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A 19th century influenza presages the 20th century pandemic

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

The 1918 Influenza that killed my grandfather devastated Aspen. I recently discovered that this was the second time he and others had faced a pandemic. The timing helps explain why people moved quickly to contain the 1918 pandemic as it swept through Aspen.

The previous pandemic, known as the Russian Influenza or La Grippe, worked its way through humanity from 1889 to 1894. Estimates indicate it claimed over a million victims worldwide. Some experts believe it was an H1N1 virus, and in 2005 it was conjectured to have possibly been a coronavirus.

Accounts of its spread landed as frontpage stories throughout its sway. When first reported in the Aspen Times on 10 December 1889, it had begun to spread in St. Petersburg, Russia and London. By the following day it had spread to Stockholm and Paris and was called an “influenza epidemic.” A few days later cases in Belgrade, Serbia were reported and, of greater concern to Aspenites, cases in New York City.

In a time of minimal understanding of the virus’s contagion, it spread along railroad routes. By 1889, with Aspen in its second year of rail service, railroads connected all major cities. When researchers documented and mapped the pandemic’s historic spread across continents, the progression resembled a slow moving train. Those trains traveled slowly by today’s standards. Passengers rode in close quarters. In winter, when this pandemic spread, they rode with windows closed. The conditions were worse than riding in a packed airplane today because airplanes have ventilation systems. The virus moved across oceans by ship. Crew members and passengers may have embarked in good health only to arrive sick and dying at a distant shore.

On December 19, Boston reported 12 cases, and a day later the flu had reached Kansas City, Missouri. A few days later Duluth, Minnesota reported cases.

Aspen’s readers could easily follow the onslaught of the disease, from Russia. On December 27th, the Denver newspaper reported that three-fourths of the city had been infected.

The virus spread quickly and many were afflicted. The death rates were low, estimated at between three and four percent. But as the numbers of cases rose, so did deaths, and became the focus of newspapers. Near the end of December, Paris reported 80 deaths in one day. Brussels claimed that 30% of school-age children were infected.

Early in the 1890 new year, New York City totaled 147 deaths in one day. As with other pandemics during winter months, when people commonly die from pneumonia, it was difficult to distinguish the cause of death. But New York and other cities made an effort to identify the virus.

The Aspen Times reported that local Edith Timmons was “ill from effects of an attack of influenza.” Aspen reported no other cases, so Timmons may have had a more common flu, rather than the Russian influenza.

On January 24 the first American celebrity, Adam Forepaugh, died of the influenza. Forepaugh had been one of the most famous circus masters. Barnum and Baily bought his circus, which played in Aspen the following summer.

With no influenza deaths in Aspen to call for a more serious tone, the newspaper reprinted the following from the Chicago Herald:

It was a sneeze

Caused his demise

Tw’as influenza

Brought his cadenza

In March 1890, the paper pronounced the pandemic “was over in America.” It had come on quickly, spread rapidly, and — with little intervention — had lived out its short life. However, the virus spread again in 1892, ’93, and ’94. In the end, it reigned as the greatest pandemic of the 19th century. Yet it is not well-remembered, eclipsed by a pandemic of brutal deaths 30 years later.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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