Today’s Flu – And the Spanish Flu of 1918

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The current flu epidemic is bad, but I don’t think people realize just how serious it can be if it decides to mutate into something even worse.

I am at a loss for words when people mention in conversation that they do not get flu shots for themselves, or their children, because they think the shots do not work, or will actually cause the flu.

In the interest of enlightening some of these folk I am sharing something my dad kept secret for his entire adult life.

Interestingly, most Americans who lived through this period of time would not talk of it either.

The following is a just a portion of a hand-written memoir my father left in an envelope to be read after his death. No family members were ever aware of the time he spent working in Boston Hospital during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. He was 12 years old.

Since so many of my fellow citizens, as well as members of my own family, refuse to take “the flu” seriously and get the readily available flu shot, I think it’s time for me to share my father’s story:

Carl Frederick Douse, Arthur H. Douse, Lillian (Moore) Douse, and Arthur Theo Douse

Carl Douse, second from the left, playing sax in a jazz band he and his friends put together and played at various venues in the ’20s.

Carl Douse – back row, third from the left – when he was briefly in the Merchant Marine, and Carl when he had a part time air mail route between Spokane and Seattle, Washington and barnstormed for extra cash on weekends.

Early Memories of Carl F. Douse: 1906 – 1986

“1918 came and with it, the Spanish Influenza. I got the flu. Mom had to work, and as I was deathly sick, I went to the Boston City Hospital. In a short time I recovered, but the custody suit came up, and when the judge learned where I was, and the effort to kidnap me and the fact that mother couldn’t really take care of me and work too, he, the judge, ordered me to stay in the hospital as a ward of the court.

Boston Red Cross volunteers assemble masks at Camp Devens, MA. Credit: National Archives

I was in the hospital nearly six months. All through the epidemic I had a small room, and, having recovered from the flu, I was immune, so I was put to work. My job was to push the gurneys to the basement where trucks would take the bodies to the island to be cremated or to designated mortuaries.

I would also have to check the bodies for identification. Name and number would be written on the stomach or thigh in indelible ink. Flu death was particularly hard. Eyes staring, facial muscles in grotesque position and fecal matter, etc., over them.

Every available space had a bed. Patients were everywhere, and nurses were very scarce. The wards were huge rooms, holding 200 to 300 people.

Photo source: New England Historical Society.

The heat was stifling. Air conditioning and refrigerators were not invented then. Ice was in short supply. Boston is unbearable in the summer. In the early morning the hallways were lined with those that died in the night. Nurses did not have time to close their eyes or anything else. They shoved them in the hall for me, and moved in a live one.

The moaning and groaning and the smell of ether was almost unbearable. I pushed the gurneys to the huge cargo elevator that was propelled by pulling ropes and got them to the basement where the trucks could take them to the island for cremation or to designated mortuaries.

I had troubles. A wheel would lock or I’d bump into a post and have an arm or leg out, or a whole naked body on the floor. A few peak days I carried over 100. In the big New York hospital they had over 300 a day. I figured I carried over 5,000 bodies to the basement.

The dead included old, young, men, women, babies, young men and pretty girls. As many people died of the flu as were killed in World War I. The flu disappeared as quickly as it had come, and there is still controversy over its origin.”

Richard Douse
Richard Douse lives with his two favorite ladies: Tammy, his wife, and Ann Margret, his cat.  They live off the grid in a home they built themselves.  They grow their own food because they don’t trust corporations doing it for them.  Douse thinks of himself as a liberal.  He believes liberals are blue-collar folk who know how to work and think for themselves.  He believes that what we do, individually and collectively, in the next 10 years will determine whether civilization continues - or goes away.
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17 Responses

  1. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    There was a recent televised program – PBS? Discovery Channel? – which substantiated everything your father wrote. Although no one knows for certain, it appears American troops took the virus overseas when they deployed then brought it back in even greater numbers.

  2. Avatar Bob says:

    Very chilling. (No pun intended). For a 12 year old, a quick introduction to maturity.
    At the age of 12, in 1945, I came down with Scarlet Fever. Our home was quarantined and I spent a long time out of school. Fortunately I completely recovered. No where near your dad’s experience.
    Enjoyed the pictures, a treasure trove for genealogical purposes.

  3. Avatar Patricia Bay says:

    I have read a lot about pandemic flu episodes. I was extremely ill with Hong Kong flu when I was 14-years-old. It was an extremely bad flu epidemic. The 1918 flu was a pandemic of proportions that were catasrophic. Your father wrote about at such a young age. His loss of family, foster placement and then horrendous work for anyone, let alone a child, is almost impossible to fathom. What a brave soul he was. Thank you for sharing your story.

  4. Randall Smith Randall Smith says:

    Smithsonian Magazine carried a complete story of this pandemic in the Dec. edition. 50 to 100 million died. No one is sure because disposal was more important than tabulation. Most likely origin was western Kansas: wild migrating waterfowl to pigs to people to soldiers at Fort Riley to New Jersey deployed to Europe to Spanish King. Unlike USA which was strictly censored by Wilson’s Sedition Act, the Spanish were free to tell the story, so they inherited the origin.

