Though it was a different war and a different century, Gettysburg found itself once again occupied by an army. Young men were sent there to learn to fight the Germans in World War I.
They trained to fight the enemy using a piece of state-of-the-art military technology called the tank. The problem was that no one could see the enemy that they were fighting in Gettysburg. It moved indiscriminately through camps and communities injuring and killing men, women, soldier, children. It made no difference.
Before Spanish Flu disappeared, it had killed about 50 million people worldwide or more than four times the population of Pennsylvania.
A factor that played into the spread of the flu and how deadly it was that the U.S. was cramming soldiers into military camps all across the country. The closeness of the quarters helped the flu spread and with more young men contracting the flu than normal, deaths among that age group also increased.
This helped contribute to the W-shaped death curve of the flu. Generally, when flu is fatal, it is with the youngest and oldest in the population, those whose immune systems are weakest. Spanish Flu’s death curve also spiked in the middle with 20-30 year olds, giving it a W shape.
During the first week of the outbreak, no mention was made of the problem in the local newspapers. Yet, the problem was growing. It had already reached epidemic status in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia by Oct. 4.
A headline in The Compiler in early October proclaimed, “The Answer to the Scourge is a Demonstration by Community to Flight It to the Limit. Never has Gettysburg been so stirred as by the scourge of Influenza. Never has the heart of the town been so wrung as by the scourge carrying off the soldier boys who as answered their country’s call in defense of her principles.” This announcement seemingly came out of nowhere since the paper hadn’t been reporting on the buildup to what was a health problem in the county.
Father W.F. Boyle offered Xavier Hall as a hospital. Father Boyle believed that it would be easier to control the flu if you could isolate the sick from the healthy. It was a good idea, but it was too late. Sixty-four cots were set up in the hall as it was transformed into an emergency hospital that quickly filled up.
Prof. Lamond, director of the local Red Cross, sent for nurses to care for the sick. In a show of community spirit, Mrs. Burton Alleman of Littlestown had schoolchildren canvass the town for donations for the hospital. They raised $100 and collected 59 water bottles, 10 fountain syringes, 15 ice caps, 500 sputum cups and 25 serving trays.
Two days after the hospital opened, county schools were closed, which was a common defense against the Spanish Flu. It was also announced that in less than two weeks, 92 soldiers had died at Camp Colt.
By Oct. 12, The Compiler, which had proclaimed that the flu was abating locally just a few days before, now said that it was the “most heartrending epidemic the town has ever been through. … Distress has pervaded the hearts of our people but around this dark cloud is the glow of the wonderful demonstration of our people in town and country and nearby places.”
Warnings were issued and sick families quarantined. Some people even took to wearing surgical masks.
Camp Colt now had 100 dead soldiers. This was one out every six soldiers at the camp and many of the 500 remaining were sick with the flu.
Several of the nurses caring for the soldiers in the emergency hospitals contracted the flu and wound up becoming patients themselves. One of the nurse aides died and even Prof. Lamond caught the flu.
This is one of the insidious ways that the Spanish Flu worked. Many communities were already shorthanded medically because doctors had been drafted to serve in WWI. As the remaining doctors became overwhelmed with their additional workload, many of them caught the flu. The remaining doctors found themselves working longer hours with contagious people. This would wear them down and make them susceptible to flu and the process would repeat.
The dead soldiers were taken to the Grand Army of the Republic Hall in town until arrangements could be made to ship their bodies home. As each body was taken to the train depot, it was given a military escort. This must have been a depressing sight for residents to see 100 times as each soldier was taken to the train that would return him home.
Half of the front page of the newspapers was taken up with obituaries of people who died from the flu.
George Pretz was the author of the lyrics for the Gettysburg College fight song. He was also an army doctor who died in Syracuse. When his wife, Carrie, heard he was sick, she started up to New York, but she didn’t arrive until after he had died. His brother-in-law, Edgar Tawney, “went to Hanover on Monday for flowers and while sitting in an automobile was stricken and being brought home died early Tuesday morning.”
A similar story to this one is that George Stravig, his son, brother and sister all died within a week of each other because of the flu.
By mid-October, all pretense of optimism was gone. A Gettysburg Times headline proclaimed: “Death’s Harvest Still Continues.”
Then a week later, the reports were suddenly upbeat. The Times declared that the flu was all but gone from Camp Colt.
But the Spanish Flu wasn’t done with Adams County yet.