Time Machine

Time Machine: Flu killed more than 6,000 Iowans in 1918

Schools and churches closed, towns were quarantined, coffins stacked up

Cots were set up in the gymnasium at Iowa State University in Ames to handle influenza patients during the 1918 flu epid
Cots were set up in the gymnasium at Iowa State University in Ames to handle influenza patients during the 1918 flu epidemic. More than 93,000 Iowans contracted the illness, and 6,116 died, according to the Iowa State Board of Health. (Photo from Office of the Iowa Public Health Service Historian)

Although world war was the main story of 1918, newspaper pages that fall were replete with stories about people dying and sick from the highly contagious Spanish influenza.

In the days before penicillin, the epidemic killed an estimated 21 million worldwide — 548,452 in the United States, or 10 times the number who died in the world war.

In October of that year, the flu hit Iowa hard. In the next three months, it would kill more than 6,000 Iowans.

Nearly every day, The Gazette would publish how many new flu cases had been reported, the total number of cases, and how many had died.

Theaters, schools, pool halls and bowling alleys closed. Meetings were postponed. Church services were canceled.

One Cedar Rapids family — a dad, a mom and a little girl — were all sick. The nurse who was caring for them in their home had to leave. The dad’s sister, who lived in Blairstown, came to take care of the family — even though he didn’t want her to. She died shortly after she arrived, and he died two days later. There was a double funeral.

‘Good whiskey’

The illness almost always was coupled with pneumonia. First, the flu would weaken a person’s immune system, then pneumonia would set in. Alarmingly, most of the victims were 20 to 40 years old.


Cedar Rapids undertaker Frank J. Monahan worked constantly, embalming the dead in their homes, often taking them straight to the cemetery for burial. Funeral services were restricted to the immediate family. And still, the newspaper reported, coffins stacked up in funeral homes waiting for burial.

Bill Stewart of Stewart’s Funeral Home in Cedar Rapids, and Monahan’s son-in-law, was 9 years old in 1918 when his mother became ill with the flu. “It was touch and go there for a while,” he recalled later. “Of course, they didn’t have penicillin in those days. The only thing they had was good whiskey. That saved a lot of people, I’m sure.”


In Marshalltown, Mayor S.H. Reilly quarantined the city for two weeks beginning at noon Oct. 10.

Dubuque’s 300 cases and 10 deaths by Oct. 12 prompted authorities to declare that city closed. It was the first time in the city’s history that church services were not held.

In Vinton, the draft board found itself without registrants because so many potential draftees were sick.

A women who lived through the epidemic as a child told Iowa State University that children came up with a macabre playground rhyme: “I had a little bird, its name was Enza, I opened the window and in flew Enza.”


Complicating treatment was the lack of doctors and nurses, many of whom were in the armed forces fighting the war, which wouldn’t end until Nov. 11, 1918. Retired doctors and nurses were pressed into helping, but it wasn’t enough. Notices ran in the newspaper asking for anyone with nursing experience to volunteer.

In Iowa, the state Board of Health said a statewide quarantine would be impossible under the law. But after 14,000 cases were reported by mid-October, the board wrote the U.S. surgeon general asking for just that.

In the meantime, all public funerals were banned. When the federal government OK’d a statewide quarantine, all public gatherings were ordered halted.


Iowa Gov. William L. Harding was campaigning for re-election around the state but had to cancel speeches in Oelwein, Atlantic and Cedar Rapids. Then he, too, got the flu.

An Oct. 21 Gazette story announcing the governor’s recovery was on the same page as the obituaries for nine Cedar Rapids residents who had died from of the flu. Another story that day reported four inmates had died at the Anamosa Reformatory, where 170 prisoners and officers were sick and being treated with whiskey and quinine. The town of Anamosa was closed “as far as possible.”

By Oct. 24, a quarantine was still in effect in Cedar Rapids, even though the statewide ban had become optional. Oct. 22 saw 90 new cases of flu in Cedar Rapids; 90 more were reported the next day. The number of flu cases reported in October in the city up to that point: 2,485.

late papers

Even the venerable Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette was not spared. On Oct. 10, the paper printed an apology to its subscribers, headlined “Pardon Late Delivery:” “Owing to the prevalence of the grip and Spanish Influenza among the working force of The Gazette in every department, and especially because of the illness of a considerable number of carrier boys, city subscribers of this newspaper are asked to be lenient in their judgment if deliveries should be late in the next few days until conditions are improved.”

6,116 deaths

By the end of 1918, the worst was over, though the Spanish flu reappeared in the nation — and Iowa — several times until it disappeared in early 1920. But the worst year was 1918.

The Iowa State Board of Health, in its final tally, reported 6,116 Iowans died of the flu, including 132 in Cedar Rapids and 30 in Iowa City, in the last three months of 1918. Another 3,085 had died of pneumonia.

More than 93,500 people statewide had been counted as sick from the flu.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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