Influenza killed millions of people — including more than 6,000 Mississippians — a century ago

American soldiers headed to Europe in 1918 to fight in World War I did not realize they faced two sets of enemies, the Axis fighters in uniform and an invisible influenza virus that would also kill.
American soldiers headed to Europe in 1918 to fight in World War I did not realize they faced two sets of enemies, the Axis fighters in uniform and an invisible influenza virus that would also kill. Pixabay

I had a bird, its name was Enza,

I opened the window and in-flew-Enza.

I’m attempting humor at being sick. This little ditty became popular 100 years ago when the misnamed Spanish Influenza Epidemic killed more people than the 16.5 million that World War I claimed in military and civilian deaths.

In a strange twist of fate, that Great War helped spread the flu worldwide, infecting at least 500 million people and killing between 20 million and 50 million. With inconsistent and poor record-keeping, we’ll never know with certainty how many died in that Great Influenza Pandemic.

At least 28 percent of Americans came down with the flu and at least 675,000 Americans died from it. About 6,300 of them were in Mississippi, but again record keeping is problematic.

Walk through old Mississippi Coast cemeteries, check for 1918 and 1919 dates on headstones, and you’ll realize this region did not escape.

Thankfully, I don’t have influenza, at least the fever is mild and the flu swab negative, although that test does not have a shining accuracy record. My doc suspects I caught one of the dozens of weird viruses going around this year.

I name this one The Coughing Your Fool Head Off Virus. I cough so much that my ribs surpass aching. But today’s missive isn’t about me so I’ll disband my pity party to delve into history, this being the centennial of that horrible Spanish Flu onslaught.

An update of history

Did you know that some historians and scientist now believe the first pandemic wave was likely spread by America soldiers headed to Europe?

The name “Spanish” stuck because as a neutral country Spain had no censors deliberately hiding the fact that illness, not bullets, was felling soldiers. With other countries burying the facts, the world thought Spain was hardest hit.

With times so different, it’s difficult to imagine living through the 1918-1919 scare of a killer disease that affected 25 percent of the world’s population.

Medical science was beginning to understand how germs spread but getting the information to the public was no easy task. Possession of a home radio in 1918 was considered treasonous because of the war, so Americans relied on hometown newspapers.

Most U.S. communities banned public gatherings and set up quarantines. The Red Cross handed out face masks and advice. Signs were posted on the houses of the sick. Health care workers, those not tending to war wounded, also fell like flu flies, leaving a medical shortage.

No escape on the Coast

The Coast was no exception. At the height of the pandemic here, which was September, October and November 1918, Coast schools and colleges closed for at least six weeks. Such things as the Four-Foot-Talking Rule were emphasized. Phone and telegraph operators fell to the flu, making communication difficult. Ditto for commerce and delivery of basic necessities.

Canceled Coast war bond rallies were blamed by organizers for not meeting their goals.

The Grim Reaper showed no distinction for social/political/economic status. But oddly, the reaper claimed the younger, the ages 15 to 40 instead of the usual older, more vulnerable population.

I know all this because 12 years ago when Americans worried about a modern bird flu pandemic I researched the earlier Coast version of a pandemic.

One story I found is from a University of Southern Mississippi oral history with National Negro League player Tommie Dukes, Sr. Born in 1906, raised in the Kiln and Lumberton, he would recall:

“And every day they was hauling caskets from Bay St. Louis to the Kiln. You’d see them trucks coming there with caskets.”

Puzzle pieces fall into place

First-person accounts, such as Dukes’, and old news stories give us snapshots. Another example is this account from the microfilm of this newspaper, then The Daily Herald:

“It is hereby officially ordered, in connection with the present influenza epidemic, that all moving picture shows, churches, public schools, soda fountains and pool rooms be closed and public gatherings of any kind prohibited.”

That came with a banner headline intended for Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties titled, “Emergency Influenza Order.” Hundreds were getting sick every day across the Coast. On Oct. 14, Gulfport alone reported 50 new cases. Mississippi was recording as many as 6,000 cases a day.

Such frightening figures led to this bit of advice from the Mississippi State Department of Health: “All persons engaged in conversation are requested not to stand within four feet of each other.”

With the centennial of the Great Pandemic upon us, we are likely to hear and read more about Enza as more pieces of the 100-year-old health puzzle fall into place. Originally, the flu’s place in history was overshadowed by the War to End All Wars but in the 21st Century we realize they were riding a proverbial tandem bike.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.