    Virus was serious in the beginning, but morphed over summer 1918 into a monster which began killing in 48 hours by September. Lungs were turned into the density of liver and young were particularly vulnerable. Mode of exit was suffocating and progress was so swift many thought they had a cold and were dead next day.

    End of article stated we are less able to combat a similar pandemic today than then. Public health measures like identification, isolation, quarantine and reporting are now illegal. We are more crowded. People are generally less willing to follow advice from government which is distrusted and as mentioned, people do not believe in vaccines.

    Let us pray this year’s number does not mutate over the summer.

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      “…people do not believe in vaccines.”

      Natural selection is a bitch. Well, not really—more like a blind watchmaker—but you get my drift.

  5. Avatar conservative says:

    My great aunt Mabel’s husband Jack died in the 1919 flu epidemic. She became a nurse anesthetist in the ether era. She lived in an apartment with a very jerky elevator in downtown Detroit. Scared me in the 1950s. Aunt Mabel delivered my father who was born at home. She died in her 90s after a leg was amputated for type two diabetes.

    The U.S. and Europe had a high birth rate at the turn of the century. The millions lost in the flu epidemic, world war I and Stalin’s forced collectivization and the liquidation of the Kulaks were replaced 20 years later by world war II.

    There are a few articles in the Shasta County Historical society’s publication about death in the early 20th century. Redding had a high death rate from cholera, infant diarrhea, typhoid and malaria before the swamps were drained and modern sanitation introduced. I wish a local historian would report on the flu epidemic in the North State.

  6. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    Judging from the pictures of Carl Douse as a young man—after what must have been a traumatic experience in the hospital as a boy—he decided to pursue living an extremely full life.

  7. Avatar K. Beck says:

    Talk about PTSD!

    I am always amazed at what earlier generations endured and refused to talk about. Most of the men and women who survived WWI & WWII came home and became silent. A friend’s father, who died last year, never said one word about his military service in WWII. She specifically asked him if he wanted to talk about it and his only response was “NO!.” Nowadays, with social media, if a person gets a hang nail they are complaining on facebook!

  8. Avatar Daniel J Mabry says:

    An uncle recounted to me that as a child, he sat in his family’s bay window on Castro Street in San Francisco, and watched horse drawn carts pick up bodies from homes every morning for weeks during the pandemic.
    Many religious groups preached that along with WW1 the flu was the beginning of the “end times”. Four riders etc.

  9. Avatar MekiMelody xy says:

    My granfather’s firstborn son died in 1919 in Australia. He was unknown to our family until I started my quest into our families history. My grandfather came to the states in 1914, never saw his son again. I am sure his son’s death was related to the flu. In my research the family assumed my grandfather had also died during the epidemic as they last heard from him 1918.

  10. Richard, thank you so much for sharing your father’s story. It was absolutely chilling to read, especially considering that your father was only 12 years old when this happened. I can only imagine how those images haunted him.

    Obviously, he was a person of great grit, someone with the ability to thrive, not just survive. And look! He grew up to have you, Richard, a stellar human being in your own right. I’m so glad your father lived to tell of this story, and to extend the Douse family line.

    (I kept thinking what a searing scene this would be in a movie. I’ve never seen anything like it.)

  11. In 1958 I contracted Hong Kong flu while at home in Anderson, was hospitalized in the Memorial Hospital in Redding, had tutors for missing school. I understand how some folks have religion to deny vaccines to family members; but not well educated folk who just say it’s a conspiracy, or just plain think they’re omnipotent.

  12. Avatar Joseph S. Carrilho says:

    I knew Carl Douse from his daughters, Merrily & Teddi, and his wife Ina which we met in a church.
    I never knew Carl very well but, I can attest to his pleasant demeanor. I liked Carl.

  13. Avatar Joseph S. Carrilho says:

    From what I have learned from many sources, vaccines aren’t the answer. When Small Pox was a big problem, what worked the best was isolating the afflicted and sanitation.

  14. Avatar Karen Hafenstein says:

    My Mom was 7 years old when the 1918 flu hit her small town of Bird City, KS. She had 2 little sisters, one a baby. My Grandma went to neighbors to take supplies as their little 2 year old girl contracted the flu. Their little girl died and Grandma brought the flu home. All five of them were bed-ridden with the flu. Those neighbors came, stayed, and slowly nursed them all back to health. They could only get the baby to take teaspoons of coffee with cream in it. What a selfless act to help my Mom’s family right after the death of their own baby!

  15. Avatar The Old Pretender says:

    Although a fascinating historical narrative, I’m not sure this supports the use of the current flu vaccine as much as the author hopes, especially given the hints of potential mutation that would outstrip the vaccine of the year anyway. Influenza exposure and mortality data is sketchy at best these days, and the likes of a similar strain to the Spanish variant being avoided by vaccines compiled in the early part of the season is a bit of a stretch. Also, “Herd immunity” is a hard sell when the profiteers are those who also supply the information.