The Legacy of a bird named Enza

1918, is a year we all have something in common with,  102 years later.  We can learn from history.  We must learn from history.

For me it is somewhat personal, because my Great Grandfather, was a tall stout farmer, who had immigrated from Boothe, Arkansas to Texas to farm the rich newly opened up lands of Kent County, Texas.  To an untrained eye that is a rather dry, ugly area, but for some, it had beauty, represented opportunity, and a challenge to "tame" wilderness and turn it into a "fortune".  How could he have known that 1918 would be a time of disaster? 

The nearest town to Great Grandfather Boothe's farm, was Girard, where many of the people were alive with enthusiasm and spirit of building a new wealth from the virgin farmlands of West Texas. 

Girard was founded in 1909, with much enthusiasm, at the last census there were only 50 people left there. Over the years, as people died.  It is hard to make a living on small farms these days, and the town lives on mainly through memories of people long passed away.  But when it was organized in 1909, the people were proud and full of hope.  Robert Sanders Boothe, (my great grandfather)  was proud of his son, Noel, when the he was infected with patriotic fever of WWI, and enlisted in the U.S.Army.  Noel must have thought going to WWI to Europe a grand adventure.  He was soon in uniform and stationed in Camp Bowie, an army training camp,  due west of Downtown Fort Worth.    Camp Bowie (the road named after the camp) headed west out of Ft. Worth and at the city limits was a two lane road, called Hwy 180, that went all the way to west Texas. Two lane road, much of it hard packed dirt and gravel.  In 1918 it was a long, hard drive from  Girard, to Fort Worth, if in a 1918 vintage vehicle.  My guess is that he had an old farm vehicle, perhaps a pick up truck, or an old horse drawn buckboard.  My father told me that he rode in a "buck board" horse drawn.  We just don't know for sure, because as we learned "The family just didn't talk about the flu epidemic".  I looked on records and a 1918 Chevrolet Series D V* built in 1917 and 1918 had 37 HP, and had a "comfortable speed" of 20 to tops at 30 mph on old dirt roads. So whether by buckboard or by horse, it was a long and tiring drive,  14-17 hours or more one way.

Great Grandfather, "Robert Sanders Boothe" missed his son. When he heard the quiet whispers of some kind of flu epidemic, coming out of Kansas, and he was worried about his son.  He heard rumors that people were dying of some mysterious disease. So, in January of 1918, he set out on the long trip from Gerard, to Ft. Worth.  

When he arrived, at Camp Bowie, in Fort Worth,  hundreds of military tents were neatly lined up, and a sick tent" where people were examined. Great Grandfather brought back a photo of his son, in uniform, standing at attention, in front of the Camp Bowie military tents.   After a couple of days, my Great Grandfather, seeing his son healthy and happy, headed back to West Texas. I have often wondered if the exhausting trip was part of the reason my Great Grandfather became ill on his way back home from Ft.Worth. 

By the time he got home, he had a fever, nausea, and went to Dr. Reed January 28th in Gerard. He died the night of February 25 at 8:15 pm.  The death certificate called cause "Pneumonia and Malnutrition". 

It was later called the "Spanish Flu" not because it originated in Spain, but because the newspapers there were not censored and they became a source of news about the deadly epidemic.  


My Great Grandfather was among the first of three stages causing death by the Spanish Flu.  It eventually decimated towns, especially those where American soldiers trained or passed through.

It killed some 600,000 Americans.  My Grandfather Noel, a tall, stout farm boy from West Texas managed to survive both the flu and the War, fighting in France. But he saw,  in those muddy trenches, that more American boys died from the Spanish Flu than enemy bullets, but no one openly spoke of it. 

President Wilson realized how serious the epidemic was, he was seeing reports of people dying by the thousands, many before they even made it onto the ships to go to France.

Wilson,  had to finance a war and needed to raise money by selling war bonds to pay for it. President Wilson determined that any "negative news" would keep him from selling enough bonds to pay for the war. He was thinking first of all, "money". 

So he engineered a law, THE SEDITION ACT OF 1918, that made it illegal to say anything deemed disloyal, profane, or abusive language about the USA, and anything that could be considered "anti war".  Nothing that gave "enemies in the war" reason to doubt the US effort was allowed to be spoken.  The Spanish Flu and the massive deaths were therefore not often written of in American newspapers. Newspaper reporters in America, realized that the quickest way to have a story killed, was to write an article about the Spanish Flu.  It was just whispered that you weren't supposed to discuss the flu epidemic, because doing so might encourage enemies of America. (Ironically, President Wilson caught it, and stayed isolated in the White House for the last year of his term in office, and his life.)

