The Manhattan Mercury                                                                      Sunday, March 1, 1998


Lori Goodson
Staff Writer

Almost exactly 80 years ago today, a vicious strain of influenza--which would go on to kill millions as it roared around the world--quietly emerged at Fort Riley's Camp Funston.

"It came in silently...," said 98-year-old Jessie Lee Brown Foveaux of Manhattan, who told of the epidemic in her recently published autobiography, Any Given Day: The Life and Times of Jessie Lee Brown Foveaux.

An 18-year-old then, she was working in the quartermaster laundry at Fort Riley when the flu struck. "We lost lots of them," Foveaux said of the soldiers and workers at Fort Riley. "They came in so fast and furious. We'd be working with someone one day, and they'd go home because they didn't feel good, and by the next day they were gone. Every day we wondered who was going to be next."

The flu began in March 1918 when a mess cook, Pvt. Albert Gitchell, complained of a sore throat and achiness as he reported to sick call at Camp Funston, a large cantonment constructed just months before and housing 60,000 soldiers.

"The next day there were 40 more of them," said Gaylynn S. Childs, director of the Geary County Historical Society Museum at Junction City. A week later, 522, cases had been reported at Fort Riley in what would be the mildest of the flu's three waves. Forty-six died at Fort Riley that spring.

Around the time the flu itself was dying out, the 89th Division--and the influenza--were deployed to France during World War 1, Childs said. And the American troops helped spread the disease to the English, Germans, French and Spanish. The flu gained its name because Spain was one of the hardest hit countries, with its king almost dying from it, she said.

From there, the flu went on through the Middle East and on around the world, eventually returning to the United States as the troops also came home for its second wave through Kansas.

At Fort Riley, the Kansas Building, pictured above, was used to house sick and dying soldiers. (Photo courtesy Fort Riley Museum)
By fall 1918, Kansas and Fort Riley were heading into their deadliest confrontation with the flu. "The soldiers were going so fast," Foveaux recalled. "They were piling them up in a warehouse until they could get coffins for them." The dying continued at such a pace that morticians couldn't keep up. There were piles of wooden coffins, and the bodies were eventually wrapped and put outside, where they froze and were stacked "like cord wood," Childs said.

Foveaux said she and others wore masks and tried everything that was suggested to keep from getting the flu. "We tried to be careful what we touched or what we ate," she said. "We were frightened to move, really." In September 1918, there were 133 cases of the flu in Kansas. Six days later, that number had climbed to 1,100. By mid-October, it had escalated to 12,000 cases, and communities across Kansas were reeling from its effects. At Camp Funston alone, there were 14,000 reported cases and 861 deaths during the first three weeks of October. The Kansas death toll had climbed to 12,000 by the end of the year.

This photo, courtesy of the Otis Historical Archives of the National Museum of Health & Medicine, shows what is probably the interior of the old Kansas Building at Camp Funston during the height of the epidemic.
Foveaux said the flu was devastating. She recalls one entire Manhattan family wiped out by the disease. Others, including her sister, had mild cases of it and soon recovered. The flu targeted young, healthy people. "It would strike down people in the prime of their lives," Childs said. Schools, churches and businesses were closed, and the sick were being cared for in makeshift facilities. A call was put out for women to assist with nursing the sick, who were being treated at homes and barracks that were turned into temporary hospitals.

"Fall crops were ready to be harvested, but there were no field hands to get the crops in," Childs said. "It was an agricultural disaster." The medical community struggled to keep up with those infected. "The doctors and nurses in most communities were very thinly stretched," Childs said. She said two or three of the area's doctors were serving overseas, so those left in the area were forced to handle the workload. She tells of an Alta Vista country doctor who traveled for six weeks caring for the sick, without returning home during that time. A local physician, she said, would return home every 24 hours for a change of clothes before beginning his rounds again.

But, as a new year was arriving, the Spanish flu was coming to an end. "By the end of December 1918, the worst was over," Childs said. A third wave of the Spanish flu, much less devastating than its predecessors, moved through the state in early 1919. Foveaux was one of those who contracted the flu at that time. She remembers working with the laundry when she first felt herself coming down with the flu. "I began to feel hot and cold--not too good," she said. After work, she stayed in bed with a high fever, and her doctor had told her father she probably wouldn't make it through the night. But eventually she regained her strength. "I was sick a month or so," she said. "I didn't get back to work until April."

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Copyright 1998, The Manhattan Mercury. Reprinted with permission.