Minnesota's flu season is in full swing by January.
During the past 100 years, improvements have been made to the public health services, and flu vaccines for people of all ages are readily available.
But in 1918-1919, the world was in the grips of the worst killer influenza pandemic ever know in modern history.
The illness was a very democratic affliction in that it didn’t matter if you were Christian, Jew or Buddhist, Chinese, German or American and it was estimated to have killed between 50 million to 100 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1919.
The genesis for Spanish flu in Minnesota was Wells. Faribault County has the very dubious honor of having the state's first confirmed death from the strain of flu.
More American soldiers would die from the Spanish flu (43,000) than those who lost their lives in hostile action. Even President Woodrow Wilson fell victim to this dreaded illness in 1919 while he was at the Versailles Peace Conference in France.
The label of “Spanish flu “ came from the fact that King Alfonso XII of Spain was one of the estimated 500 million people that came down with the illness.
Researchers now believe the strain originated in Asia and mutated after crossing over from birds, and then perhaps to pigs, and from there on to humans.
In the United States, the first outbreak of Spanish flu was traced to Haskell County, Kansas, in January 1918. A local doctor warned the U.S. Public Health Service but they took no action.
The failure to contain the flu when the number of cases was small opened a Pandora’s Box.
March 4, 1918, a cook at Fort Riley, Kansas, was reported sick. Soldiers living in cramped barracks often slept no more than 3 feet from their neighbors, making it an ideal setting to spread the illness.
By March 11, more than 100 soldiers were in the hospital. Within a very short period of time, 522 soldiers at Fort Riley were hospitalized.
Minnesota wasn’t spared the ravages of the illness. More than 10,000 deaths from influenza were reported between 1918 and 1919.
A 17-year-old Faribault County boy named Raymond Paulson enlisted in May 1918 in the Army. He served as a musician with bands at Fort Riley, Camp Hancock, and Fort Oglethorpe.
When the influenza struck hundreds of its recruits, the military first concluded the illness was a new form of pneumonia. Since at the time, there was a much greater need for hospital orderlies then musicians, Paulson's base commander decided to press the regimental band into becoming health workers to assist an overwhelmed medical staff.
Pvt. Paulson would never play another musical note in an Army uniform.
When he stepped off a train at his hometown Sept. 18, 1918, he wasn’t feeling all that great but didn’t give it much thought. This was his first furlough home since being transferred to duty in the hospital at Camp Oglethorpe. His trip home was leave from the military to recover from appendicitis and the subsequent operation.
Soon after he arrived at his parents' house, the family received a telegram from the Navy. Walter Paulson, Raymond's 22-year-old brother, had died from a strange form of “pneumonia” and his body would be shipped forthwith.
The day after Walter’s funeral, Raymond died, and the day after that, their sister, Anna, died. Rev. C.W. Gilman, the pastor who conducted Raymond’s funeral, had the same fate.
The state Public Health Service quickly marshaled its forces and started to generate regulations in an effort to lessen the spread of the flu. They closed all schools, banned public gatherings, required health workers and people exposed to the flu to wear cloth masks.
Spitting in public was forbidden. Rules went so far as to order coffins to be closed at funerals.
Some of the unusual ideas deployed included a ban on sales of ice cream and beverages at soda fountains and the shutting down of elevators in buildings of six or fewer stories.
The death records in the Faribault County Recorder Office reveals 101 deaths were recorded listing Spanish flu as the primary or secondary cause of death during the years of 1918 and 1919. Also individuals that were younger than age 40 made up the vast majority of those that died.
It was very common for multiple deaths in the same families and for young mothers and their newborn infants to lose their lives within hours of each other. Schoolteachers didn’t fair well. Not all mailmen or meat butchers were spared; however, statistics did not list any doctors as victims of the flu, despite their considerable exposure to the illness.
People who died and were over 40 years of age often had other health problems that compromised their ability to fight off the flu. Experts believe that age group's members' immunity to Spanish flu was due to their exposure to a similar strain of flu back in the late 1890s.
When Faribault County's 101 deaths are plotted using the victims' home addresses, the map shows access to the railroad seemed to play an important role in the spread of flu. The largest clusters of reported deaths were in Wells, then Blue Earth and thirdly Winnebago. All three of these communities had rail service. Wells had both north-south and east-west rail connections, as did Winnebago and Blue Earth.
There were no deaths recorded in Foster or Walnut Lake townships and there was only one death recorded for Dunbar Township. None of these townships had easy access to railroad travel.