‘A real crisis’: Deadly Spanish flu pandemic hit Addison County 100 years ago

ADDISON COUNTY — One hundred years ago this fall an unwelcome visitor came roaring through Northern New England and made a death-dealing stop in Addison County.
The noxious traveler was the Spanish influenza pandemic, which was in the middle of its two-year tear around the globe when it paid visits to Middlebury, Orwell, Shoreham, Bristol and other area towns.
Old reports in the local Middlebury Register and The Middlebury Campus, Middlebury College’s student newspaper, show that the Spanish flu made its morbid presence felt in Addison County for a relatively brief period. It touched down here between September and late October of 1918, a fraction of the time it affected other areas. But the flu’s impact was as deadly as it was short-lived, with archived stories painting a picture of a college, town and county caught in the grips of a grave health crisis that brought dozens of deaths.
“Death toll and sick list is one of the heaviest on record,” an Oct. 4, 1918, front-page story in the Register screamed. “Scores of houses are placarded with the red sign ‘influenza.’”
Along with the Great Flood of 1927, the Spanish Flu is remembered as one of the area’s earliest and gravest health disasters. Old Register reports suggest that dozens of Addison County residents perished in the pandemic, with thousands more dying statewide: Vermont documented 43,735 cases of the flu in 1918, according to the Vermont Historical Society. Four percent of those who fell ill — 1,772 people — died of the disease that year, making up 25 percent of all deaths in the state.
Before it arrived to Addison County, the Spanish Flu incubated in American military camps and spread around the world as troops sent to fight in World War I traveled across the Atlantic. It killed 500,000 people in the United States and as many as 50 million people worldwide between January 1918 and December 1919, according to Smithsonian.com. Antiquated medical practices meant that in most cases, doctors could do little more than make patients comfortable as they grappled with the fever, bloody cough and chills that the disease brought.
The Register’s first lengthy report on the flu pandemic in Addison County came on Sept. 27, 1918, in a story headlined “60 Cases Here of Influenza: One College Student Died Yesterday,” though other issues leading up to Sept. 27 were increasingly peppered with death notices and mentions of illnesses across the county.
That story reports the pandemic arriving to Addison County with the return of Middlebury College students who brought the flu with them. One of the first deaths was a student from New Orange, N.J., named Harold Thompson, who died of pneumonia (a common influenza complication) on Sept. 26. The Register paints a comforting image of the scene of Thompson’s death: His parents were at his side and “there were no other men now who were dangerously ill … it was felt that the situation was well under control.”
A week later, conditions across the county had worsened considerably.
“The influenza scourge became so threatening in Addison County this week that practically every town put the ban on all public meetings, closing movies, schools and churches until the epidemic shall abate,” the report in the Register reads.
Thirteen died in the county that week and another 11 the following. On Oct. 11, the Register described a “real crisis” in Orwell after the only two physicians there succumbed to the disease themselves. Doctors Alfred Ouellet and Vincent H. Coffee were overworked and exhausted after seeing to hundreds of patients, and when they fell ill it was a matter of days before they died. A “Doctor Sharon” from Shoreham was called to care for the Orwell patients.
Things began to look up by mid-October: An Oct. 18 story documented “abatement in epidemic now” with few new cases reported in the town of Middlebury, and classes at Middlebury College had resumed as of the Oct. 25 issue.
At Middlebury College, it seems that things weren’t so bad during the flu’s first few days in Addison County.
“In many instances the (college students) are so little ill and so well cared for that they are, like the wounded soldier, singing ‘I don’t want to get well,’” the Sept. 27 story reads.
But the disease spread quickly, and the college was quarantined in a move that led to a bizarre and somewhat eerie separation between the students and residents of Middlebury Village. The Oct. 4 Register documents guards roaming the outskirts of campus. For reasons unexplained, they carried pistols.
“At Middlebury College, all day and night the patrols are alert towards enforcing quarantine,” a front-page story reads. “Even the village streets were patrolled by college men with pistols, making doubly certain that no one escapes the guard on the hill.”
Armed guards were just one example of sinister imagery the flu brought with it. College students like Lawrence “Law” Pierce, class of 1921, remembered passing stacks of dead while on the train to and from school.
“Going from Boston to Vermont by train, I saw coffins lined up at the stations, six to eight deep,” Pierce wrote in a 1990 memoir. “It was so cold that they were unable to inter their bodies and all the above-ground vaults were full.”
Though Addison County suffered in the fall of 1918, this relatively remote, rural area fared much better than other areas across the U.S. and around the world.
“We have been very fortunate in the comparatively few fatalities that have resulted,” a front-page story in an October 1918 issue of the Campus reads. “This fact makes us more, not less, sympathetic with those homes which have been so grievously smitten.”
As the flu dissipated, reporters seemed to forget the pandemic quickly: in mid-October the county was in the throes of a deadly pandemic, but in early November editions of the Register contain no mention of the flu whatsoever.
This is at least partly attributable to Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information, whose disquieting propaganda efforts encouraged an enthusiastic home front during World War I and averted journalists from writing reports that might be seen as too negative.
But it’s likely that Vermonters’ stoicism no doubt played a role, too, that the positively framed reporting reflected a common outlook and was more than just a projection of a propaganda campaign.

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