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History Repeats: Professor’s Research Delves Into Seguin & Texas During the 1918 Flu Pandemic

We've all seen the messages and words of hope acknowledge how we are living in unprecedented times as COVID-19 disrupts daily life across the globe. However, TLU History Professor Angie Sauer has recently delved into local archives to paint a picture of what was actually happening in Seguin and the greater San Antonio area during the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, as well as how perhaps what we are experiencing in 2020 isn't that unprecedented.

"I love history, because it is about individual stories that teach us about larger patterns," Dr. Sauer said

She has taught history and published research since 1993 and her field of expertise is 20th-century immigration history. She's currently working on a book about American-Lutheran efforts to resettle unaccompanied minors, war orphans, and refugee children from the 1930s to the 1970s. Dr. Sauer holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Waterloo (Canada), a Master of Arts in History from Carleton University (Ottawa) and a Master of Arts in History, Classics, and Sociology from the University of Augsburg in Germany.

This is her first foray into Texas history.

Unprecedented? Seguin & Texas During the 1918 Pandemic

By Dr. Angie Sauer

In mid-August 1918, a young woman was laid to rest in the Zorn cemetery. At 23 years of age, Emma Lehmann, nee Neutnagel, had only been married for a few months when a sudden mysterious illness took her life within days of her contracting it. The Seguiner Zeitung, (still published in German in the midst of the Great War), called it “Nervenfieber” (nervous fever). A large crowd of mourners attended Emma’s funeral.

Seguin did not yet have a word – in either German or English- for the wave of lethal infections that was about to crash over the country and take the lives of well over half a million Americans, most of them young and previously healthy.

Elsewhere, public health officials had already sounded the alarm about what was called the “Spanish influenza” because it was first reported in neutral Spain in May 1918. Army trainees in Fort Riley, Kansas, as early as March, died in large numbers and quickly of a pneumonia-like illness that had not been identified or classified yet. Those who did not die of the disease shortly after shipped out to Europe to join the Western front.

By early September, sick returning soldiers showed up along the Eastern seaboard. On September 30, Camp Travis, a few miles from downtown San Antonio, reported cases of the deadly influenza. Within days, the camp went into a total shutdown. Fort Sam Houston also reported the disease spreading among soldiers and nurses. Still, the city’s health official was optimistic, even though there were already hundreds of cases reported in the civilian community. This was nothing more than an ordinary wave of “la grippe,” Dr. William Anthony King opined. Good ventilation systems and barring sick people from frequenting entertainment venues would halt the spread of the disease.

It did not. On October 7, Acting Texas Gov. Reinzi Johnston, following the advice of the US Surgeon General and his own public health officials, called on localities to ban public gatherings and close schools, churches and entertainment venues if the conditions in the community called for such drastic measures

Local officials did not like this one bit. Dr. King in San Antonio declared that there was no cause for alarm, and that closures or bans on public meetings were unnecessary. His unfounded optimism was echoed in other places. The Denton County health office, for example, did not see the suspension of schools, churches and public gatherings as justified, despite the fact that there was “a great deal of sickness in the county” and Denton’s College of Industrial Arts (now Texas Women’s University) reported many students being ill, including one seriously. “Grippe Situation… Well in Hand” blared the headline in the local paper. On the same page, there was a paid advertisement for Pape’s Cold Compound which would “end grippe misery.”

Camp Travis

Snake-oil salesmen and the denial of facts by local officials did nothing to stop the developing epidemic. The disease spread within communities, in schools and colleges, and wherever large crowds gathered. Travelers took is all across the state of Texas.

The restaurant by the rail depot in Seguin was run by Joseph Richter. He had immigrated to Austin from Austria in 1910 and, a year later, started farming in Geronimo with his new bride Anna. In early 1918, the couple opened the restaurant in Seguin. On October 24, 1918, the day the Seguiner Zeitung reported 9,621 cases of influenza and 1,863 cases of pneumonia, including 116 deaths, at Camp Travis and Fort Sam Houston, a small obituary celebrated the life of Joseph Richter wo had suddenly and tragically died of the flu (“an den Folgen der Grippe”) at age 35. His funeral was small.

On October 17, San Antonio belatedly jumped on the bandwagon when the city decided to close schools, churches and entertainment venues, to prohibit gatherings, and to order the public to stay at home. It was too late for many medical staff and overwhelmed medical facilities. The order seemed to have come exactly at the peak of the epidemic. With cases tapering off soon after, the rules were relaxed too quickly. San Antonio re-opened on November 11, the day the war in Europe ended.

In Seguin, the Guadalupe Gazette reported on November 29 on the depression of prices for hog products due to curtailed consumption and its resulting layoffs in meat packing plants. Ads touted the emergence of a new wonder drug called “Catotabs” that promised to cut short any attack of influenza. Dr. Franklin Duane sought to calm the nerves of people frightened by the epidemic with the advice “Go right about your business and forget it.” A “gauze” drenched in a zinc sulphate solution and worn over the face would safely prevent further spread.

In early December the number of cases began to spike again in San Antonio, and another closure order had to be issued. Once again, it came too late. Still, San Antonio businesses openly rebelled and the city reopened around Christmas. By January 1919 there had been over 12,000 reported cases in San Antonio, with a case fatality rate of 7.1%. There were estimates that the actual infection rates were much higher and underreported. A study suggested 86,000 cases and a 1% fatality rate.

The epidemic was not over yet at the beginning of 1919, and Americans. continued to die of that particular strain of influenza for several more months. One of them was Herman Truebert, a native of Guadalupe County. He was 33 years old and owned a farm in Barbarossa. In late January he fell ill with influenza that turned into a kidney ailment. On February 6, 1919 the Seguiner Zeitung reported his death. He left behind a wife and two boys, ages 8 and 10. The newspaper now cursed the epidemic as a “plague that carries death and destruction” and predicted its re-occurrence. But healthy blood and a healthy digestive system would build up protection against the disease. And there was a new herbal remedy for that.

The flu pandemic of 1918-1919 hit all parts of Texas. It affected urban areas and rural areas, killed immigrants and native-born Texans, men and women in their prime, and left behind bereft families. It affected the economy of the country and devastated businesses that were ordered closed. Local politicians reacted unevenly, mostly due to a desire to downplay the effects of an unknown pandemic. In the absence of reliable scientific knowledge about the virus and its spread, and with a medical infrastructure that was not prepared or able to handle the large number of cases, deaths rates mounted, and medical quackery and folksy advice filled the knowledge gap. When the epidemic finally disappeared in the summer of 1919, its lessons were quickly forgotten.