Floyd Robertson, the 24-year-old son of Benjamin and Margaret Robertson of Hope, died Oct. 3 in Indianapolis, a victim of the worldwide pandemic. Along with his parents, he left behind his bride of 16 months, two sisters and four brothers.

The year was 1918. Floyd was the first of 23 Bartholomew County servicemen who would lose their lives to the “Spanish Flu” while in training for military service in World War I. He had gone to Indianapolis to learn to be a U.S. Army truck driver on the battlefields of France.

Six more young soldiers — from the Hope area alone — would die over the next two weeks while in training camps: Julius Roupp, 27; William Pumphrey, 30; Frank Burbrink, 25; Otto Shepherd, 23; Frank Wilcox, 24; Harry Carman, 18.

The young men likely contracted the flu in camp in mid to late September, but showed little or no signs at first. Like hundreds of others — particularly those in training in Indianapolis military camps — they returned home on weekend passes during September, unknowingly spreading the disease to loved ones and friends.

The first civilian deaths from the flu came soon after. One of the first was 4-year-old Fredia McNealy, who lived with her parents, Mrs. and Mrs. Frank McNealy south of Newbern. By November the pandemic would explode all over Bartholomew County.

The county kept no statistics on the number of “Spanish Flu” deaths, physicians saying so many were sick and dying in their care that they had no time to keep records. Still, we know from the stories in “The Hope Star-Journal” and “The Evening Republican” newspapers from 1918 and 1919 that sickness was everywhere and deaths were many.

Also from those articles, we can surmise the death count would have been even higher had local doctors, health administrators and government officials not caught on to the seriousness of the situation and instituted early measures we now call “social distancing,” along with public and businesses closures.

Local health officials first received word of the local danger in a report from the U.S. Surgeon General on Sept. 16, 1918, pointing out New York and Boston were in the midst of a massive spread of the disease and the pandemic was likely to hit Indiana soon.

On Sept. 26, Dr. F. D. Norton, a Columbus doctor serving on the state’s Medical Defense Board, informed local physicians that the situation was worsening so much on the east coast that the National Medical Reserve Board was requiring all doctors to register to be drafted for service. All local doctors signed up, but by the time paperwork was completed, the need also was spiraling out of control in Bartholomew County and none were called to go east.

On Oct. 1, Dr. Norton traveled to Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio, to treat Roy Finkle, a local soldier from Petersville — the first known case of the virus with a local connection. When Norton returned the next day, he said 1,000 soldiers already had the virus and 13 had died that week.
On Oct. 7, Indiana University at Bloomington closed after the flu spread through campus, killing a professor.

On Oct. 10, the Bartholomew County Health Department and the City of Columbus ordered all “social gatherings” to end and closed all “pool halls and cigar stores.” Harry Robertson, whose home was at Second and Washington Street, refused to cooperate with the prohibition on social gathering and threw a party and a dance at his house. Police were sent to shut down the gaiety.

Most Columbus residents paid no attention to warnings, saying the disease created no need for action. Even Dr. J. H. Morrison, county health commissioner, said he only knew of one flu case and he believed most of the reports were simply common colds.

A week later, health officials reported the flu was spreading quickly around the county and the local Red Cross chapter, headed by W. G. Irwin, formed a committee to review medical supplies. They located 150 gauze masks to be used by emergency workers — 100 to be retained in Columbus and 50 to be sent to Hope. They also located extra sheets, pillow cases and supplies to send to the new Bartholomew County Hospital, which had only opened the previous year and had few beds.

The Red Cross also published a list of precautions to be taken to help prevent the spread — including hand washing and other hygiene measures. They asked residents to stay out of groups, cover their mouths and noses with masks when possible and not leave their homes with symptoms of a cold or a fever.

Columbus cases of the flu were minimal for the rest of October. Clifty Township had a spike in cases, but newspaper reports said the problem seemed to be under control. Most people went about their daily routines without worry. City regulations on social gatherings were still in place, but few people paid any attention.

Then came Nov. By November 15, as many as 60 new cases a day were reported in the county and deaths were mounting. In one Jonesville neighborhood, 27 people came down with the virus and the school was closed. Health officials said the huge gatherings for the November 5 election were a significant factor in the spread.

Elizabethtown followed the lead of Jonesville, with six families stricken with the disease the following day. Meanwhile township trustees began closing schools.

By Nov. 19, the city and county health departments were describing the health crisis as “critical” and advising residents to stay home and wear masks, if leaving to buy essential supplies. Masks, however, were scarce. The Columbus Chamber of Commerce had exhausted its supply and was searching for some to provide for train crews traveling to Indianapolis. The capital city was not allowing anyone into the city limits without one.

Dr. Bertha Clouse, a Hope native who was health officer for Bartholomew County Schools, began daily visits to schools, sending all children and teachers home at the first sign of symptoms. Within a week, she asked all schools to close. (Dr. Clouse was the great aunt of the late Merrill Clouse, father of David Clouse, Kathy Clouse and Lori Wells.) Health authorities also recommended the closing of all churches, taverns, restaurants and other places where crowds of people gather.

Medical services were stretched thin and local doctors admitted they could do little to alleviate the suffering. One doctor told the newspaper he wished the county had learned more from a flu pandemic that had hit 25 years earlier, but “most of those doctors are no longer with us.”
Some doctors, and others, searched for unorthodox and unproven ways to medicate patients. A Shelbyville doctor touted whiskey as a treatment medicine — in spite of the national prohibition for the sale and consumption of alcohol. Several local physicians agreed whiskey might help, but none admitted turning to illegal liquor as a medication.

Meanwhile the Columbus mayor and the City Council debated whether to continue to pay the increasing number of city employees who were off work with the flu. Eventually, the city decided not to “make these payments indiscriminate” after the mayor warned such pay might keep people off work longer than they “really need to be.”

On Nov. 20, the Red Cross announced a shortage of nurses making home visits and said families with symptoms should go to the new county hospital for care. A few days later, with the hospital full, health authorities told everyone to stay home and not even go to a doctor’s office. Sick residents were advised to call their doctors and schedule a house call.

Ordered closings and the ban on public gatherings expired temporarily when a debate among city health officials and government leaders on Dec. 1 failed to extend the prohibition. Some believed simply quarantining known cases was sufficient. After a week, the ban was re-instituted as case numbers continued to grow.

The ban eventually was lifted Dec. 27, after cases leveled at two or three a day locally. Still, 19 children at the Bartholomew County Orphans Home were reported infected with the disease the next week.

The good news was that by the end of January 1919, only a few cases of the flu were still popping up each week. Schools, churches and other gathering places were reopened.

By early March, local health officials were declaring victory. However, both health officials and local residents worried a new epidemic would arrive in the fall when the weather cooled. The good news would be that while a few cases of Spanish flu did return in the fall of 1919, the new spread was far short of the pandemic of the previous year.

When the Spanish Flu Pandemic finally had subsided, few health professionals — and even fewer everyday citizens — could say precisely why it had ended within a few months. Most everyone agreed: local actions to isolate cases, prohibit public gatherings and promote hygiene had been major factors.

Others touted the immunity gained by those who contracted the disease, but lived. Some said warmer weather helped. Some just credited prayer.
History, however, holds a statistical answer that is hard to refute. Work toward defeating the pandemic started when local citizens began to take the threat seriously, follow the advise of health professionals and work together to “do the right things” — for themselves and others.