Part 3: How Things Ended
The obituary list grew longer, reflecting an expanding landscape of sorrow across the city.
Despite the reality of what was unfolding, some officials tried to maintain morale, often proclaiming that the epidemic was slowing; it was “lessening;” it would soon be over.
Just two days before Evanston’s quarantine proclamation, health authorities announced that “the Spanish influenza epidemic is on the wane.” Still, these hopeful statements were coupled with warnings to remain vigilant. “Cold, gray days may come,” the Chicago Tribune warned, “and the black figure of the disease darken city homes again with an increasing menace.”
Cold, gray days, indeed. The local press looked for any cheery stories to report. There was, for instance, “a little skit being daily enacted during the Spanish influenza times by a group of lively Evanston youngsters,” the Evanston News-Index reported. Little Jimmy Joe and Frank Davis, who lived on the corner of Hinman Avenue and Lake Street, had joined forces with their young neighbors, Marion Walker and Shirley Rand of Lake Street. Together, “they rigged up a system of communication by means of twine and a candy box where messages and gifts are sent back and forth briskly and a lot of fun goes on, while at the same time the health regulations are virtuously complied with.”
Even as the pandemic intensified, the campaign to keep residents focused on supporting the war effort would continue.
“Are you an American?” Evanston News-Index, October 17, 1918. All “slackers” were to be segregated, while “100% Americans” were to be celebrated. Note that the Mark Manufacturing Co. of Evanston lists subscribers to the loan drive according to nationality.
“On each Evanstonian, man, woman or child, rests the responsibility of 100% efficiency that our accomplishments may be true and perfect, that every soul answers to the call of duty, we must bear any sacrifice, how great it may befall.” So stated the full-page statement that called for support for the 4th Liberty Loan drive from all Evanston residents. (above).
As the pandemic continued, the loss of life, along with so much suffering, might well have seemed to be somehow connected to this greater call for sacrifice. The losses existed within the larger context of a nation in crisis, a country at war.
On October 18, Roome announced that he would lift some of the regulations against public gatherings. Still, he said, “this does not mean that we must cease for a minute our most careful efforts to prevent any further cases developing.” He strongly urged people to avoid unnecessary gatherings. He specifically cited Evanston’s close proximity to Chicago, with its “large number of cases” and “the constant going back and forth of people between the two cities,” as posing significant risks.
Map showing Chicago’s death count from influenza (1499) and pneumonia (789) for one week (ending October 26, 1918), Robertson, 58.
On October 21, Evanston schools were allowed to open. And on November 4, the “influenza lid” was lifted. Now movie theaters could open; funerals and public dances could be held, provided, officials warned, precautions continued to be taken “related to cleanliness overcrowding, ventilation and the exclusion of people with colds.”
Less than a week later, Evanston erupted in celebration. “It began at 2:30 o’clock this morning with the first rumor that victory had been won and that the war was over,” the press reported. “Before dawn all Evanston was in uproar with the shrilling of whistles, the clanging of bells, the crack of firearms, the blare of trumpets and horns and the shouts and songs of a rejoicing populace.” A bonfire was lit near Fountain Square and the Kaiser was burned in effigy. “A mob of women and girls marched down Davis street in military formation . . . all carried flags.”
The war had come to an end.
But the pandemic would continue. And once again, cases would begin to rise.
“Just as everyone had settled down with a sigh of relief after the lifting of the first influenza quarantine, come alarming rumors that a second one maybe on,” Daily Northwestern, December 4, 1918.
Once again, Roome brought the “quarantine lid” down on Evanston.
Second Quarantine Proclamation, December 10, 1918
And so, once more, beginning December 11, churches, movie theaters, pool rooms, and lodges were ordered closed, and all social gatherings were banned “until further notice.”  Schools, however, were allowed to stay open. “We are allowing the schools to remain open as we believe that, everything considered, the children are better off in the schoolroom where they are under daily supervision,” Roome said.
At Northwestern, students were required to report to their dormitory directors each morning for a health inspection. Those showing signs of illness were confined to their rooms; a little red sign was hung on the door that read: “Suspicious Case. No Admittance.” For two weeks, students were instructed that they were not to travel to Chicago under any circumstances.
