Whiting Was Not Spared in Flu Epidemic of 1918

By John Hmurovic
September 2018

The world had never experienced anything like it. And, yet, it seemed to sneak up on us. Maybe we were distracted. Our attention at the time was focused on the fighting in World War One. Maybe we shrugged it off when we first heard that the flu was going around. After all, people always get the flu, get over it, and move on. But the flu virus that rapidly spread around the world in late 1918 was unlike any other strain of the virus. There were over nine million combat deaths in World War One and nearly 16 million died in combat in World War Two. Those totals, combined, don’t come close to the estimated 100 million who died from the flu in 1918. It was a pandemic, which is a worldwide epidemic. Whiting was not spared.

Sixteen soldiers from Whiting died in World War One. But enemy bullets, bombs and poisonous gas attacks were not as deadly as the flu virus. Of the sixteen Whiting soldiers who died during the war, six lost their lives because of the flu. Meanwhile, back home, the death toll was even worse. In just the last three months of 1918, at least 45 Whiting-Robertsdale residents died from what was popularly called Spanish influenza.

The numbers are not precise. Our numbers come from an examination of death certificates from the last months of 1918. There was no requirement at that time for doctors to report cases of the flu, and many doctors did not know what they were looking at and may have attributed a flu death to some other cause.

Reporters for the Lake County Times, the area’s primary source of news in 1918, didn’t discover that there was a health crisis in the area until September 24. “Hammond has been hit hard by the so-called Spanish influenza,” it reported on that date, “though doctors say they see no difference between it and the old-fashioned grippe.” The article says that although it is highly contagious and whole families are down with it, “no fatalities have so far been reported.”

Less than a week later, on September 29, Whiting may have had its first fatality. The death certificate for three-year-old Rafael Milwicz of Schrage Avenue said he died of pneumonia. It may have been just pneumonia which killed the boy, but over the next few weeks Whiting’s doctors began to notice that some of the pneumonia cases they were looking at were actually brought on by the Spanish flu.

It is estimated that about twenty percent of the people who came down with this strain of influenza had a mild case of it and recovered without incident. That’s according to Gina Kolata who wrote the book, Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918. The rest, she wrote, “had one of two terrifying illnesses. Some almost immediately became deathly ill, unable to get enough oxygen because their lungs had filled with fluid. They died in days, or even hours, delirious with a high fever, gasping for breath.” In others, she wrote, the illness looked like ordinary flu, including chills, fever and muscle aches, but by the fourth or fifth day “bacteria would swarm into their injured lungs and they would develop pneumonia that would either kill them or lead to a long period of convalescence.”

21-year-old Theodore Schaefer of Sheridan Avenue was one of Whiting’s first fatalities in the influenza epidemic. He was serving in the Navy at the time.

On September 30, Whiting had another fatality. Theodore Schaefer of Sheridan Avenue died from the flu. He was a member of the Knights of Columbus, a parishioner at Sacred Heart, and worked at the Standard Oil Refinery. At the time of his death, however, he was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center just north of Chicago, where he went after volunteering to serve in the Navy in World War One. He was just a few weeks short of his twenty-first birthday.

That was another peculiarity of the Spanish flu: It tended to kill the young; those who seemed to be the healthiest and least vulnerable. Of the Whiting residents who died, including the soldiers, their median age was 24 years old.

By the end of September, most healthcare workers knew a potential crisis was at hand. The Red Cross mobilized in Northwest Indiana and spread advice on how to avoid the flu: Stay at home, avoid crowds, drink lots of water, wash out the nose and throat three times daily with a nasal spray or douche, and gargle with a salt solution. Still, it spread. 34-year-old Mary Ellen Hannon of Pearl Street died from the flu on October 1.

Julian Truth was a Whiting barber before joining the Army to help in the war effort. He died from influenza while home on leave to visit family.

Living together in close quarters, soldiers seemed particularly vulnerable. On October 5, word arrived in Whiting that James Dillion died. He was a 24-year-old who had captained the Whiting Owls basketball team. Dillon joined the military and was on his way to Waco, Texas when he fell ill and had to be taken off the train and carried to a hospital. October 5 was the same day that Julian Truth, a 24-year-old soldier from Whiting, died. He was on furlough when he died at the home of his cousin on Fischrupp Avenue. He was barber in Whiting before joining the war effort.

A day later Sophia Wenger, 24, died at her home on Davidson Place. She was at work at the office of real estate developer Henry Davidson on a Friday night when she felt ill. She was very ill on Saturday, but at 10 A.M. on Sunday her mother said she was sleeping peacefully. Fifteen minutes later she died.

