The Evanston History Center is happy to partner with the Evanston RoundTable to share the insights that our expansive collection of Evanston history provides. Public records, newspapers, letters, maps, photographs, and artifacts all carry messages from the past to inform our lives today. The differences and changes can be compelling, disconcerting, educational, but always fascinating and often downright funny.
Since history looks at the past but also influences the future, and today will be history tomorrow, we have titled this column “Dimensions.” We are living in a historic time, and you can help us tell future generations what it was like. We are located in the National Historic Landmark Charles Gates Dawes House at 225 Greenwood Street. Please visit our website, evanstonhistorycenter.org, to learn more about how you can participate and contribute to the collection.
Our first three Dimensions show what life was like in Evanston more than a century ago, during the influenza pandemic and what turned out to be the last year of World War I, We think you will be intrigued by the parallels.
What are you curious about in Evanston history? Let us know what you’ve wondered about! Send your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eden Juron Pearlman, Executive Director
In April 1918, there were a lot of things to fear. The First World War, now in its fourth devastating year, was reaching a critical level for the United States. In the year since the country declared war against Germany in April 1917, the U.S. armed forces had grown to over four million, with nearly three million deployed overseas; Across the United States people faced economic uncertainty as they were challenged by the upheavals of a country devoted to a global war.
To top it off, an epidemic was announced: whooping cough was on the loose in Evanston.
Looking back at this era, we have the benefit of hindsight.
As we know, influenza, not whooping cough, would reach pandemic proportions beginning in 1918. Before it ran its course, finally losing strength in 1920, influenza would claim an estimated 675,000 lives in the United States and 20-50 million lives worldwide. (Numbers from U.S. Centers for Disease Control.)
Those were truly dark days. In 2021, as we face another pandemic, looking back at this time might help us see that cold, gray days have come before. They have also passed, eventually becoming history. And now, knowing that history seems somehow urgent.
Unearthing a detailed portrait of Evanston’s experience of the 1918 pandemic, however, is not so easy. In the immediate aftermath of that terrible time, forgetting was the order of the day. But more on that at the end of the story.
The 1918 pandemic was born of and bred by war.
According to historian John M. Barry, when a particularly virulent strain of influenza broke out on the American landscape in early 1918, influenza “was neither a reportable disease, nor a disease that any state or federal public health agency tracked.” Despite the fact that an American military training camp, Camp Funston in Kansas, would later be identified as an epicenter of the 1918 pandemic, that knowledge went unrecorded at the time. So, quietly, the virus began to spread, breaking out in various locations in the United States.
In was not until May 1918 that the American press, its attention fixed on events overseas, began to report on an outbreak of influenza in Spain (hence the moniker “Spanish Flu”). Citing the “mysteriousness” of the illness (a “plague”), the press noted that it seemed to ravage large percentages of groups quickly. Throughout the spring and early summer, U.S. newspapers tracked influenza as it spread through European countries, including Germany, England, Ireland, France, and Norway.
At the time, many countries, including the United States, were operating under strict wartime censorship policies. As a result, the flow of information about the outbreak was obstructed, leading to the spreading of rumors and falsehoods. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, for example, reported that the epidemic was caused by hunger among weakened German troops, while the New York Times reported that the disease was spreading in Europe because so many there had to “live on bad bread.” But perhaps the most egregious error reported at the time was that the pandemic was entirely foreign to the United States.
As early as 1919, investigators would recognize “the likelihood that influenza was prevalent in [the United States] in a mild and unrecognized form in the spring of ,” pointing to “numerous local outbreaks of acute respiratory diseases” and “a very great number of cases [that] were not reported.”
As we know now, the 1918 strain of influenza that led to the pandemic was present in the United States as early as January 1918. And later, experts would identify an epicenter of the pandemic in the American heartland, with the first recorded cases found in the great state of Kansas.
Influenza 1918: variously called the flu, the grippe, “Flanders’ Fever,” and the “Spanish flu.” Sometimes the word was spelled with an apostrophe: ’flu.
The First Wave
In March 1918, Albert Gitchell, a cook at Camp Funston, located at Fort Riley, Kansas, was recorded as one of the pandemic’s earliest victims. Cases of a severe form of influenza had been observed in the surrounding county in Kansas as early as January 1918. Soon, more than one hundred soldiers at the camp fell ill with influenza. Within a week, the number of flu cases at Camp Funston reached 2,480. Although unrecorded at the time, the spring of 1918 constituted the pandemic’s “first wave” in the United States.