As the holidays approached, Roome announced he was cancelling the city’s annual public holiday celebration and Christmas tree lighting. He also had this advice: “Do your Christmas shopping early as to avoid crowded stores and make fewer shopping trips to Chicago.” A campaign to “Buy in Evanston” was on, and people cautiously ventured into city shops.
On December 23, three inches of snow fell. “It came suddenly and took the people by surprise. When they looked out their windows they thought they still were dreaming, but after rubbing their eyes realized it is winter as well as Christmas.”
Local merchants would report their most successful holiday season ever, owing, they said to “the general rejoicing due to peace,” as well as, ironically, the influenza epidemic which kept many people away from Chicago and “making their purchases in Evanston.”
As the end of the year drew near, daily new case numbers gradually started to decline. Thirty. Then twenty five. Then twelve. By the time the quarantine was lifted on Monday, December 30, only ten new cases had been reported. Roome urged continued caution.
But on the verge of a new year, “everybody,” as the Evanston News-Index wrote, “is happy.”
Don’t look back. The end of 1918.
“Spanish influenza has left an indelible impression on Evanston.”
The new year, 1919, so full of hope and promise, proved to be a continuation of the pandemic, although in a very slightly lesser form. Cases continued to be reported, and many more people died.
It was not until the summer of 1919 that the pandemic would truly wane. And by 1920, it was largely over, although less-deadly waves recurred in 1921 and 1922. Indeed, fear of the disease would remain for years, and for a long time, people found themselves continuing to prepare for another outbreak. “The epidemic may appear here at any time,” warned Ada Murry, of Evanston’s Red Cross chapter, in January 1920.
The height of the pandemic lasted several weeks. From September 21 to November 16, 1918, a total of 37,921 cases of influenza and 13,109 cases of pneumonia were reported in the state of Illinois. Evanston recorded 2,878 cases.
In that time span alone, Illinois recorded 25,000 deaths. Chicago recorded 8,510 deaths. Evanston recorded 194 deaths.
“The seriousness of the epidemic of influenza which has afflicted us so sorely is not questioned by anyone,” the Evanston News-Index wrote. “More people have died in a few months from this one disease and the pneumonia that follows it than were killed and wounded in the year and a half of our participation in the war.”
Ultimately, a total of 320,710 war casualties were counted among the Americans, with 116,516 killed in combat. Before it ran its course, the pandemic would claim an estimated 675,000 deaths in the United States and 20-50 million lives worldwide.
Influenza Toll, Rock Island Argus, December 5, 1918. Just three weeks after the war ended, the larger picture of loss came into focus as the U.S. government issued military casualty statistics and the numbers of deaths from the pandemic were calculated.
Death in war was inevitable. The fact that so many people died in 1918, whether in the war or because of the pandemic, was contextualized within a generalized culture of loss, of grief.
The larger setting of the pandemic was, to put it simply, already cluttered with sadness and fear. The toll of reported war deaths and injuries had been made public on a daily basis for months since the fall of 1917, when the United States began to unfurl its “honor roll,” the list of those killed in the war.
“Heroes Who Bled for Nation,” Chicago Tribune, July 7, 1918.
During the war, many of the faces of the “local boys” who died in training camps and overseas appeared on the front pages of newspapers. For the families of these men, telegrams brought the news of their deaths directly to them and into their homes.
The deaths of military personnel that were directly attributable to the pandemic, however, were reported as a part of the longer list of war casualties. Despite the fact that so many service members and volunteers died or fell ill without ever setting foot in a war zone was not emphasized. Instead, they were considered part of the growing list of “war dead.”
From “List of Alumni and Former Students Who Died in National Service in The Great War, 1914-1918,” Northwestern University Bulletin, The President’s Report For 1917-1919, 1920, 43. The number of deaths attributed to disease reflects the vast impact of the 1918 pandemic.
Ironically, amidst this overwhelming setting of loss, people lived through the pandemic in an environment that had been restrained emotionally by the war. Expressions of patriotism — those overt, public manifestations of one’s support for the war — were both allowed and encouraged. In fact, they were practically required by the heavy hand of an increasingly powerful federal government. But other emotions – fear, sorrow, disbelief, anger – were not as readily afforded spaces in which to be expressed publicly. And, because so many pandemic victims died at home, their loss was experienced as a private matter, not part of the national story.
