Snapshot of the Spanish flu

Eliza and Elmer Grimm. The couple would lose four children in a span of weeks during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Elmer and Eliza Grimm were likely sitting down to breakfast when they received word that their daughter Viola had succumbed to the Spanish flu in the early hours of October 10, 1918. The news would not have been unexpected. This virulent strain of influenza, ferried around the world by troop movements during the late stages of WWI, would, by its end, claim the lives of up to 5% of the world's population. Even the small towns of southwest Pennsylvania, where Elmer and Eliza had spent all of their days, were not insulated from the flu's effects. It ravaged whole communities, shutting down schools and social events in the process. In some towns, influenza claimed the lives of more young men than the war.  

Though quarantines were widely imposed in and around Connellsville, they seemed to have little effect: Flu deaths featured prominently on the front page of the daily paper, and as news from the war effort grew more hopeful in the waning months of 1918, news of influenza grew increasingly troubling. Unlike prior epidemics that affected the very young and the very old, Spanish flu was striking down otherwise healthy men and women in the prime of their lives. Red Cross Civilian Relief found itself with the unexpected task of caring for "flu orphans." The newspaper's obituary page expanded by columns. It was a dark time. For the Grimm family, it would grow even darker.

Viola Pearl (Grimm) McKenzie was the first of the Grimms’ children to die during the influenza pandemic.

Viola was just 30 years old when she died, leaving her husband a widower and single father to their three children. The Grimms surely grieved for their grandchildren as they mourned the loss of their daughter, and the layers of grief--and fear--must have weighed on them. It must have weighed on everyone, this fear. By some estimates, up to thirty percent of the population had at some point contracted influenza during the course of the pandemic. How long could a community cope with the constant question of who among them would fall next?

Though epidemiological records show that the Spanish flu peaked in October of 1918, the devastation continued in waves until 1920. Elmer and Eliza were still reeling from the loss of Viola when, three weeks later, another of their married daughters, Olive, fell ill with the flu. She would fight for an entire month before succumbing, but not before her teenage sister Edith was stricken and her brother James had died. Edith, a sixteen-year-old high-school junior, would eventually die two days after Olive.

In the span of ten days, from November 22 to December 2, the Grimms would bury three of their children. If they were able to celebrate Thanksgiving that year, gratitude may have been a hard virtue to come by.

There was no way for Elmer to know, as he walked into the county health department to report young Edith's death just as he had for Olive and James and two infant children who had passed on years before, that this would be the last time he would perform this solemn task. Foresight would have been a comfort. Years later, he and Eliza would celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary with 23 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren in attendance. But such abundance would have seemed a fantasy in that moment.

There was, of course, no way for the county registrar to know of this future either. He might only have felt a chill as he heard Mr. Grimm's familiar footsteps echoing in the corridor that December morning and wondered if there would ever be silence in the hallways again.

1. "All Social Events Banned as a Precaution Against Grip." The Daily Courier. Connellsville, Pennsylvania. 11 Oct 1918. Page 1, Col. 2. Web. Accessed 1 Nov 2018.
2. "Civilian Relief Committee to Care for 'Flu' Orphans." The Daily Courier. Connellsville, Pennsylvania. 23 Nov 1918. Page 1, Col. 1. Web. Accessed 1 Nov 2018.
3. "Disease Worse Than War." The Daily Courier. Connellsville, Pennsylvania. 3 Dec 1918. Page 2, Col. 5. Web. Accessed 1 Nov 2018.
4. "Every School in Fayette County is Ordered to Close." The Daily Courier. Connellsville, Pennsylvania. 10 Oct 1918. Page 1, Col. 1. Web. Accessed 1 Nov 2018.
5. Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission; Pennsylvania, USA; Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906–1966; Certificate Number Range: 146751-150000
6. Taubenberger JK, Morens DM. "1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics." Emerging Infectious Diseases, 2006;12(1):15-22, Accessed 1 Nov 2018.