It was rarely disclosed, at the time, but subsequent study of his medical records confirmed almost a 90% assurance that President Wilson secretly died of the Spanish flu, the very flu that he had made it illegal to discuss.   

During that time, his wife and staff essentially handled Presidential duties. 

Grandfather Noel Boothe, after the war,  returned to the USA to find towns riddled with deaths, during that time, some cities such as Philadelphia, were almost destroyed. So many bodies and deaths that there weren't enough coffins. Some people kept dead bodies in their homes, hoping someone would come by to pick them up and bury them.  Nationwide, mass grave sites became necessary.  Meanwhile Grandpa Noel got a job delivering mail and trying to farm.  He worked every day from well before dawn to late at night, and even then struggled to pay the bills.  Granny told a story that one year, they sat at the kitchen table, and Noel laughed out loud. 

"Lena, we have paid all of our bills for the year and have $1.42 cents left."  She replied; "Then we had a successful year."   

Not long after that, while he was plowing the field with a mule, she had been chopping weeds with a hoe.  When she came back to the blanket their youngest baby, Jim Bob, laying there, she found a rattlesnake on the blanket. "I killed that rattlesnake with the hoe, and yelled at Noel.  "I have had it with the farm, the flu, the hard times. We are moving to a town!"  And from that time on they became merchants of the new concept, called "5 and dime stores", in O'Donnell, and later Lamesa, Texas.  A few years later they were respected as one of the "successful" families in Lamesa, Texas.   

But back to the Spanish Flu.  

Politicians had passed that "hush order" The Sedition Act of 1918 and didn't want to discuss the extent of the deaths or even mention an "epidemic". Talk like that was considered aid to the enemy (the Germans).

(Plus it wasn't good for the politicians who were constantly selling War Bonds to pay the bills of WWI).  First political and military leaders denied that a flu epidemic existed. They and newspapers called it something other than "flu" or "epidemic".  Even doctors carefully doctored medical records and avoided using the word "flu".  The words "deadly flu" was shunned.  Then like current political leaders, 1918 political leaders denied that it was a serious problem. They said: "We have it under control!".  Then later they told the American people to wear face masks and not to touch or be close to people. One popular rule was "Don't spit on the streets. " Notice the poster published for Americans in 1918 by the US Public Health Service of the Treasury. 

  Another, "Walk to work" (to avoid crowds on public transportation).  But knowledge and first hand witness of the deaths and sickness informed the American people, it simply was not discussed publicly. Some larger cities, such as Philadelphia may have lost 20%-30% of their population. Viewing the advice in 1918, vs what we see today, is very revealing.  How much progress has our medical science made in 102 years? 

Then the politicians tried to blame it on the Chinese, the Spanish, foreign immigrants and various European nations.  There was the message that "those" people caused it, but defining "those" seemed to be the choice of radicals or bigots.  Those people always point to "others" as the source of all evil.  (When one points a finger, my old grandfather used to tell me that there are 3 fingers pointing back at the pointer). Political leaders of the USA worked hard to keep stories of the "Spanish Flu" out of newspapers and didn't want to publicize deaths of the thousands of deaths in WWI. Most of the 'war dead'  were often reported to imply death by enemy bullets. No doubt that many widows and children of dead soldiers, were led to believe that their "husband" or "father" died a heroic soldier's death by enemy fire in battle.  More than half of them died of the Spanish Flu.

And part of that was because the military and the government didn't take steps to seperate them, make them wear face masks, provide living and sleeping quarters where there was some separation.  Our wartime boys endured cramped ships, trucks, barracks,  muddy filthy trenches, or crammed together in thin tents of little protection against wind, freezing rain and snow. American soldiers died by the thousands, coughing, bleeding from eyes and ears and eventually finding it hard to breathe. They became weak, helpless, and could not hold food down. Their skin turned darker, almost black, reminding people of the "black death plagues"  hundreds of years earlier. One officer after visiting a field hospital said "I couldn't tell a white man from a negro, their skin had all turned dark".  When the skin begin to change colors, and darken doctors knew they only had hours to live. 

Most of our U.S. soldiers were boys from 18 to 28 years old. This virus took strong healthy people in their "prime years", as they died by the thousands. So much for what history should have taught us, about the risk and danger of "politicizing" an epidemic. And so much for the lack of planning, foresight, or care for our boys provided by our military leaders of those days.  Perhaps it was because the President said; "Do not discuss this, it might help the enemy".  Perhaps it was just ignorance.  Probably a little of both.   Soon, the Germans caught it from the American soldiers on the battlefields and they then had an epidemic. 