At the time, influenza was a familiar disease. For centuries it had been present, often in epidemic proportions. The 1918 strain (H1N1) was both highly lethal and highly contagious. It spread rapidly through American military camps. It then embarked overseas, traveling on the ships that carried American troops to the war.
By late Spring 1918, the flu reached Europe and began to spread around the globe.
The war and the pandemic were intricately linked. In late June 1918, as the outbreak was already making its way through Europe, the U.S War Department emphatically (and erroneously) declared that there was “No Influenza on Our Army.” But in fact, the pandemic was bred within the U.S. military. The war was the means by which the virus spread so quickly. It was a perfect storm: millions of people, housed in close quarters in camps and cantonments, often without access to proper sanitation, and all of them on the move, crowded on ships, on trains, in ports, and moving around the globe -it was the perfect setting for the spread of a highly contagious virus.
Human Density: Camp Grant (above) near Rockford, Illinois, was built in 1917, one of many military camps constructed to house the burgeoning U.S. Armed Forces during World War I. (Waterloo Photo Co. November 12, 1917) Camp Funston, (below) 14th National Army Cantonment, Fort Riley, Kansas, was an epicenter of the pandemic. The first troops arrived at the camp in September 1917; eventually tens of thousands of drafted men came to the camp, housed in conditions that the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office would later (1928) identify as faulty, including the camp’s substandard kitchen facilities and its poor ventilation, waste management, and sewerage systems. (Photographs, Library of Congress.)
In the war’s final year, at the height of the pandemic, an estimated 20-40% of all U.S. Army and Navy personnel became sick with influenza and its attendant condition pneumonia. Nearly 30,000 members of the U.S. Army died in the United States before shipping out overseas. Influenza and pneumonia would ultimately kill more American soldiers and sailors than combat during World War I. 
The Second Wave
“Spanish Influenza Here,” New York Times, August 4, 1918.
As the pandemic spread during the summer of 1918, a narrative surrounding the outbreak took shape according to the prevailing war sentiment: the American public had to guard against this “foreign” enemy (influenza) from invading the United States and “attacking” Americans. At the time, the flu was not primarily described as a danger to personal health, but as a threat to the nation’s successful prosecution of the war.
The flu was framed in the American press and in government propaganda as being a “weapon” of war itself. It was an enemy that “attacked” and “ravaged” troops. First, it had been loose among German soldiers in the trenches (a fact the American press celebrated – “Spanish influenza so far [has] been great aid to allies by its attack of Huns,” proclaimed one reporter. (Why even the Kaiser had fallen ill of the disease!) Then it “attacked” the Swiss and others, before beginning its transatlantic journey to return to the United States in the late summer of 1918. (Please note: this was a false narrative.)
It was not until the late summer of 1918 that Americans would become keenly aware of the pandemic’s threat. In August 1918, as historian Nancy K. Bristow described, “Influenza returned to American shores in its second wave.” Carried back from Europe aboard ships now docking in American harbors, the illness would soon be identified by doctors confronting scores of sick passengers. “It arrived relatively quietly among two or three sailors at Commonwealth Pier in Boston,” Bristow wrote, “but it proved highly contagious. Within a few days the numbers of sick skyrocketed, and by the end of the second week influenza had infected 2,000 sailors in the First Naval District. The first civilian to be hospitalized in this new wave entered Boston City Hospital on September 3. Days later influenza hit Camp Devens, north of Boston.”
As Eastern cities began reporting rising cases and deaths, the press in Chicago and surrounding areas began to acknowledge that the threat of an influenza epidemic* might be real. However, just as the federal government controlled information related to the war, so too was the information controlled related to influenza. While more ships docked on American shores with ill passengers, authorities were “not alarmed,” as the New York Times reported. Even as they sought to investigate the origin of the illnesses, there was, they urged, “no fear of an epidemic.”
*In 1918, the word “epidemic” was widely used, rather than the currently favored term, pandemic. Pandemic describes an outbreak spanning regions, countries, or continents, while epidemic refers to a more localized outbreak. The fact that in 2020-2021 “pandemic” is used to accurately describe the outbreak of COVID-19 underscores how much more interconnected the world is today. A “global” phenomenon is something people today are much more familiar with. In 1918, that concept was unfamiliar to most.
Reports were now flooding in from around the United States of epidemics breaking out in various cities and locations. By September 26, the disease had been identified in twenty-six states, including Illinois, and had already “reached the Pacific Coast.” The epidemic was now a national emergency.
Illinois Timeline: Fall 1918
September 7: The state’s first case of influenza is first recorded at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Illinois, with a total of 44,000 resident personnel. In one week, the number of cases there soars to 5,000. By October 11, a total of 924 deaths had been recorded at the facility. At the time, the outbreak was not reported in terms that described its true size.
