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Coronavirus, 1918 Spanish flu pandemic parallels are seen in WWI soldier’s letters

By TREVOR FRASER | Orlando Sentinel | Published: May 1, 2020

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ORLANDO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — As the news filled up with stories about the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders were issued, Karen Lougheed knew she had seen all this mentioned before. About 15 years ago, the Winter Garden resident had come into possession of some letters written by her grandfather, Crawford Scott. “I thought, wasn’t there something about the Spanish Flu in there?” she said.

A Pittsburgh native, Scott had been drafted after a college deferment to fight in World War I. In October 1918, the peak of the H1N1 outbreak, the young soldier was sent to Fort Thomas in Kentucky to be processed and sent to war.

While the experience we’re living through now feels unprecedented, Scott’s letters to his then-girlfriend (and eventual wife) Minerva shine a light on the similarities people dealt with in the last major global pandemic.

“Shortly after arriving here yesterday the camp was quarantined because of Spanish Influenza,” Scott wrote on Oct. 6, 1918. “There are several cases of it in camp. We are exiled now. No one is allowed in or out.”

“Turns out there was a lot about the flu in there,” said Lougheed.

Scott described an early situation of crowding. In the Oct. 6 letter, he wrote, “Only limited servicemen are being sent to this place and it is overcrowded with them. The barracks in which I sleep contains about 130 cots. It is supposed to accommodate sixty only. The cots are so close we cannot get in them from the side but must jump in from the end.”

Readers today confined to their homes will probably relate to the inertia and boredom in Scott’s letter of Oct. 7. “We are in bed at 9 o’clock and up at six; quite different from my usual habits of rising and retiring,” he wrote. “Nothing further has happened today; we have done nothing but eat and loaf around. We don’t get enough exercise to digest our food, but somehow or other we never hang back when the bugler plays the mess call.”

In the same letter, Scott gave a breakdown of the worsening conditions on the base. “So many cases have broken out that it was necessary to convert the building used by the physical examiners into a hospital,” he wrote. “There are now about five buildings being used as hospitals and they are all filled.”

The situation grew grave very quickly. “The Spanish influenza is reaching an alarming stage here; eight hundred cases were reported yesterday,” Scott wrote Oct. 11. “Five died last night. Of the boys who left Carnegie with me, two are in the hospital.”

Over time, Scott detailed being moved from the barracks into smaller tents with fewer soldiers. While the staff got the illness under control, the quarantine took its toll. “Yesterday was a most beautiful day,” he wrote on Oct. 14. “I would have loved to get out and see the surrounding towns and country, but the quarantine has not yet been lifted. We have to content ourselves with pacing to and fro behind the iron fence which encircles the camp, caged in like a lot of animals at the zoo … ”

Scott and Minerva went on to discuss the vaccinations they received. “You speak of your second shot,” he wrote on Nov. 2. “Well, I got mine and believe me I was some sick boy last night. In fact, I was so sick that one of the boys had to put me in bed. But today I am feeling in first-class shape again.”

It should be noted that no effective vaccine for H1N1 was developed at the time.

Minerva wrote to her boyfriend nearly every day. Fear of the flu meant that any periods that Scott did not hear from her were cause for concern. “I looked in vain for a letter both yesterday and today,” he wrote on Nov. 5. “I fear that you are ill. Did that sore throat grow worse? I hope not. Perhaps tomorrow’s mail will bring me two or three of your pink envelopes.”

Students of history have probably already guessed how Scott’s military adventure turned out. The quarantine lasted through the end of the war on Nov. 11, what is now known as Armistice Day, which was coincidentally Scott’s 25th birthday. “The inevitable has happened,” he wrote on Nov. 12. “Peace has come at last. May it be an everlasting peace. November 11th will go down in history as one of its greatest days. I shall never forget my 25th birthday. I could not have received a more wonderful gift.”

The 1918 Flu Pandemic claimed more than 50 million people worldwide, including 650,000 in the United States. Scott survived, married Minerva, and became a lawyer and a father. He would go on to have 27 grandchildren, though he would never meet any of them, as he died in his early 50s.

For Lougheed, this brief window into Scott’s life is both historical and personal. “I can picture my grandmother reading his letters,” she said. “I see a lot of similarities.”

Excerpts from the letters of Crawford Scott

The following excerpts were taken from the letters of Crawford Scott to his then-girlfriend Minerva, written during the fall of 1918, transcribed by his granddaughter, Karen Lougheed of Winter Garden, Fla.

Oct. 6

I arrived here yesterday morning about nine o’clock feeling pretty good in spite of the fact that I road all night in a day coach … We came down through Cincinnati and crossed over the Ohio River to the Kentucky side where street cars were waiting to take us up to the Ford. The camp is located in Newport, a very pretty little town. From the appearance of things, this is only a receiving station where we are examined, equipped, and inoculated and then sent to various other camps … Shortly after arriving here yesterday the camp was quarantined because of Spanish Influenza. There are several cases of it in camp. We are exiled now. No one is allowed in or out. Unless prevented by the quarantine, I shall probably be detailed to serve another camp within ten days or two weeks. Only limited service men are being sent to this place and it is overcrowded with them. The barracks in which I sleep contains about 130 cots. It is supposed to accommodate sixty only. The cots are so close we cannot get in them from the side but must jump in from the end.