How and where did it start?  It is unknown.  Most historians report the first recorded case was on an American military training base in Haskell County, Kansas, in January of 1918.  Fort Riley where 522 men became sick and many died within a few days.  By March the flu had spread to military camps all over. It was soon in over 25 military bases around the nation. Thousands of soldiers were shipped in packed crammed boats leaving out of Queens, New York, for France. If they weren't infected before getting on those packed boats they certainly were infected when they disembarked in France.  Everywhere they marched they left villages infected.  The same happened throughout the USA.  We believe some soldiers from Kansas, brought it to Camp Bowie in Fort Worth, Texas.   But, people were hesitant to speak about it loudly.  "The Sedition Act" had made it "un American" to speak of the flu. 

But the children could not be kept quiet and a children's song or chant as they skipped rope went like this:


I realized an odd thing while writing this story about my Great Grandfather.  No one in our family wanted to speak about the flu, how or why he died.  Even at my age of 71  I recall having to work hard to pry any information from family descendants  about his "influenza".  Those lessons of President Wilson's "Sedition Act" seemed to make millions of people, simply try to block the horrors of the Spanish Flu out of the cultural conversation.  600,000 American citizens died, and we weren't supposed to talk about it. Even back in "Cowtown" our city of Ft Worth with Camp Bowie, the "deaths" were not given great publicity.   

But as deaths increased, locally and  nationally it became impossible to ignore or deny.

The bodies and coffins stacked 4 high, and 3 across, were buried in mass graves.

In cities, heavy equipment was brought in to dig long deep rows where masses of bodies could be buried. At one point in heavy hit cities, many bodies were buried without any identification of the dead. Hospitals, houses, clinics, funeral homes were overrun. Bodies often lay on the sidewalks and streets.  Houses of deceased families, were sometimes burned. Entire families were found dead in their homes.  Children starving to death because their parents had both died were feared because they too had been exposed to the deadly virus.  But, these were things made "illegal" to speak of.

While writing this, I thought about a recent press conference, in 2020 (102 years after the Spanish flu)  at the White House.  The reporters were scolded for mentioning the true scope of the 2020 Corona epidemic. Reports of how many Americans, nurses,  doctors and children were suffering in 2020, were unwelcome reports at the White House.  Seems that politicians, seem even today, 102 years later, still don't want the ugly result of viral epidemics and the cruel way a virus can kill people, spoken of. Deadly facts of massive tragedy might make sensitive or insecure politicians seem uncomfortable, I suppose. 

Today, in 2020  we are told to "stay in our homes" and avoid people, we are attempting to not make mistakes of the past.  In 2020 we closed our restaurants, stores and companies, and believed the advice to exercise  6' social distancing.  Like Great Grandfather Boothe, people were told to "stand back", "wear a face mask", and to keep the family safe at home.  I often think back about my Great Grandfather Boothe 102 years ago. He drove that long trip, on poor roads for at least 14-17 hours just to be sure his son was ok. He probably didn't consider "social distancing" then, and no doubt he hugged his son tightly and went into his tent and shook hands with Grandfather Noel's soldier friends. 

What can we learn, from his days, his experiences?  What mistakes are we still making?  Why have we not as a nation better prepared our system, doctors, equipment, techniques, to better deal with viral epidemics?  What about our military?  Today I heard that one Navy ship with 5,000 people aboard was infested with the Corona Virus.  How many will die because the military leaders delayed initiating protection and mitigation processes to protect our soldiers?  Another repeat of 1918. They didn't want the "enemy" to know that a ship was crippled by sick sailors.  I hate the thought that we may be making some of the same mistakes of 102 years ago.  Sick soldiers on the battlefields of WWI, were not supposed to speak of the flu, many just died on the battlefields of viral pneumonia. 

The MO?  1. Denial 2. Attack those who report.  3. Delay.  4. And then abruptly encourage people to work even with risks of further deaths by "mixing it" with others.  Allowing denial to stand in the way of reality. 5. Ignore science, and medicine in favor of corporate greed or political popularity.  6. Avoid ethical questions of which is more important, human lives or economic revival. 7. Create impossible conflicts of politics vs compassion.  Compromising salvation of human life, to save the profits of giant corporations.

