Looking Back: A Past Pandemic in Jefferson County

Jefferson County Historical Society submitted the following article:

(Pictured above: Conifer was once a mining community or “coal patch,” where living conditions may have led to the rapid spread of Spanish influenza.)

Submitted by Carole Briggs:


We don’t know when or even if there will be a pandemic in our future, but the word has certainly entered our 21st century vocabulary. Each new death from avian or bird flu in another part of the world raises the question: will such an event happen during our lifetimes and will it affect us here in Jefferson County?

News articles and television programs about bird flu often include a reference to Spanish Influenza or the pandemic of 1918. Incorrectly named because it did not originate in Spain but correct because it was a virus or flu, people in Jefferson County did not escape its deadly consequences.

By the time it began to subside in November of 1918, one writer estimated more Americans had died of the Spanish Influenza between September 9 and November 9 than among American Expeditionary Forces in France.

Prior to the flu’s onset, obituaries listed weekly in Brookville newspapers numbered between one and eleven. As the flu peaked, the Jeffersonian Democrat simply listed the names of the dead in a column—30 one week, 27 the next, then 15.

Spain was the first country to report this disease, but no one knows how or where it actually began. Ultimately it became pandemic, a worldwide epidemic, killing 21 to 40 million people including more than a half-million Americans. Fever, chills, coughs, aches, pains, as well as general tiredness and weakness, characterized this influenza. A victim’s temperature, heart rate, and breathing rate increased. It led to pneumonia and death, particularly for the young and the old.

In the United States, the flu first hit soldiers stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, in early March of 1918 spreading to Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. Indiana County reported influenza in September and in October, the Jeffersonian Democrat reported the first death from the virus to occur in Jefferson County. She was Viola A. Buzard, a fourteen-year-old girl who lived in Rose Township and who died on October 2. Twenty-one days later, the paper stated, “County toll is 200.”

Mining communities like Big Soldier, Conifer, Eleanora, Florence, Ramsaytown, Reynoldsville, Rossiter, and Wishaw were hit particularly hard. Wishaw reported 116 of its 375 residents down with the flu.

When it was over sixty-five people were dead there or more than one of every eight.

Copyright@Jefferson County Historical Society, Inc.

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