Vermont Historical Society Photo
Workers added a floor to the Barre city hospital during the influenza epidemic of 1918 in an effort to accommodate the flood of patients.
Nearly 200 people died in Barre during three weeks in 1918. The epidemic of the Spanish flu in that year was the most devastating incidence of infectious disease in modern times. Worldwide, it has been estimated that as many as 100 million succumbed to the pernicious malady.
In the United States the mortality has been estimated at 500,000. Although popularly known as the “Spanish influenza,” the epidemic very likely had its origins at Fort Riley, Kan., the home of the U.S. Army horse cavalry. It has been theorized that the deployment of soldiers to the European war introduced the disease overseas and reports of the epidemic in the Spanish media led to the misnomer. Returning American soldiers brought the virus back to the United States, where it soon became a pandemic.
Despite its sparse population, Vermont suffered along with the rest of the nation, and Barre endured the greatest proportionate mortality of any municipality in the Green Mountain State. The high number of granite workers accounted for the increased rate of death in Barre and Montpelier. Silicosis, the chronic disease of stonecutters, was caused by breathing the dust created from cutting and carving granite. This condition was usually present to some degree in the men who worked in the stone sheds and made them particularly susceptible to the pulmonary effects of flu.
Historian Michael Sherman’s unpublished paper, “Spanish Influenza in Vermont, 1918-1919,” (available at the Vermont History Center in Barre) offers insight into why the virus was more deadly in central Vermont.
There were atypical symptoms. In addition to the usual complaints — sore throat, high fever, severe headache, and swelling of the joints — Spanish flu attacked the lungs. Autopsies performed on flu victims revealed extraordinary transformations of the lungs, which were abnormally heavy and oozed with fluid. Many victims died of suffocation. This helps account for the especially high rates of death in Barre and Montpelier, where workers in the granite industry, many in the prime of life, were already susceptible to lung diseases. Any pre-existing weakness in the lungs made an individual especially vulnerable.
Deaths were especially rife in Barre where an insufficient number of undertakers necessitated calling retirees from neighboring towns back into service. A shortage of caskets led to wicker baskets being used by the railroad to transport corpses home for burial. Upon arrival, the contents were emptied and the large hampers returned to the undertakers from whence they had come.
In Barre, Marjorie Bixby recalled that Mr. Emslie, a local florist, would deliver flowers to the family of a loved one and would sometimes find only the deceased in residence, the relations having left to avoid contamination. Hurriedly, workers were hired to add a floor to the hospital in an effort to accommodate the flood of patients incapacitated by the epidemic.
One resident, Carrie Brooks, a widow, lived on Washington Street with her schoolteacher daughter Stella in 1918. Her recently deceased husband, Henry, had been a watchmaker in town and, apparently, had left Carrie with the resources to maintain her life.
We know the particulars of her life from the entries she recorded in a diary for the year 1918. The entries beginning in late September and continuing through late October suggest the impact the epidemic had on daily life in Barre. After entries recording the bounty from her garden, the weather, and the occurrence of a hard frost she mentions the deaths from the first days of the epidemic in Barre.
Here are some excerpts:
Sept. 19, Thursday: Mr. Close died, sick only a few days.
Sept. 22, Sunday: Went to Church and Sunday school. Very few out because of sickness. Went to the café to dinner.
Sept. 23, Monday: Lots sick, school keeping, but many out.
Sept. 24, Tuesday: Everybody sick with the epidemic. Faith went home sick, Miss Ramage very sick.
Sept. 25, Wednesday: Miss Ramage died. Stella came home sick with the epidemic. Doctor gave her a treatment.
Sept. 26, Thursday: Schools closed because of epidemic. Stella in bed. Doctor gave her another treatment.
Sept. 27, Friday: Stella still in bed. Miss Ramage funeral today. Mr. Noyes sick.
Sept. 30, Monday: Dr. gave Stella a treatment. Ten deaths from epidemic since Saturday. Canvassing the city, went to Red Cross.
By the end of the month, the death toll numbered 10 and prompted action on the part of city officials. The Barre Times noted that the city hospital was “crowded to the roof” and “the present epidemic is the most disastrous thing of its kind that has visited Barre in many years. Official cognizance of the gravity of the situation is seen in the order from the health department, issued this afternoon (Sept. 30), in which all public gatherings are banned for a period of a week or longer.”
The health department also requested that pharmacies stay open through Sunday afternoon to serve those who needed to fill prescriptions. “It is estimated that more than 50 per cent of the granite workers and those in allied trades are detained at home by the illness.” Many granite sheds remained closed for the duration of the epidemic.
Carrie Brooks volunteered her services at the Red Cross and, with the following regular accounts published in the Barre Times, one can gain perspective on her firsthand diary entries.
Oct. 1, Tuesday: Epidemic still raging, calling for volunteers.
Carrie Brooks’ entry for that day was validated by the newspaper. The Barre Times observed, “Twelve deaths were added to the toll taken by the grip in Barre. ... The grip epidemic seems to remain unchecked, although community efforts which are centered in a special relief committee named yesterday are bound to have an effect on the spread of the disease.” The local board of health ordered closed the saloons and soda fountains. Churches, schools and meeting halls and movie theaters had been closed the previous day.
Responding to the call for volunteers, Brooks helped set up beds at an auxiliary hospital located in the Vincitia Club, a civic organization with rooms on the upper levels of the Blanchard Block. Compounding the difficulties of treating large numbers of sick and dying, local physicians were often victims of the virus, too.
Oct. 2, Wednesday: Went to Vincitia rooms to set up beds. Went to Mr. Rossi’s and Movalier to help them to the hospital.