But perhaps there is a worse scenario.  Perhaps some politicians believe that we have already spent so many billions in grants to companies, businesses, farmers, airlines and other groups, that....Perhaps the nation, if it does not "go back to work" will find itself with financial instability.  How much debt can a nation run up, and hope to pay?

Even some of our modern high technology hospitals, seem to be at a loss on fully understanding of dealing with viral illness such as the Spanish flu of 1918 or Corona of 2020.  They tell us there are no cures, and report that vaccines could take years to develop. 1% to 4% mortality rates seem to be the range worldwide. 

We are reminded of similar desperation in 1918.   In 2020 medical doctors and hospitals are doing better in treating the sick than in 1918, but that 1% to 4% death rate still exists. 

Our police, mailmen, nurses, doctors, public servants, garbage collectors, gas station operators, drug store employees and pharmacists, grocery store workers, have had then, and now, little real protection. "Wear a mask. Don't touch. Wash your hands."  No doubt thousands of these public servants died in 1918 and are suffering in 2020, to keep our society going.

The haunting thought keeps coming to mind.  I hear the words whispering.

"We had the potential to do, to be better, if our political leaders had not ignored and delayed the warnings..."

Consider the early warnings of the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  This week a frustrated doctor said:

"America has the most expensive health care system in the world, and yet our quality of care is lacking, because of political delays and denials."  

What have we learned in the last 102 years?  Apparently not enough.   Ebola, has broken out 7 different times, in the last 30 years, and we still seem to be fearful of it because it is still alive and active today. One viral mutation cross over, and we could have another pandemic. 

In America, Germany, France, England, Japan and even China,  the world may have the best of technology, but the virus continues to confound the world's best minds. Look what happened the world over, in 1918. 

We have seen how quickly our hospitals can run out of space, supplies, protective gear. We see how many of the hospitals lack equipment, beds, or even ways to protect our doctors and nurses. And we have seen how ineffective political leadership can cause the loss of thousands of lives and watch an economy go to ruin. We are witnessing nations become unstable as they simply run out of money.  In some areas social order is breaking down.  There is growing risk of social unrest.  Gun sales skyrocketing.  Social violence increasing.

Consider a frightening scenario:

What if a cure is found, it could take months or even years to produce and distribute it. Will there be violence in the streets for those who say "My wife and kids can't wait. I want it now or I will take it!"  It is not surprising that gun sales have skyrocketed in recent weeks. People are nervous, and soon to be outright scared.  What about fears for our financial stability.  I just read of a man who took millions out of his banks, flew to an isolated island retreat, and is determined to just sit back with his family while the world order shakes.  He says: "Call me in a year!" 

Yet Franklin Roosevelt's "We have nothing to fear, but fear itself", is more relevant than ever. It took a charismatic, believable, wise and fatherly man from a political family that had a solid reputation, of honesty and public service, to gain the trust of the American bring us back into focus as an undivided family.  To increase trust, and diminish division.  

This is a time that demands stable, wise, calm, thoughtful, compassionate leadership that has integrity and does not hide, distort or manipulate the truth, like President Wilson, in 1918. My Great Grandfather, died because he did not fully know the danger, the risks and how to protect himself.  His death was unnecessary, his love for his family unquestioned.  He died along with an estimated 50,000,000 people world wide, in the 1918 pandemic. It seems that world leaders around the globe watched in despair as their people died by the millions.  We wonder about poor nations of Africa, India or South America.  We just got a message from a political leader asking "Can you send masks, or medicine. We have bodies in the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador, because no one wants to touch them or pick them up to be buried."  I had to reply that we of the "great USA" didn't even have enough face masks or protective gear. "We are sewing our own" I sadly had to admit. The world is in despair that the great USA cannot take a lead to help the world, it has lost some of the "shine" of it's image.   My country, the nation I love, and would fight to defend, has lost credibility, because our leaders have been less credible.  

History has shown how that politicians, sometimes want to put politics, war and issues of money, even profits of business ahead of prudently saving lives. 

But, I would say, most of these politicians have never lost a great grandfather, to a virus. Or allowed 600,000 Americans to die, because of ignorance, delays,  lack of wise and stable leadership or political expediency. 

We have seen that a lack of preparation in our society for epidemics like this, costs lives and economic stability.  We must see the need for wise, stable, experienced  and compassionate leadership.  

Joshua Lederberg a PhD Nobel Laureate said in 1995:


Remember, the little bird Enza.  What happened? 

The little girl opened her window and in flew Enza.  (Influenza).