Oct. 7

Just a few words before the lights go out. We are in bed at 9 o’clock and up at six; quite different from my usual habits of rising and retiring. Nothing further has happened today; we have done nothing but eat and loaf around. We don’t get enough exercise to digest our food, but somehow or other we never hang back when the bugler plays the mess call. Our physical examination should have been completed by this time, but ordinary routine has been interrupted by the epidemic of Spanish influenza. So many cases have broken out that it was necessary to convert the building used by the physical examiners into a hospital. There are now about five buildings being used as hospitals and they are all filled. The boys who left Carnegie are an exceptionally fine crowd and I was fortunate in getting in with them. We are all quartered together and manage to pass the time more pleasantly than we would if the circumstances were otherwise. One is a civil engineer, another a song writer, another a banker teller, and still another a dentist-quite a varied selection …

Oct. 11

I have received your letters of the 8th and 9th; and let me tell you they are most welcome. It makes a fellow feel good to hear from his honey. We are still penned up, unable to go beyond the camp limits. We have not been examined yet, hence we have not received our uniforms. If we are accepted, uniforms will be issued to us, if not, we will be given transportation, one dollar for every day we are here and sent home. I do not expect to be sent home. The Spanish influenza is reaching an alarming stage here; eight hundred cases were reported yesterday. Five died last night. Of the boys who left Carnegie with me, two are in the hospital. I am not telling them these things at home, for I do not want to scare them and have them worrying. Personally I am feeling fine and hope that I can continue to fight this pesky stuff off The food is improving wonderfully. We are given quite a variety now and plenty of it. For our noon meal today we had roast beef and potatoes, corn on the cob, tapioca, bread, and butter. Meat is served three times a day.…

Oct. 14

Monday morning, and everything is going along as usual. I wanted to write this letter last night, because my thoughts were strongly directed toward West Park; didn’t you experience any wireless telepathic communications? But the crowd was noisy and the light in the barracks poor, so I decided to wait until this morning. We had our first workout yesterday being assigned to KP (Kitchen Police) duty. In the language of ordinary civil life this simply means that we were waiters. While the rush lasted we did some lively stepping. You should have seen me juggling those plates. Forty-two of us took care of about 1,700 men for each meal, but thank goodness the job only lasted one day … Yesterday was a most beautiful day. I would have loved to get out and see the surrounding towns and country, but the quarantine has not yet been lifted. We have to content ourselves with pacing to and fro behind the iron fence which encircles the camp, caged in like a lot of animals at the zoo … You asked me if the quarantine had caused any restrictions to be placed on the mail. It has not. We are allowed to send and receive it. This sounds like saying, “Send me some of that chocolate fruit egg, please.” But you forced me to it … Keep away from those Spanish “flu” germs, write often and don’t forget me — my only requests.

Oct. 17

You surely have been good to me today. I received your letters of the 16th and 17th, also the box of candy: all were most enjoyable. That candy hit the spot … This afternoon we were moved from the barracks to tents. Seven men are in each tent. I think I shall like it better. We have much more room and I think it a whole lot more sanitary … I wrote Brother a long letter yesterday … I hope he is safe and well. I am sort of worried about him. He must surely be seeing some heavy action … We have been having some wonderful weather lately. I would love to go out and take a walk over some of this famous Kentucky bluegrass country … There is a rumor in camp that the quarantine will be lifted tomorrow or the next day. Let us hope so. The “flu” seems to be on the decline here. Up to the present time it has taken a toll of twenty-four deaths. I told you of two of our ten boys being in the hospital; one of them came out today and the other comes out tomorrow. Our gang will be complete again. I know the song you speak of, “O! how I miss you pal of mine.” We have a quartet and sing it almost every night. One of the boys, Stanley Henry, is a very good singer and writer of songs. One of his best is “The Fighting Navy.” It was accepted as an official song of the Navy …

Oct. 19

I am in camp two weeks today and not a bit nearer to being a soldier than the day I landed. I might just as well have stayed at home … There is nothing new around camp. Everything stands the same as it did at my last writing. Vague rumors of our physical examination and the quarantine being lifted still float around but there seems to be no foundation for them … Is everything still closed up tight in Pittsburgh? It must be as hard to pass the time there as it is here in camp …

Oct. 22

Well, you should see your soldier boy now; you would fail to recognize him! I was examined yesterday afternoon and accepted … There is a possibility that I shall go overseas. This morning we were fully equipped. You should see the sporty looking uniform … Besides this we were given a heavy overcoat with a belt in the back, a hot, two woolen shirts, two pairs of shoes, two suits of underwear, five pairs of socks, a belt, and a pair of leggings, so I have said goodbye to civilian clothes for the time being, at least. It will only be a matter of time now until we are sent to some other camp. One crowd was sent to Panama, another is going to Texas; but I haven’t the least idea where I shall go.