As historian Patricia Fallan observed of the 1918 pandemic: “The vast numbers of war deaths had already blunted the emotions of survivors. A terrible war subdued the normal community responses to an enormous loss of life at home.”
“Evanston’s Roll of Honor,” Evanston News-Index, April 13, 1919. Sixteen of the 34 Evanston residents who died “in service” died due to the pandemic.
Throughout the war, the city’s service flag had flown in Fountain Square, each star representing a resident who was in military service. The city’s Gold Star flag, which represented those who had died in service appeared each day in the city newspaper, the Evanston News-Index.
Those who did not serve in the war, but died on the home front during the pandemic, were not represented in any public memorial. During the quarantine periods, all funerals or services were ordered to be private only. And as a result, the losses suffered because of the pandemic seemed strictly personal. Grief and mourning took on a rigorously private aspect.
Occasionally, a small reflection of the widespread private mourning that was going on throughout the city appeared:
Families of those who died occasionally published “Cards of Thanks.” This one is from Clara Stauber’s family members. Evanston News-Index, October 28, 1918.
By 1921, the pandemic was not the only thing to vanish. Most references to the experience of the pandemic had all but disappeared from the popular press. It was as if it had never happened. Looking ahead. Not looking back.
A (Missing) Legacy
And I thought, Death, if I don’t think of you, you’ll vanish.
Horton Foote, 1918 
“[F]ew narratives record the pandemic,” wrote historian David A. Davis, “so the collective memory of the pandemic – the common experience that . . . establishes and maintains identity within a group – appears to be missing.”
The enormous losses brought on by both the pandemic and the war left Evanston, the United States, and the world, with a terrible legacy. In the years that followed, the bitter memory of those cold, gray days would linger for millions, but those memories would be largely kept private, just as the experience of the pandemic itself had been largely private.
There were certainly stories of bravery and sacrifice to recall. And, as the government proclaimed, “victory” in the war had been achieved, even during such a tragic time.
In the years after the war, it was not long before many people began to feel that the war’s high idealism had not be realistic. Responses to the war and its impact varied, but for many, the 1920s would bring about widespread efforts to leave the past behind, to redefine conventions, shatter old traditions, and remake the world in a better way – one that could tame all the horrors that a truly modern society was capable of producing – world wars, pandemics.
This era was, in many ways, an era all about forgetting, of leaving the past behind and forging ahead.
This may be one reason that the 1918 pandemic was also left behind, largely untreated in novels and films. It was certainly one of the two biggest stories of the young 20th century, but as soon as it concluded, it was left untended, simply too difficult to comprehend; it was a narrative that did not fit any traditional schemes, and it was not at home in the manic crazy of remaking the world in modern forms. It remained a missing legacy.
Guy Beiner, a historian at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, argues that the 1918 pandemic never took a position in the world’s collective memory. “Without a narrative schema to anchor it,” Beiner told Scientific American in an August 2020 article “the pandemic all but vanished from public discourse soon after it ended.” One reason, Beiner posits: “The doctors had shame . . . . It was a huge failure of modern medicine.”
The failures were indeed numerous: government and health officials failed to impose restrictions early on; failed to inform people of the actual dangers of the highly-infectious virus in favor of attempting to maintain calm; and failed to coordinate efforts across states; overall, they allowed the war to take center stage over the more immediate needs of disease control. (For more on this subject, see Nancy Tomes’ fascinating piece here.)
The pandemic and the war were both failures of modern industrial society; and each constituted an experience that was suffered in greater proportion by the working class and the poor. And each was experienced unequally according to race and class.
As the world moved on, the memories of those days would be left to individuals; those who suffered, sacrificed, and lost so much.
In 2021, as the world grapples with another pandemic, the search for the history of the 1918 pandemic has escalated and various scholars, museums, archives, and writers have shared resources. In April 2020, the Library of Congress published Stories from the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic from Ethnographic Collections while the U.S. National Archives collected various resources to publish on its website.
Scholars and writers who have researched and written about the 1918 pandemic are in demand; the need to know and understand this history has intensified.