September 9: Winnetka, Illinois, records its first case.
September 16: Seven members of Northwestern University’s Student Army Training Corps fall ill with influenza.
September 16: Chicago Health Commissioner John Dill Robertson orders all cases of influenza to be reported by health professionals. It is now “a reportable disease.”
September 23: The first case of influenza in Evanston beyond Northwestern University is recorded.
October 2: the Illinois Department of Public Health declares influenza to be an epidemic in the state.
It was late September 1918, when the influenza pandemic would hit Evanston, population 29,000.
Just weeks earlier, city residents learned that that influenza had broken out at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, roughly twenty-five miles north of Evanston. A complete quarantine there went into effect. Chicago and the entire North Shore braced for what might happen next.
Evanston was already on edge; the World War had turned the city’s daily routine on its head. By the beginning of fall of 1918, 2,500 male residents had entered the armed forces and departed for training and overseas service. (Ultimately, 3,000 male residents would be counted among the armed forces.) By that time, as many as 11,000 Evanston women had registered with the Evanston War Council as volunteers in war-related activities; and some had also left the city, serving as nurses and war workers throughout the country and overseas. The absence of so many residents left a vast hole in Evanston; fear for these loved ones was constant.
The city had given itself over to the war effort; the war had become a part of daily life.
Once the U.S. entered the World War, a group of Evanston’s leaders of industry and government took it upon themselves to orchestrate the city’s wartime activities. They formed an official body, the Evanston War Council, to oversee various war-related events, from patriotic parades to the hosting of liberty loan (or bond) drives. The council, which was headquartered in the city hall, also assisted with the city’s selective service registration procedures.
In the meantime, the Federal government urged all American men to offer themselves up (volunteer/enlist) for military service; and men between the ages of 21 to 30 (later expanded to 18 to 45) were ordered to register for the country’s first draft since the American Civil War ( “selective service,” as it was renamed). The punishment for failing to register was severe. Eventually, 2.8 million American men would be drafted into the U.S. armed forces during the war.
The American press, meanwhile, had been largely muzzled by the government. For the first time in its history, the U.S. government imposed strict and complicated censorship of the press: certain types of information and images were entirely restricted and all members of the press reporting in war zones had be to accredited by the government.
Citizens, too, were restricted in what they could do, say, or publish in relation to the war. The 1917 Espionage Act made it a crime, among other things, to “willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States.” The 1918 Sedition Act vastly expanded what interference meant and increased punishment to “not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than 20 years.”
In order to encourage compliance with the dictates imposed by a country at war, the government launched its vast network of morale-boosting and patriotism-inducing exercises, from films and parades and produced a flood of pro-war materials, from to posters and music.
The idea that the war was being fought for lofty aims (to make the world safe for democracy) was advanced everywhere. (Read more about the work of the United States’ propaganda bureau, the Committee on Public Information.)
Despite any questioning of the war’s necessity and its goals or the grief so many felt at saying good bye to loved ones as they “shipped out,” the climate in the U.S. during the war was one of “100%” patriotism. And all Americans were encouraged, cajoled, and instructed to keep a stiff upper lip. The popular wartime song, “Are We Downhearted? No!” reflects the generalized call to be cheerful even as the war raged on.
Courage in the face of danger.
The word, “morale,” is perhaps the best catch phrase of the war’s emotional landscape. It derives from the French word, “moral,” meaning of “good conduct.” The added “e” transformed it into a “mental condition as regards confidence, courage, hope, etc.” (especially “as regards soldiers, sailors, or any body of persons engaged in a hazardous enterprise.”)
Throughout the war, Americans were implored to be courageous. They were also ordered to behave and to curtail their behavior: conserve coal, gasoline, and sugar. In Evanston, stores were not allowed to use electric lights on Tuesdays. No one was allowed to drive an automobile on Sundays. A federal order limiting the serving of meat, bread, butter, sugar, and cream in restaurants was in effect. Chocolate and candy were rationed. All these regulations were designed to feed the country’s resources to the war effort, above all else.
In Evanston, people lined up in front of Lord’s Department Store in the city’s central Fountain Square area carrying teapots, dinner spoons, and jewelry; they were there for the periodic gathering known as the “melting pot,” when donated metals were melted down for the war effort.
Many people in Evanston did their “bit” for the war effort. The Woman’s Club of Evanston operated “The Home Port ‘Blighty’ ” (Blighty is British military slang for home), which served as a social hub for service members. Dinners and dances were held in the club’s headquarters on Chicago Ave and Church Street. Meanwhile, on Davis and Oak streets, the Evanston Allied War Shop operated, where volunteers made garments for refugee children in Europe.