All across the state, the nation, and the world, health authorities knew they needed to take more stringent steps to stop the spread of the virus. Public places were shut down. In Whiting, the schools, churches, theaters and libraries were ordered to close. In Hammond, it was estimated that over one thousand people now had the flu. On October 9, Arthur Utesch, 23, of Myrtle Avenue became the next fatality. Only a month earlier, his parents, August and Augusta Utesch, lost a 20-year old daughter to leukemia.

On October 11, the State Board of Health met in an emergency session in Indianapolis and put a ban on all public gatherings across the state for at least until October 20. It came too late for 36-year-old John Bodnar, a stillman at Standard Oil who lived on Indianapolis Boulevard, and for 17-year-old Rose Sherman of Euclid Avenue. Both died on October 10. The entire Sherman family was stricken, but only Rose, their oldest daughter, died.

The newspaper’s daily columns about “Whiting and its People,” and about residents of Robertsdale, were filled with news about people either ill or dying from the virus. There was also a disturbing report about the shortage of doctors in the area. Doctors were overtaxed by the epidemic, and there were no nurses to be had. That report came the same day that 36-year-old Joe Badina of Indianapolis Boulevard and 27-year-old Anna White of Pearl Street died. Her two-year-old daughter was also ill with influenza, as was her husband, and Anna’s sister had died from influenza in Chicago a week earlier.

Irtell Williams of Whiting left behind a family which included a wife and three sons when he died from influenza. He was in the military at the time. His commander wrote to his family saying Irtell had an excellent service record, and “gained the friendship and goodwill of all his companions.”

One day later, October 13, Whiting suffered its most deadly day during the epidemic. Five of its residents died, including three soldiers: William Opperman, George Chigas, and Irtell Williams. Chigas, 21 years old and born in Russia, was seriously injured in combat in July. While in the hospital he succumbed to pneumonia and influenza. The 28-year-old Williams was father to three boys and caught the virus while on duty at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland. That same day, 23-year-old Susie Sish of Schrage Avenue, and 24-year-old Mary Vavrek of Short Street, died in Whiting.

“Epidemic Rages on All Sides,” the Lake County Times headline read on October 15. Whiting had 450 cases of flu, Hammond had 1,281 according to physician R.P. Hale of East Chicago, the county health officer. Across Lake County, 219 people were dead from the flu in just over two weeks. Whiting’s death rate was low compared to the rest of the county, but the numbers continued to grow. On October 14 it was one-year-old Harriett Brahos of Indianapolis Boulevard, and 17-year-old Margaret Theobold of 119th Street, a school girl. The next day, 2-year-old Helen Jasvos of Front Street died, as did 35-year-old Frank Matlon of West Fred Street. Active in the Slovak community, Matlon left behind a wife and six children.

The state put out a call for volunteer physicians and nurses to be assigned to anywhere in the state where assistance was needed to treat victims, but Hale immediately said that Lake County could not help. It did not have enough medical workers to handle its own cases and could spare not a single doctor or nurse. The next day, 59-year-old Barbara Biscan died. A native of Croatia, she was a widow who lived on Schrage Avenue. Her husband was killed by a train two years earlier.

Warm and sunny weather moved in. That, along with a slight decrease in the number of new cases reported, led Dr. Hale to feel optimistic that the epidemic was reaching its peak in Lake County. That wasn’t true in Whiting. In fact, October 18, which was two days after Dr. Hale voiced some optimism, marked the start of the deadliest eight days of the epidemic. On the 18th, 23-year-old Mike Kovach died. He lived with the John Urban family on Schrage Avenue. On October 19, three-month-old Joe Lukacs of Davidson Place died. On the same day death claimed 49-year-old Tom Brazina of 119th Street. He left a wife and six children.

A large number of Whiting women responded to pleas for help by joining the efforts of the Red Cross to combat the deadly influenza in Whiting and Robertsdale.

By October 20, the nationwide crisis was severely hurting the military. Defense officials said Indiana needed to step up the enrollment of student nurses in the military. But the Red Cross had already put out multiple pleas for more nursing help. The nurses who were already helping were being “worked to a state of collapse.” Three doctors from East Chicago were scheduled to leave for the military, but the city’s Chamber of Commerce issued a plea that their departures be delayed. Whiting, which had been vigorously recruiting soldiers for the war effort, cancelled its plans to draft more men into service due to the influenza epidemic. On that same day, 31-year old Mike Katish of Steiber Street died from influenza.   

Over the next two days, seven more people from Whiting died. “The epidemic there,” the Lake County Times stated, “seems to be on the increase rather than wane.” On October 21, it was 29-year-old Stephena Stahulak of Center Street; 4-month-old Veronica Szatny of Schrage Avenue; and 22-year-old Cecilia Cependra of Center Street. On October 22, it was 25-year-old Frank Gajsak of Schrage Avenue; 5-year-old Stella Wojciechowski of Indianapolis Boulevard; 39-year old Joe Jakovs of Center Street; and 23-year-old John Skrabala of White Oak Avenue.