One of the many lessons of the 1918 pandemic lies in reaffirming the value of preserving the historical record; our collective efforts to chronicle and document the experiences of the current pandemic are critical; and all stories, from all corners of the globe, are equally valuable. After all, this is a global narrative. And while it is, in many ways, being experienced in isolation, each experience is central to the overall story, the story of a world facing another seismic event, one that for years after will be studied, its stories told by future generations.
It is in recording, sharing, and preserving our stories that we may feel less alone and less isolated; and we can find connection even in the darkest of times.
Contribute to the historical record: In April 2020, the Evanston History Center launched a community-based collecting project to create an archive and digital record dedicated to documenting the COVID-19 pandemic in Evanston and surrounding areas.
We continue to seek digital contributions, from images to documents. We want to ensure that Evanston’s experiences are documented for future generations. You can read the submission guidelines here. You must be 18 years of age or older to submit to the archive.
Please make sure you identify your items by providing as much information as you are able. Name of creator, date created, place, etc.
What to contribute? It may be an idea, an observation, a reflection, a photo or scan of an Evanston scene or a sign on a shop, the record of your day, your feelings about Evanston’s particular response to the pandemic, etc. These contributions will constitute a community record of this time. We will house them in a new collection that will be available to researchers at the Evanston History Center at a later date.
Although we are not currently accepting physical donations to the archive, we hope that you will consider preserving items for future donation.
Please contact Jenny Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or to submit your contribution via email.
You can learn more about this project by listening to Jill Schacter’s interview with project organizer Dr. Jenny Thompson on the Evanston Public Library’s podcast, “The Checkout”: https://www.epl.org/thecheckout/
* 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.
 “Don’t Shake, But Salute Friends,” Evanston News-Index, October 29, 1918.
 “Health Officers Find Flu Epidemic Waning,” Chicago Tribune, October 7, 1918.
 “How To Be Happy in Quarantine? Ask the Evanston Kids-They Know,” Evanston News-Index, October 11, 1918.
 “Commissioner in Statement, Sounds Warning,” Evanston News-Index, October 18, 1918
 “Epidemic Now Under Control; Schools Open,” Evanston News-Index, October 21, 1918.
 “Movies Reopen as City Gains Control of ‘Flu,” Evanston News-Index, November 5, 1918.
 “City Holds Big Victory Jubilation,” Evanston News-Index, November 11, 1918.
 Daily Northwestern, December 4, 1918.
 Chicago Tribune, December 10, 1918.
 “Increase of Cases Causes Roome To Act,” Evanston News Index, December 10, 1918.
 “Increase of Cases Causes Roome To Act,” Evanston News Index, December 10, 1918.
 Daily Northwestern, December 4, 1918.
 “Quarantine May End by Holidays; Declares Roome,” Evanston News-Index, December 13, 1918.
 “Sudden Snow Fall Gives a Xmas Setting,” Evanston News-Index, December 24, 1918.
 “Local Merchants Break All Xmas Trade Records and Give Credit to Advertising,” Evanston News-Index, December 26, 1918.
 “But 25 New Cases of Flu Reported, Evanston News-Index, December 24, 1918; “But 12 Cases of Influenza Today, Evanston News-Index, December 26, 1918.
 “Influenza Dan Lifted Monday; Check Disease,” Evanston News-Index, December 28, 1918.
 “Quarantine Ban Off,” Evanston News-Index, December 30, 1918.
 “Epidemic Aims Hard Blow at Many Families,” The Evanston News-Index, October 23, 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.
 United States Health Service, Public Health Reports, Volume 34, Part 2, July-December 1919, 2974.
 Editorial, Evanston News-Index, December 22, 1918.
 “The Impact of the Two World Wars on Cultures of Grieving,” Exploring Grief: Towards a Sociology of Sorrow (Taylor and Francis, 2019).
 Horton Foote, 1918 in Courtship, Valentine’s Day, 1918: Three Plays from “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” New York: Grove Press, 1987, 138.
 David A. Davis, “The Forgotten Apocalypse: Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Traumatic Memory, and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” The Southern Literary Journal, 43, no. 2 (2011).
Copyright Jenny Thompson