The Barre Times noted: “Total deaths in Barre during the last 24 hours were 17. Although the death list grows steadily, it is believed that the daily number of new cases is gradually decreasing. While the granite industry is almost at a standstill and business in the mercantile district is badly affected by illness of employees there is ground for hope that distinctly improved conditions will result from the thorough-going efforts of the special relief committee.”
Oct. 4, Friday: Worked all day at hospital. Deaths on the increase. (Carrie Brooks)
“Doctors, registered nurses, and many volunteers are working day and night to alleviate the suffering in Barre. The number of new cases is being steadily reduced and it is believed that the epidemic is on the wane.” The Barre Times reported that the hospital was “filled to the roof” and there was a continuing need for volunteer nurses. The Vermont State Board of Health ordered all public meeting places closed statewide.
Oct. 5, Saturday: Worked all day at the hospital. (Carrie Brooks)
“Today marks the end of a fortnight in which grip has ravaged to a greater or less extent in nearly every town in central Vermont, although Barre and Montpelier have felt most keenly the effects of the most terrible pestilence within memory. A detailed story of the week would read like a chapter out of DeFoe’s description of the great plague in London.” (Barre Times)
Oct. 6, Sunday: All day at hospital. The deaths are terrible. (Carrie Brooks)
Oct. 7, Monday: At hospital all day. Ralph Nelson’s wife died. (Carrie Brooks)
The Barre Times reported 30 deaths over the weekend. “A rising 30 deaths followed the latest onslaught of the grip and pneumonia in Barre. Measured by the number of those who have succumbed to the plague, the outlook is not altogether encouraging, but the outbreak of new cases has been appreciably decreased. Those who are nearest in the observation of the pestilence are taking an optimistic view of the situation.” At this point in the epidemic, Barre had 2,000 cases, while neighboring Montpelier had 500.
Oct. 8, Tuesday: At hospital all day. Deaths increasing. (Carrie Brooks)
The Barre Times reported that fewer new cases were seen than at any time since the epidemic started, but the death toll remained high. A constant stream of funerals was observed with processions to the cemeteries in almost an unending flow. A state Board of Health edict prohibited anyone who may have had contact with the deceased from attending the services. This, naturally, would preclude members of the immediate family from paying their last respects.
Oct. 9, Wednesday: Deaths on the wane. (Carrie Brooks)
The headlines in the local newspaper offered good news: “Marked Drop in Death Toll.” The optimism was tempered by the admission that “over a thousand still sick.” Nevertheless there was encouragement — more patients were recovering but the need for nurses was still pressing. “Volunteers are needed.” The Barre Times pleaded, “Will you respond?”
Oct. 10, Thursday: At hospital all day. Things look brighter. Shirley Bradford died. (Carrie Brooks)
The number of cases in recovery exceeded the combined total of new cases and deaths, affirming Brooks’ assertion. The newspaper also observed, “Nothing of a public nature is to attach to the observance of Columbus Day in Barre this year, and if the minds of most people were not at this moment palpably diverted by thoughts of war and the most disastrous epidemic in the history of the city, there is little doubt that the anniversary of the discovery of America would pass by unnoticed.”
Oct. 12, Saturday: At Hospital. Shirley Bradford buried. Annie Ahern died. (Carrie Brooks)
“The situation has cleared perceptibly in the last 24 hours, and while the authorities are plainly alive to the folly of relaxing precautions, they are of one mind when it comes to the belief that the worst is over. No new cases were reported at city hall this forenoon, and only a few sporadic cases were reported last night. Two weeks ago today when the shadow of pestilence was first discovered, only two deaths were recorded as the toll taken by influenza here in the city. Throughout last week many names were added to the list and during the week end and early in the week the epidemic seems to have been at its height. All told 154 lives have been claimed by influenza here in the city. The call for volunteers is sounded as loudly as ever.” (Barre Times)
By the end of Saturday, Brooks had been volunteering as a nurse for 11 days. She was able to rest for two days before resuming her efforts.
Oct. 15, Tuesday: At hospital. Not as many deaths. (Carrie Brooks)
“Barre no longer lives supine in the grasp of influenza, as decreasing death lists and increasing recovery totals plainly indicate” (Barre Times). The Relief Committee headquarters at City Hall closed its doors. “Out of town doctors, convinced that the worst is over in Barre, have left for fields where the influenza continues to ravage.”
Oct. 16, Wednesday: At Hospital. 3 deaths. James baby dies. Went to see Mr. Noyes, sick in bed. (Carrie Brooks)
“Only occasional new cases have been reported since Monday, and unless the unexpected happens, in the way of a fresh outbreak, the board of health believes that the worst of Barre’s epidemic has passed.” (Barre Times)
Oct. 18, Friday: Very tired. Epidemic improved. (Carrie Brooks)
The city still imposed a ban on public gatherings although the epidemic appeared to be at an end. The majority of cases were convalescent, and new cases were very mild and negligible in number. Within a month a celebration of the end of World War I would bring people back into the streets, and a sense of normalcy would once again pervade the Granite City.
Sadly, a large number of children were orphaned by the influenza epidemic in Vermont, and in 1919 the Children’s Aid Society was instituted to provide for those in need and find foster homes for those who had lost both parents to the pandemic. Sherman’s paper also mentions a consequence that would have pleased Carrie Brooks. “The flu briefly gave high visibility to nurses and raised anew questions about their role in school and public health.”
Carrie Brooks continued to live in Barre with her daughter, Stella. Carrie died in June 1944 at age 89. Her diary is almost unique in bearing witness to this tragedy of enormous consequence.
Paul Heller of Barre is a writer and historian.MORE IN Central Vermont
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