Skip to content

COVID-19 Carries Reminders Of How 1918 Spanish Flu Affected Local Family

By Betty Valle Gegg Naeger

The tragedy of the influenza epidemic of 1918 has especially influenced my ancestral family. However, it was February of 1920 when the pandemic reached my grandparents’ home in St. Mary, reducing the household of six to only two within 10 days.
No, I hadn’t been born yet then so I can’t report an eye-witness account, but I heard the story often from my mother’s knee. She was one of the two who survived.
An account in the 100 years ago column of the Herald of February 12, 2020, reports the death of my grandfather, Joseph Breig, and his 17-year-old son, John Edward, both on February 7, 1920. My grandfather took sick in the morning and by afternoon he was gone. John Edward became ill later the same day and passed away by night. Two days later on February 9, 13-year-old Clara died about 3 p.m.; and the following week on February 17, my grandmother, Catherine Braun Breig, lost her life to the illness.
My mother, who was 26 at the time and living in the home, also became ill, and she received the last sacraments of the church, but she recovered. I’m not sure if William Matthew, twin brother of John Edward, came down with the flu, but he also was a survivor.
There were two other sons and two other daughters in the family, but they lived in their own homes. This was always hard for my mother to talk about, and every time there were tears.
Lately, I’ve been comparing the conditions of today with the trauma of the early 20th century.
Today, hand-washing is stressed, but 100 years ago there was no running water in the small town farmhouse. Recalling conditions from my own childhood, without running water, hand-washing was done in a pan of water on a washstand, and everyone in the household washed in the same water, hardly a sanitary way. The water was changed when it was visibly dirty back then.

We also have hand sanitizer today, but the only thing they had that was close to that back then was a bottle of whiskey, or maybe moonshine, and I doubt it if was used for hand-washing.
A documentary I once saw speaks of a quarantine back then, but how do you quarantine when almost all in the household come down with the illness and a farmhouse isn’t that big. Also, on the farm there were animals to care for, so one only collapsed in bed when there was no strength left to move about.
I remember seeing pictures in the documentary of people wearing masks, and it also revealed that almost everyone was sick, and there weren’t enough people well enough to hold funerals. “They just stacked them up,” the documentary reported, and they couldn’t have had refrigerated trucks for that then.
It’s hard to fathom how they got their news back then, as they didn’t even have a radio, much less a telephone, TV, or computer. There was a newspaper, so perhaps they learned about the pandemic there or at the local pub or watering hole, or when someone close became ill. I have many ways today to get the news and connect with others and the world, beginning with my cell phone which is always in my pocket. I also can video chat with family nearby and out of state on FaceTime, Messenger and, though I’ve never used it, large meetings can take place on Zoom.
According to the book, “FLU, The Story of the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused it,” by Gina Kolata, New York Times best-selling author, which I read a few years ago, scientists set out to find and isolate the pathogen that caused the Flu of 1918 and unlock the key to finding a vaccine. After interviews and searching throughout the world, they finally found the pathogen preserved in the frozen bodies of some who had died of the flu and were buried in the permafrost of Alaska. That’s when they determined the makeup and named it the H1N1 flu, a disease that still threatens many each year today. However, there’s a vaccine for that now.
Today’s COVID-19 pandemic seems to have hit many of us by surprise. We’re so used to relying on vaccines for everything from polio to measles and numerous other maladies that we gave a pandemic little thought; but until a reliable vaccine can be developed and administered on a huge scale, we’ll have to continue social distancing, wearing masks, constant hand-cleaning and touching our faces only after our hands are thoroughly sanitized.
(Betty Valle Gegg Naeger is a former Herald writer who continues to assist in coordinating activities for the Project Pioneer organization.)