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Fear 1918

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Courtesy Willoughby Collection The1918 pandemic closed Aspen's theaters, as evidenced by this announcement in Aspen Democrat Times on Oct. 22,1918.
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“Let everyone close all work at nine o’clock tonight and pray for health,” pleaded the Aspen Democrat Times following a one-day death toll of seven from influenza. Fear, depression and desperation permeated the community. Daily reports of death from that pandemic and from World War I combined to mark the cruelest months of Aspen’s history: October and November 1918.

One of the seven victims, all men, was my great-uncle Albert Frost, age 25. He was typical of the 20 million to 50 million victims worldwide; one-half were in their 20s and 30s. Half of those who died in America succumbed during October or November. Up to 10 percent of young adult Americans, most in prime health, died from respiratory complications.

Colorado’s mining communities suffered higher than average death rates. The combination of high altitude and lungs impaired by mining commonly resulted in flu-induced pneumonia. Silverton registered 125 deaths in one week, losing 10 percent of its population.

The influenza, believed to have originated in Kansas, took hold in Colorado when soldiers were sent for training in Boulder and Colorado Springs. From crowded Army tents, it spread rapidly to all but a few small towns.

After Albert Frost’s death, his wife Ethel lost her baby during childbirth. Soon after, my grandfather, John Sheehan, proprietor of a grocery store in the Aspen Block on Hyman Avenue, fell victim to the influenza at age 34. My mother’s most intense memory of the whirlwind of fatalities that occurred when she was 10 was, of course, that of her father’s funeral. Colorado Gov. Julius Gunter had issued an order banning indoor gatherings. Mother later remembered the outdoor funeral in front of their Main Street home, “There was no traffic, the town normally busy with activity was dead silent. It was as if the whole town had died.”

Lack of information and ignorance fueled fear. Medicine advanced slowly and few doctors understood the science of disease. In 1900, only one medical school required a college degree for entrance. Many medical schools admitted students who lacked even a high school diploma. Advice from the Surgeon General himself illustrates this condition, “Avoid tight clothes, tight shoes, tight gloves – seek to make nature your ally not your prisoner.” Aspen’s doctors, including one outsider who was sent in to help with the pandemic, included such old-fashioned practitioners.

Charles Wagner, Aspen’s president of the Board of Health, ordered all dogs and cats to be confined to their homes. Fearing that they “scattered germs,” locals shot roaming pets.

Some towns even more aggressively banned “roaming.” Ouray banned entry to miners from Silverton and Telluride. Gunnison, weathering the pandemic without a single death, posted guards at all town entrances who denied entry to anyone showing symptoms. The town also prevented entry to itinerant train passengers.

“Don’t bother the hospital,” announced John Stitzer, president of the board of directors of Aspen’s Citizen’s Hospital. “Let’s you and me let the nurses alone, let them attend to their patients and not bother them with curiosity phone calls.” Most patients never made it to the hospital, fighting for their lives within quarantined homes. The illness progressed rapidly, and without the benefit of modern-day treatments for secondary infection by pneumonia, death came quickly.

The Civil War defined the previous generation. The fear and desperation of the 1918 influenza dominated the memories of those born at the turn-of-the-century until the effects of the Great Depression and World War II demanded attention.


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