DEWAYNE'S WORLD - 'LaGrippe' plagued Peoria in 1918

DeWayne Bartels

Flu is no stranger to Peoria, says North Peoria historian Norm Kelly.

Peoria, in early October of 1918, was pleasant after a pretty blistering summer, Kelly said.

The war was raging, and several Peorians were listed in the local newspapers as wounded or dead. The final count was 211 dead. Most folks here, he said, were trying to do their part for the war effort with one eye on the news reports.

“The Lever Act had shut down the town’s breweries and distilleries, but still the town flourished like never before. Our many saloons and taverns were still open, and many men found jobs in our wartime manufacturing companies. Our population was swollen by these jobs, even though 5,500 of our young men were off somewhere in harm’s way,” he said. 

“But, another enemy was lurking in the shadows, and it was soon to strike down Peorians like a sniper in the dark.” 

Martial law on flu

On Oct. 6, 1918, local newspapers, Kelly said, warned that something called ‘La Grippe” was showing up in Peoria. 

“It was part of the Spanish Influenza that was spreading across the United States in epidemic proportions that would terrorize this small city and cost the lives of some of our citizens,” Kelly said.

Health commissioner Dr. George Parker took charge of the situation and declared martial law on the flu.

“Dr. Parker of the Peoria Health Board warned that in his opinion, only one quarter of the cases reported to his office on Oct. 6 were actually reported. Within a very short time, at least 200 more cases were confirmed. Calls came into doctors’ offices, hospitals and nursing associations across the city. Of course, folks just called it the ‘flu,’ and they had seen small epidemics before in this city. The last one had been known as the ‘Russian Flu.’”

Parker sent out a warning to city officials that the city was in the beginning of an epidemic. The call went out to everyone in the city to isolate themselves if possible. 

“Parker also asked for every woman in town who had any experience whatsoever in the field of nursing to call his offices. He asked retired doctors to report to his offices.

Kelly found in his research that 37 of Peoria’s physicians were in the Army, so that shortage was being felt.

Peorians were told to heed the following rules:

• Sneeze into a handkerchief. 

• Do not expectorate in public

• Avoid crowded streetcars.   

• Exclude all visitors from visiting your homes.  

• Isolate patient in your homes, allowing only one attendant.  

• Wear a gauze mask.   

• Do not congregate in public.

Kelly said face masks were available at the local Red Cross and Peoria Health Board offices.

Parker, by Oct. 8, ordered theaters, pool halls,  local gathering places, including churches and schools closed and forbade loitering on downtown streets.

“New emergency treating areas were opened in vacant buildings. The next order stated that the influenza was spreading, and the order went out to ban all forms of public gatherings,” Kelly said.

“Peoria was considered a closed city. Hospitals were crowded, and more room was needed in any space available. The Red Cross began opening up ‘hospitals’ manned by Red Cross volunteers and whatever number of nurses they could muster. Service clubs across the city got into the act.”

Every business in town from theaters to dance and music halls were closed.

“Parker indicated that an additional 110 cases had been reported and that the situation was becoming dangerous here in town,” Kelly said.

Physicians reported their offices were seeing more patients than they could handle. A large number of Army men from nearby camps were reported to have been admitted to Proctor Hospital, and the army camps were in deep trouble.

“Parker was not sure what he would do with some of the schools, stating he felt that kids were better off out of some homes. He reiterated his warning to stay away from people and, if possible, stay outdoors,” Kelly said.


When word of peace was reported in the local newspapers, hinting at an end to World War I, thousands of Peorians filed downtown. 

“These crowds, over-reacting at the news, violated the health board’s orders and celebrated in taverns and around the courthouse,” Kelly said.

Parker was not happy. 

“As predicted, the number of flu patients increased, and the supplies, nurses and volunteers were simply not enough to stop the epidemic,” Kelly said.

“Mayor Woodruff signed a proclamation ordering all Peoria citizens to clean up around their homes, streets, alleyways and public places. He warned that the diseases rampart within the filth can harm humans.”

The library, and, in many cases, factories were shut down as the city began to darken. The nurses in town organized and a ban on public funerals was instituted Oct. 8. There were close to 400 confirmed cases of influenza in various stages.

“On Oct. 9 folks were relieved to see that the number of new flu cases had decreased. Parker reminded people that an accurate number would never be known, since some people simply stayed at home and were not counted,” Kelly said. 

“Yet the very next day, a cry went out for more nurses and that 120 new cases had been recorded. To say the people were confused as to how bad things really were would be putting it mildly.”

Nurses ... nurses

More small “hospitals” opened in neighborhoods and the call for more nurses was heard around the city. 

“A new warning told people to ‘Keep your feet dry and your chest warm and protected,’” Kelly said.

Parker told folks that the Spanish Flu is nothing new.  He told the citizens to go to bed, stay quiet, and take a laxative. Keep plenty of nourishing food, fluids and keep up your strength, he said.

“Parker told the newspapers that all the closing orders would stand until further notice. He went on to say that the previous week the number of reported news cases was 137, and that week there were 117 new cases reported. We are ‘holding our own,’ Parker said, ‘but we need all the help we can get.’”

Parker went on to say there were 525 new cases during the previous three weeks.

Newspapers told Peorians that Germany had accepted treaty terms and had agreed to remove its army. That was good news, Kelly said, but the papers also reported heavy fighting in some other areas, and Peorians were still reported dead, missing or wounded.

Four hundred communities in Illinois were affected by the influenza as it swept through the state. 

Pneumonia as a result of this flu, and other complications, claimed 38 Peorians in early October.

“Throughout the rest of October, the news fluctuated from bad to fair, from bad to better, and, finally, a decrease in the number of new cases,” Kelly said.

“Treatment was not effective, and, of course, there were no vaccinations for it. Vicks Vapor Rub was big and hundreds of bottles of it were used to rub on people’s chests. Still the pneumonia and complications killed a total of 40 by the end of October.”

Slowly the schools, churches and other closed businesses were allowed to open as fewer and fewer cases were reported.

“Overall, it was remarkable how people helped out: the volunteers, the Red Cross, the woman’s clubs and the Peoria service clubs came together in a time when sacrifices for the war were already being made,” Kelly said.

“It was a prideful time for Peoria, and officials claimed it showed how remarkable the people were in a great little town.”

Most of these patients never had autopsies, and the numbers of dead were simply educated guesses by the health board at the time.

“The war ended 11/11/1918, and I can tell you,” Kelly said, “that the spirits of this town were lifted far beyond what any miracle drug could have provided, which we never had.”