By the fall of 1918, the American military faced its heaviest fighting. Casualty lists appeared daily, accompanied by photographs of young men who had died far away from home. The wartime refrain continued: keep a stiff upper lip and work toward supporting “our boys.”
Within the larger setting of the loss and grief, the announcement of a potential influenza “invasion” might well have caused some degree of panic. But, at the time the pandemic hit in the fall of 1918, two constraints were operating that limited the free-flow of news and information: press censorship and the wartime campaign to maintain morale. Despite the fact that the looming epidemic was serious and likely to exact a heavy toll, government officials and members of the press were intent on maintaining calm.
In many ways, coverage of the pandemic mirrored that of coverage of the war: neither, people were told, was as bad as they might fear. Indeed, it was only in the war’s aftermath that the sensation of disillusionment would sink in – that officials had lied about the true nature of the war’s destruction, as well as the pandemic’s broad and horrifying reach.
“We are a very unfortunate generation, whose lot has been to see the moment of our passage through life coincide with the arrival of great and terrifying events, the echo of which will resound through all our lives.”
Paul Valery, 1919
Evanston Safe From Flu
Throughout the fall of 1918, officials downplayed the threat of the pandemic. Newspapers and health officials repeated the same refrain: the epidemic is “under control.”
By mid-September 1918, the epidemic was in full swing. Statements from health officials, however, downplayed the true extent of the danger. On September 17, Evanston’s Health Commissioner, Dr. C.T. Roome said he was not worried about the epidemic reaching Evanston. He admitted however that he was “anxious” to some degree. The disease was “highly contagious,” he observed, and “spread chiefly through personal contact.” Any “interchanges of visitors between Great Lakes and Evanston may cause the disease to break out in this city,” he warned.
Roome pledged to guard Evanston from an influenza attack.
Dr. C.T. [Clarence Tyley] Roome (1879-1961) (left) inoculating Northwestern students against smallpox in 1925. In 1913, Roome was appointed Evanston health commissioner. He also served as assistant professor of hygiene and student health director for the College of Liberal Arts at Northwestern University from 1916 –1927. Roome lived with his wife, Elizabeth, and daughter, at 904 Judson Street. He graduated from Oberlin College and earned his MD from Columbia University in 1908. Before coming to Evanston, he was a doctor at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. He later moved to Santa Barbara where he died at age 84.
Other nearby public health officials, such as Chicago Health Commissioner, John Dill Robertson, conveyed a decidedly sanguine attitude and repeatedly downplayed the threat of the epidemic. As of September 17, Chicago had no reported cases. But now that “the news of this epidemic has circulated,” said Robertson, “probably everyone who gets a bad cold or a slight fever will think they’ve caught Spanish influenza. Tell them to go to bed and lie quiet a while. It’ll pass off.”
It did not pass off. From late September through October, the epidemic spread quickly. By mid-October, the Chicago Defender announced: “Spanish Plague Raging in Chicago.”
The next six weeks constituted the deadliest period of the spread of the epidemic. Like a wildfire it took off unchecked.
On September 23, the city of Evanston recorded its first influenza case. Just four days earlier, influenza had been reported as having sickened six students enrolled in army training programs at Northwestern University. A “strict quarantine of barracks” was ordered.
One week later, four Evanston residents had died: Gladys May Beyers, Florence Johnson, Almalie Bell, and Harry W. Iserman.
Gladys May Beyers lived with her parents on Forest Avenue in Evanston. A graduate of Sweet Briar College, she was a volunteer in the Evanston Red Cross and was “well known in Evanston society.” She died at the Evanston Hospital just days after becoming sick with influenza. (“Epidemic Victim,” Chicago Tribune, September 27, 1918.)
It soon became apparent that the epidemic had several alarming patterns: this virulent strain of influenza often led to pneumonia; many victims died within days of falling ill; and many who died were young and otherwise healthy.
Medical staff at the Evanston Hospital met in emergency session to devise “the best means for combating the threatening pandemic.” “By the co-operation of all members of the community,” they advised, “there is no need for alarm.” 
On October 2, the state of Illinois declared an epidemic, established an Influenza Commission, and launched a campaign to educate the public about how to stay healthy. Its primary goal, officials later revealed, was to “guard against undue alarm.” 
It was too late. Like other nearby towns, Evanston was in a muted panic. In just two weeks since the first case had been reported, twenty-five residents had died. Each day, as many as two hundred new cases were now being reported. The “proportion of cases among children” was increasing rapidly. And the number of cases continued to climb. At the pandemic’s height, as many as 600 daily cases were reported in the city.
