Virus Outbreak Presidents in Crises

FILE - In this Oct. 11, 1918, file photo first lady Edith Wilson, center, and President Woodrow Wilson, left, arrive in New York to take part in the Liberty Day Parade. Woodrow Wilson was more focused on the end of World War I than a flu virus that was making its way around the globe, ultimately sickening hundreds of thousands of Americans, including him. 

At the election booth in West Paris, I listened to a conversation about the coronavirus attack that at the time was near the United States. I was alarmed at how relaxed and uneducated the speakers were. It was obvious they had not been taught of the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed close to a million just in our country; over 200 in Paris. Here is an article I wrote on the subject 20 years ago. It is updated it a bit:

Paris High School’s yearbook, The Owl, stated it simply: “the 1918 football season was indeed very short, due chiefly to the influenza epidemic.” In fact, the Wildcats managed to play only one game that fall, losing to Cooper 40-0 on Oct. 4, a few weeks after maps of the Spanish flu epidemic showed it finally reached Northeast Texas. The loss and the epidemic put quite a damper on those students who were the first to attend the new high school building.

The school was entirely closed for weeks. People would fall ill, and quickly be at the point of death or at least feel like it. “Most described it as if being hit by a bat,” said one student. The list of local death notices as posted on the internet by Ron Brothers, Betsy Mills and others of the Lamar County Genealogical Society reveal ugly numbers for the late summer, early fall of 1918 and winter of 1919.

The influenza began hitting those in the United States during the spring of 1918, and by fall had moved inland and all over the country. At first, local Paris area September deaths seemed about normal, one a day for 32 total. However, October’s jumped dramatically to 103, November saw 97 die, and 126 in December. There were 80 in January of 1919, but only 30 that next month. But, those are just the ones reported.

Across the country entire communities were being hit hard by the worst epidemic in hundreds of years. Worldwide 20 million eventually succumbed. One-fourth of Americans contracted the flu, and 625,000 in the United States died. Boston lost 202 citizens just on Oct. 2! Four days later, 289 died in Philadelphia. Nationwide that October, the calamity took 195,000 Americans.

World War I was drastically affected, especially to soldiers moving across the ocean on troop ships carrying the disease. Parisian George Steely got word that his brother David never made it to the foreign port. Many attribute the failure to secure a lasting peace to the fact that Woodrow Wilson had the flu while trying to manage at Versailles a more conciliatory treaty after the war. Many thought had he been well, World War II may have been prevented.

Dr. C.Y. White announced on Oct. 19 in Philadelphia that he had developed a successful vaccine. The problem, however, was overwhelming. In many towns if a resident went outside, it was with a protective facemask. Bulky at that time. In Paris the citizens were aware of a problem and school attendance was meager. Shock came when Leon V. Larsen, a talented young attorney, and son-in-law to newspaperman W.N. Furey, died after a few days of sickness. The Paris Morning News ran each day notices from the Red Cross and even gave hopeful remedies. Mayor James Morgan Crook tried his best to obtain statistics from busy doctors. In late October, city council — one of the few groups allowed to congregate — met briefly to discuss allowing public meetings, school sessions and church gatherings again. There was fear that schools might not open until late the next spring.

Word began to come back home about more Parisians in the military who died. Messages brought terrible news to mothers in Paris. For example, in mid-October, Mrs. Martha Wade got word her daughter, only married two months, died in Washington D.C. Mrs. F.M. Hudson received a telegram of her son’s death to flu in Amarillo.

Four to five obituaries were in each issue, not counting the many black and poor who were not prominent enough to make the lists. The local peak hit in December, but substantial deaths were recorded in the county during January, many apparently from influenza. However, by February, the normal number of deaths was again posted, indicating the epidemic was in its last phase here.

In its wake many local families were scarred by sickness, and some by death. The high school yearbook only lists two of the students as dying that year, Henley Stone and John M. Gaines. Research says Stone died in a gun accident, but it is highly likely that Gaines succumbed to the flu. He was 16, and a senior. If the students lost only one classmate to influenza, then they were lucky. Around the county, it hit young and old. Many were mothers, like George W. Young’s wife Lillie, 34 at the time she died, leaving three small children on the Minter farm where the couple lived. She died that December while on a visit to south Texas where the epidemic was strong.

Joe Rutherford, a Petty farmer, was 30 and most prosperous when he died Nov. 7. He left an 8-year-old daughter. His wife had the flu, but survived. Elizabeth McCuistion Miers died at the Sanitarium of Paris on Dec. 8, only ill two days. Her friends were shocked at the news of the 28-year-old. Eva Sanders Julian of Howland died at her home on Dec. 15, leaving two children for her husband Fred to raise. She was 26. Jessie D. Johnson was nearly 40 when he died on Jan. 27, 1919 of pneumonia after contracting the flu.

Dr. Oscar Y. Janes and Mrs. James Jeter lost their brother, druggist C.R. Janes of Deport, on Dec. 15 at the young age of 28. He was ill only 10 days. His wife, Mabel, was the daughter of Deport Mayor H.E. Cabeen. Elizabeth Peters Hayeck died Oct. 18, only a year after marrying. She was just 19. Mrs. Francis L. DeWeese of Reno, 18, died on Dec. 10 at her home. The former Alice Upchurch, she was survived by a small son. Murphy C. Cooper died on Dec. 20. He was 35 and employed at the Collins-Delaney Paris Saddlery Co. for 21 years. He left three children.

Telephone operator Miss Dennie Boothe had only been ill a week before dying Dec. 10. Reverend Bob Shuler, First Methodist Church minister, presided at her funeral, as he did for many that winter. Though almost entirely forgotten by locals now, it was a trying period that affected the future of many families for decades afterwards.

Another flu pandemic struck in 1957, initiating in Guizhou, China. It decimated a good Raymond Berry-coached Paris High team. However, that season was fully completed, though at times only a shell of a unit took the field. No students and maybe no Parisians died from that event. Another outbreak occurred in 1968, called the Hong Kong flu, but did not affect Paris to any great extent. A national immunization program was enacted against the “swine flu” in 1975-76. This was the swine flu. The next year was the Russian flu, but was just an epidemic. Vaccination prevented another pandemic. Since then encouragement has come each fall for citizens to take the shots.

In the fall of 2008, the initial batch of flu serum was deemed no good and the entire country was behind on dispersing shots. Nothing serious happened though a serious strain hit us from Mexico. Another bullet was dodged. The Avian influenza virus hit the world in 2013. It also broke out in China. That brings us to now.

Skipper Steely is a local author and historian.

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(1) comment


I am glad to see this column as it is an aspect of history that many are unaware of... Paris and Lamar co have suffered many deaths from all wars the town burned completely up twice,the tornado of 82 other fires,floods,and storms,more so than most Texas community’s and we have always prevailed and will in this disaster as well!

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