Influenza, or “the flu,” as we have perhaps too innocently dubbed it, has been one of the most lethal killers in all of history. As flu season approaches, we are reminded of one of the most devastating epidemics and its effects worldwide.
The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918–1919 had global implications, killing somewhere between 20 million and 50 million people. Delaware was hit hard; more than 650 people died in the state over a five-week period in the first wave of the flu in September and October of 1918. Despite its insular quality, the Winterthur estate and all who live and worked here were not exactly immune from the pandemic’s toll.
From Winterthur, Ruth du Pont, wife of Henry Francis du Pont, recounts the reality and seriousness of the raging epidemic in frequent letters to her mother over the course of the deadly first wave of the flu that autumn: “… the laundress Hilma was awfully sick….& she died during the night…. So many people have died we can’t get an undertaker here until the afternoon & then the body will have to be taken to a vault until we can get a grave dug. The gravediggers are so busy they can’t do anything at present. It is too gruesome for anything.” Indeed, local newspapers reported staggering death tolls and a shortage of caskets.
On October 3, 1918, the state Board of Health held an emergency meeting and ordered that the state shut down in an effort to stem the death toll from the flu.
Whereas: A very serious epidemic of influenza is now raging in the state of Delaware … to protect the health of the entire citizenship of Delaware … all schools, all theatres, all churches, all motion picture houses, all dance halls, all carnivals, fairs and bazaars, all billiard rooms and pool rooms, all bowling alleys in the entire State of Delaware shall be closed and kept closed until further notice.
Hospitals were overflowing with patients, but they had neither sufficient beds nor caretakers for all who fell ill. Auxiliary hospitals were set up here and there in an effort to segregate the sick. Referring to the Wilmington Country Club, Ruth writes, “The country club is a hospital and there is only one nurse for every 100 patients & they die off like flies.”
Medical care for the du Pont family and the employees in the house was limited to one trained nurse and the children’s nurses, along with others charged into service by the situation. There was “one nurse sick, one nurse taking care of her, one real trained nurse and three school teachers giving their services.” The stress of confinement among the ill must have taken its toll. “Miss Mowat [an employee] gets hysterical after a servant takes ill,” Ruth reports.
Henry Francis du Pont took measures in his house into his own hands. Ruth writes, “Harry has things organized pretty well & there is a cooking & sterilizing station on each floor where every dish is boiled after being in a patients room.” Realizing the gravity of the situation, he was noted to have been taking his temperature “3 times a day to be on the safe side.” Ruth herself was cordoned off from the rest of the house. “Fortunately,” she tells her mother, “I am all shut away from the rest of the house as there has been a door built into that arch in the hall.” She writes about her husband’s take-charge efforts within the house. “He is fumigating the rooms himself one at a time burning a candle in each one overnight & seeing that the disinfection is properly carried out.”
Ruth’s spirits seemed to be lifting in mid-October, which was about a week from the day the state’s shut-down order was finally lifted on October 27, 1918. “Having a disinfecting bee here,” she says.
Ruth du Pont’s letters are an interesting read in the context of the history of the fall of 1918. Makes one rather inclined to go get that flu shot, doesn’t it?
Letters, Ruth Wales du Pont to her mother, Ruth Hawks Wales (October 5, 1918 to October 19, 1918).
Molly Murray, “Delaware was hit hard by 1918 pandemic,” The News Journal, October 24, 2005, http://www.delawareonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20051024/NEWS/510240343/1006.
“History [of the Wilmington Country Club],” accessed October 1, 2013, http://www.wilmingtoncc.com/club/scripts/section/section.asp?NS=HIS.
Contributed by Teresa Vivolo, Marketing and Communications, Winterthur, with Maggie Lidz, Estate Historian, Winterthur