Skrabala was a cashier at the Bank of Whiting, which was hit hard by the virus. Three other employees were severely ill, including William Schrage and Whiting’s mayor, Walter E. Schrage. Funeral homes were also hard hit, not by the virus but by the huge increase in business. There was also a concern that funerals were helping to spread the epidemic. Dr. Hale, the county health physician, ordered that church funerals be limited to only family members. Even though he was a young, well-known man, only family was present at St. John’s Church in Whiting for Skrabala’s funeral.  

By October 21, the Whiting Red Cross was feeling some relief. The women of Whiting were volunteering in high numbers to help the Red Cross fight the epidemic. But people still died. On October 23, Theressa Bakos, 36, of 119th Street died. Three more died on October 24: John Klohim, 2, of Center Street; Anna Mikula, 26, just a few doors away on Center Street; and Anna Babincak, 27, of Fred Street. Babincak died from the loss of blood during a miscarriage, but influenza was a contributing factor for her death.  On October 25, the newspaper reported three more Whiting deaths: Joe Zakovich, a Mrs. Bakush of 119th Street; and Joseph Yatz, 18 months old, of Schrage Avenue.

An ad that appeared in the Lake County Times in 1918 warned readers about the dangers of spreading influenza. In fact, more Whiting residents died of influenza in the last three months of 1918, than died in combat in World War One.

Eight straight days saw the deaths of eighteen Whiting residents. County health physician Dr. Hale was still concerned about the spread of the disease. He ordered an extension of his order to close all places of public gathering. Specifically, that included churches, schools, lodges, clubs, social organizations, public meetings, and athletic events, and all funerals were limited to just family members in attendance.

There was also a ban on spitting. Whiting City Clerk Mike Kocazik had to appear in court at the end of the month. A conductor said that Kocazik was spitting while riding on the platform of a street car. The Board of Health, the conductor said, ordered conductors to clamp down on “the disgusting act of spitting on street cars.” Kocazik’s attorney, however, said there was no law against spitting, and the judge agreed. “We will make no more arrests,” a street car company official said in response to the verdict. “People can spit on the cars all they want to. What’s the use of trying to carry out orders?”

But after October 25, there was a sudden change. No one died from influenza for five days, until the October 30 death of George Hovran, 28, of 121st Street, a boilermaker who had moved to Whiting just two weeks earlier to work at Standard Oil. Three more days passed without any deaths, but on November 2, three more died, including three-month old Violet Gary of Front Street. The other two were children of Polish immigrants Albert and Agnes Bajer of White Oak Avenue: 14-year-old Helen Bajer, and her younger sister Irina, who was only 20 months old.

Their deaths marked the end of a horrific seven weeks in Whiting. More would die, but they became fewer and further between. November 8: John Henrikson, 70, New York Avenue and 127th Street; November 13: Pauline Nemicik, 42, Front Street; November 24: Goldie Sternberg, 40, 119th Street; November 26: Benjamin May, 35, Fischrupp Avenue; December 1: Helen Kleiber, 21, 119th Street; December 6: Albert Kastenbenich, 4 months, Schrage Avenue; December 20: Josephine Gasinski, 13 days old, 131st Street; December 30: Frank Masbi, 3 months, Schrage Avenue; January 14, 1919: Norman Rabe, 24, Fischrupp Avenue. Rabe was a soldier who died in Germany. Helen Kleiber was the sister of Walter Kleiber, a soldier from Whiting who was killed in action in July.

By the start of November, the spread of influenza had slowed down significantly, not just in Whiting, but across the globe. Just as it had arrived quickly and with little notice, it vanished quickly. To this day, medical experts do not fully understand what caused this pandemic and why it suddenly stopped. On November 2, the ban on public gatherings was lifted. It is believed that 7,000 people in Lake County had the Spanish flu in late 1918, and that between 500 and 600 died. St. Margaret Hospital records show that 69 people died there. In one day, twelve people died at the hospital, and three died in the same bed in a twelve-hour period. One hundred ninety-five people died in Hammond in October 1918, compared to ninety-three births in the city. So many died in the flu epidemic “that the average life span in the United States fell by 12 years in 1918,” according to Gina Kolata’s book from 1999. “If such a plague came today, killing a similar fraction of the U.S population, 1.5 million Americans would die, which is more than the number felled in a single year by heart disease, cancers, strokes, chronic pulmonary disease, AIDS, and Alzheimer’s disease combined.”