Oct. 27

Sunday morn and it still rains … My arm is feeling fine today. It was a little sore yesterday, but the soreness has disappeared. It will be a couple of days before I can tell whether the vaccination takes or not. Did you get your shot in the arm yet? Take it like a soldier, it doesn’t hurt. But I guess there is no need to tell you that, you are very brave … I shall probably not be moved for several days, maybe not for a long time. If I receive any sudden notice I shall telegraph you.

Oct. 29

… There is not much news for me to give you. The influenza is under control here, but the quarantine has not been lifted because conditions in Cincinnati are very bad. They are afraid that if the boys get out they will bring it back into camp. We are being drilled much harder now, and do not have much time to myself. Yesterday we were classified according to the kind of work we were fit for. I was put in class C-3, which signifies that I shall see service in the United States only … We got our second shot in the arm today. If it gives me no more trouble I’ll be satisfied.

Nov. 2

… You speak of your second shot. Well, I got mine and believe me I was some sick boy last night. In fact, I was so sick that one of the boys had to put me in bed. But today I am feeling in first class shape again. The sickness disappeared as suddenly as it came. Many of the boys are down and out today. I hope your inoculation has caused not unpleasant effects. Our little crowd from Carnegie suffered its first break. One of the boys was to leave for Texas this afternoon but he received a telegram that his wife was dying, so he has gone home on a furlough … My next letter may contain good news, if things materialize. I’ll not tell you what it is now, so you will not be disappointed if it doesn’t happen. No, it’s not a furlough.

Nov. 3

I have just received your letters of Friday and Saturday and also the box of candy. What a kind dear you are to me! ... Now for the “good news”! It may not be good news to you but holds wonderful possibilities for me. Announcement was made that an officer’s training camp for limited serve men is to be started. So this afternoon I went before my captain and made application for admission to it. All applicants will be given an examination, mental and physical, and if I remember enough about my high school studies I may succeed in being recommended for admission to the camp … I’ll try my hardest; that is all anyone can do. Fate does the rest …

Nov. 5

I looked in vain for a letter both yesterday and today. I fear that you are ill. Did that sore throat grow worse? I hope not. Perhaps tomorrow’s mail will bring me two or three of your pink envelopes. There is absolutely nothing new that I can think of to tell you except the fact that the quarantine will be lifted at 6 am tomorrow. Let me tell you that there was a glad lot of boys when that announcement was made known today. It is just of this place, especially since a month today that they have been caged up. Now I hope to get around and see a little more of this place, especially as businesses are open. I hope the saloons are open … Nothing further concerning O.T.C. has developed; but I am expecting to have a physical examination for it either tomorrow or the next day. I will let you know immediately. According to today’s papers, Austria has “kicked in” and Germany is on the verge of doing the same thing. At this rate they will not be needing any new officers. Well I hope they don’t The sooner the whole thing is over, the happier all concerned will be …

Nov. 6

Two of your letters arrived this morning. I was relieved to know that you were not sick. I did not think that your brother’s condition was so grave, but you say the crisis has passed so I hope his recovery will be speedy … I feel confident that I passed the examination successfully. The camp is located in the State of California near San Francisco. If I am fortunate enough to be selected to go there, I will have an opportunity to see the wonderful golden state. The quarantine went off this morning. I have not been out yet but intend to go out and have a little look around after this evening …

Nov. 9

Saturday morning and we have just stood for inspection. There will be very little to do now until Monday morning. If I were stationed here permanently I could get a pass and run home for a few hours. But as it is, they will not give us a week-end pass, for we are liable to be called from here at any time, and they want us there when we are called…I saw my first moving picture show last night, and the best part of it was that it was free! The Knights of Columbus are putting “movies” on every evening for the boys. After the movies there is a little “home” talent” performance. The Major sent for me yesterday in connection with the Officer’s Training Camp and asked me several questions concerning my education. When he learned that I held a diploma from Penn State he seemed satisfied. I shall not be required to take a written examination. It is a shame that the peace report was false. After everybody was worked up to a high it was like throwing a cold blanket on them. But I hope that it will not be long now until the true report of peace will reach us.

Nov. 12

The inevitable has happened. Peace has come at last. May it be an everlasting peace. November 11th will go down in history as one of its greatest days. I shall never forget my 25th birthday. I could not have received a more wonderful gift. It is only a matter of time now until the world is restored to its normal condition, and the boys come marching home. What a touching sight it will be when the battle-scarred heros swing down Fifth Avenue for the first time. What eye will be dry when they are given this glad welcome? I only hope that Bruzz was safe when his activities ceased. There is no use describing the celebrations here, for doubtless they were the same everywhere. Everyone was wild. The whistles started to blow at 1 am and continued to do so all day long. I got my first glimpse of Cincinnati. The orders at the fort were that no one was to go to the city. But I and several others took a chance after supper and went down. We had a good time and got back to camp without being detected. It was my first taste of real freedom for over five weeks. The streets were black with people and everyone was doing his best to make a racket. It put me in mind of one of our old-fashioned Halloweens at home. I do not know what plans are being made to muster the men out of the service. I only now that I shall be glad to get back home to you and very lonesome for you, dear. But the worst is over now, and it will not be long.

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