former) President Donald Trump.

A scan of the mortuary notices in the Kansas City newspapers doesn’t reveal any names that are still notable today. Early on, most obituaries were those of young soldiers who succumbed while at one of the many Army or Navy camps around the country. The first local death made the paper on October 1, 1918. Lloyd Miller had been a cashier at the Holland Shoe Company. He had suffered six days before he died. He was 22. In the end, Kansas City counted some 11,000 cases of infection and more than 2,300 deaths.

Author’s Note: In large measure, the information for this article stems from two sources, below. The article by C.K. McShane in a 1968 edition of the Missouri Historical Review was the foundation for this article, as well as for the second source. That work, a UMKC Masters Thesis by Susan Debra Sykes Berry, also relied heavily on the MHR article, but included additional information that was very helpful. For those with an interest in more detail on the local story of the Spanish Influenza, the following citations for these works link you to their online homes.

McShane, C. K. “The 1918 Kansas City Influenza Epidemic.” Missouri Historical Review, Vol 063 #1, October 1968, State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia MO.

Sykes Berry, S.D. (2010) Politics and Pandemic in 1918 Kansas City: A Thesis in History. University of Missouri, Kansas City.

(Featured Photo: A WWI parade, marching south near 22nd and Grand, 1918. Courtesy Missouri Valley Special Collections, KC Public Library)

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