‘We too can get through this’Dec 31, 2020 12:44PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
On Oct. 1, 2018, author and Chesapeake City resident David Healey gave a presentation at the Elkton Central Library, as part of the library’s lecture series commemorating the centennial of World War I.
Unlike the content contained within Healey’s “Sniper” series of novels, which depict the use of military weaponry, there was no mention of bayonets, rifles or firearms in his lecture, and yet, Healey spoke about a war against an invisible enemy and the devastating impact it had not only on the world, but on Cecil County.
For nearly one hour, Healey brought his audience into the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19, whose worldwide death count over its 15-month existence ranged from a conservative estimate of 25 million to what some researchers have placed at 50 million.
It also led to the death of 157 Cecil County residents.
Healey began his lecture by tracing a generally accepted theory back to Haskell County, an area of Kansas known then for its large production of poultry. He speculated that a young teenage farmer in the county contracted the flu from swine, then entered the military soon after.
“The theory is that from this one person, the flu spread and led to the deaths of millions of people around the world,” Healey told his audience. “It’s a bit scary for us to believe now, because the world we live in is a lot more mobile than the world then.”
Healey said that as the flue swept through both the Allied and Axis forces, the countries involved in the war kept the news of the influenza from reaching their homelands.
“They didn’t want bad news getting back home that all of these young men are dying of the flu in the trenches on the front,” he said. “As a result, it does a disservice to the prevention of the flu, and it really starts to snowball and spread to the civilian populations.”
The absolute irony of Healey’s presentation -- delivered less than two years before the arrival of COVID-19 pandemic that has led to the death of more than 200,000 Americans and over five million across the globe, so far -- is one not lost on the author.
“When I began to read about the events of 1918 and saw how many people died, I was grateful not to have to have lived through that,” Healey said. “I read about all of these horror stories and thought, ‘How would I handle that situation?’
“Although the Pandemic of 1918 was a dark chapter in our history, it does connect us to the past because it puts us into the lives of those who lived through it and asks us to wonder what we would have done had we lived then. Unfortunately, we are now experiencing it for ourselves in 2020.”
In preparing for the presentation, Healey’s research took him to local newspapers, such as archival editions of the Cecil Whig, the Cecil Democrat and the Baltimore Sun from 1918-19. He found the annual report of the State Board of Health for the State of Maryland in 1918, and used the Center for Disease Control’s website to gain a larger perspective of the pandemic. He tapped into the Library of Congress to obtain archived photographs that he used in his presentation.
His findings uncovered the following information:
Schools around the county, including West Nottingham Academy, were closed. Nearby Delaware College (now the University of Delaware) was turned into a hospital, according to Birney, with 135 cases of flu among the college’s 425 students.
In 1918, the epidemic had spread so rampantly in the county that the Cecil County Board of Health ordered all public gatherings suspended.
The World War I draft was canceled in Cecil County rather than send its local sons to be among the 24,000 young men who died of Spanish flu in military camps nationwide.
All through October 1918, the front page of the Cecil Democrat newspaper was filled with the obituaries of local people claimed by the epidemic.
The Cecil County Board of Health reported: “… a number of patients critically ill, with our list of physicians greatly reduced by war service, and several of those left in the county themselves suffering from influenza, the situation is exceedingly grave …”
The disease did not just attack the old and frail. Most of the death notices were for Cecil County residents who were teenagers, in the twenties and in their thirties. On Oct. 5, 1918, the Cecil Democrat published the obituary for William P. Rowan, 36, of Elkton, a former farmer and lately employed “at the new Government plant at Perryville.”
Local newspapers also reported the death of several Cecil County residents who contracted the flu and died while serving in the military. The Cecil Democrat reported the fate of one soldier from Elkton, Sgt. Frank C. Groetzinger, age 25, who died of influenza at Camp Greenleaf in Georgia.
By February 1919, the epidemic had practically vanished in Cecil County, disappearing as mysteriously as it had arrived.
The work Healey did to prepare for his presentation had at its core an aspiration to tell the story through the historical accounts of those who lived through the pandemic. In fact, the continuing narrative contained in many of his historical books and novels flow through personal tales and experiences.
“I’ve always been curious about how people lived their lives against larger events,” Healey said. ‘What did these events mean to people? Who were they and how did they manage to survive, or not?’
“In researching the pandemic, I was asking the same question, but didn’t find too many individual accounts of what people experienced. The newspapers of that time mostly contained just the facts, and it wasn’t their style to do individual interviews with people.”
Healey said that the lack of data and personal stories “could speak to the fact that maybe we did try to sweep the flu epidemic under the rug and move on. Part of what made this pandemic so mysterious was that it came out of nowhere in 1918, and disappeared just as quickly. By February of 1919, it was declared over and done with, at least in Cecil County.”
Healey’s reason for learning more about the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 was also a personal one. In 1918, his great uncle James Mullins died at the age of 14 in Waterbury, CT.
“Obviously, no one in my immediate family ever had the chance to meet him, but my grandmother – Michael’s sister -- would mention him from time to time,” he said. “Her stories about him gave me an appreciation for how devastating the flu was at the time, especially on young people. In my great uncle’s case, he was a vibrant teenager who died of the flu two days after being diagnosed.”
Whether it is through his curiosity or familial ties, history is a frequent companion to Healey. The author of historical thrillers, mysteries, and regional histories about the Chesapeake Bay and Delmarva Peninsula, Healey has lectured frequently on the topic of regional history at Cecil County libraries, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Fort McHenry National Military Park, the Historical Society of Cecil County, Cecil College and the Elk River Yacht Club.
The stories of history, Healey said, often leave behind nothing but smallish crumbs of hints and teasers, leaving those gifted with the knack of curiosity to keep opening doors, keep searching through libraries and the internet and keep combing through the catacombs of the past. While he does not intend to dust off his 2018 presentation for new audiences, he is continually reminded of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 – not only by comparing its parallels to COVID-19 – but by the hints and teasers that history leaves behind, and continues to reveal.
Healey recalled the words of the author and historian Anne Applebaum, whose latest book, “Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends” documents the influence of authoritarianism on modern politics.
“She wrote, ‘Sometimes history intrudes into our personal lives,’ and that certainly applies to many other things besides politics,” he said. “It can be wildfires. It can be the pandemic, but it is a reminder that we are always going to experience events like these.
“If nothing else, when we look back at history, we can see what the people before us went through and how they coped. From history, we can take a lesson from their experiences and tell ourselves that we too can get through this.”
To learn more about Cecil County author David Healey, visit www.davidhealeyauthor.com.
To view Healey’s Oct. 1, 2018 presentation “The Influenza Pandemic of 1918” online, visit the Cecil County Public Library’s website at www.cecil.ebranch.info/events-and-classes/capturing-cecil-county-history.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].