End of part 1. Next time: Attack: Influenza was an enemy. It needed to be combatted. It needed a multi-pronged attack. Read Part 2 here.
- Quarantines in 1918 were different from those we know in 2020. During the 1918 pandemic, a quarantine was essentially a ban on any public gathering, including in schools, churches, and other places, but places of business were still allowed to operate.
 John M. Barry, “The site of origin of the 1918 influenza pandemic and its public health implications,” Journal of Translational Medicine, 2004, 3.
 The 1918 outbreak was dubbed the “Spanish flu,” although the name was not based on any geographical connection between the country of Spain and the origin of the disease. Instead, Spain was the only European country that did not operate under wartime censorship and, as a result, reports of the outbreak there were freely shared with the world, leading the outbreak to bear the country’s name. Once the moniker was in use, it would continue.
 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 13, 1918; “Spanish Influenza Here, Ship Men Say,” New York Times, August 14, 1918.
 James I. Johnston, MD, “History an Epidemiology of Influenza,” in Studies on Epidemic Influenza: Comprising Clinical and Laboratory Investigations (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh, 1919,) 21.
 Others argue that cases as early as January 1918 went unrecorded.
 U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, The Medical Department of the U.S. Army in the World War, Volume 9 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1928), 70. Camp Funston is still largely identified as the epicenter of the 1918 pandemic, although some other research pinpoints other locations. It was not only Camp Funston that would see an outbreak of influenza in the spring of 1918. In late March 1918, a military doctor stationed at Camp Sevier, South Carolina, was appointed to investigate an outbreak of the disease at the camp. The soldiers who fell ill (a few died) were later deemed by the board of officers investigating the outbreak to have suffered from influenza. But, as one of the doctors wrote afterward, “at that time none of us dreamed of any possible connections with a severe epidemic to occur later.” Warren Taylor Vaughan, Influenza: An Epidemiologic Study. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1921), 15-16.
 New York Times, June 28, 1918.
 U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, The Medical Department of the U.S. Army in the World War, Volume 9. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1928, 66.
 Carol R. Byerly, “The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919,” Public Health Reports Vol. 125. (Washington, D.C: 1974, 2010): 82-91.
 Byerly, 82.
 Orlando Evening Star, July 16, 1918.
 “Kaiser Has Influenza,” New York Times, July 19, 1918.
 Nancy K. Bristow, American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, 44.
 “Health Head Calls Influenza Inquiry,” New York Times, August 16, 1918.
 “Influenza Sweeps Over the Country,” Boston Globe, September 26, 1918.
 Jeff Nichols, “The Ghosts of Great Lakes,” Chicago Reader, April 6, 2020. For more about press censorship during the war, see: James Mock, Censorship, 1917 Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941); Susan A. Brewer, Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
 “New Food Order Hits All Local Eating Places,” Evanston News-Index, October 22, 1918.
 “State Demands Report of Al New ‘Flu’ Cases,” Chicago Tribune, September 26, 1918.
 “Take Steps to Guard City,” Evanston News-Index, September 17, 1918.
 “Take Steps to Guard City,” Evanston News-Index, September 17, 1918,
 Chicago Defender, October 19, 1918.
 “Influenza Hits Soldiers on the Campus,” Evanston News-Index, September 19, 1918.
 “Four Die Here of Influenza,” Evanston News-Index, September 26, 1918.
 As later became apparent, the 1918 pandemic had a high mortality rate, and it concentrated within certain age groups, particularly those between 20 and 40 years old. Gagnon A, Miller MS, Hallman SA, Bourbeau R, Herring DA, et al. (2013) “Age-Specific Mortality During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Unravelling the Mystery of High Young Adult Mortality,” PLoS ONE 8(8): e6958.6. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0069586 Editor, Paul Digard, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, August 5, 2013.
 “Evanston Hospital Medical Staff Meets to Discuss the Best Means to Check Influenza,” Evanston News-Index, September 25, 1918.
 “Influenza Rules Issued by State Health Officials,” Evanston News-Index, October 2, 1918; John Dill Robertson, M. D., Report of an Epidemic on Influenza in Chicago Occurring During the Fall of 1918, Reprinted from The Octennial Report Department of Health City of Chicago 1911-1918 (Chicago, IL: 1919), 85.
 “Health Commissioner Issues Proclamation Ordering Drastic Methods to Check Disease Spread,” Evanston News-Index, October 8 1918.
 “145 New Cases of ‘Flu’ Reported,” Evanston News-Index, October 7, 1918.
Copyright: Jenny Thompson