The “Spanish Flu”

One of the more curious sections of Windows of Memory, the 1961 memoir by Henry Wingblade (Bethel president from 1941-1954, after having taught at the Academy and Junior College for many years), is his chapter on Bethel and world missions (no. 25). Instead of simply telling the stories of five Bethel alumni who entered the missions field, he renders them as “imaginary testimonies” — speaking for them to a new generation.

The creepiest application of this technique is when Wingblade presents the “testimony” of Olivia Johnson (A ’13), the first graduate of Bethel Academy to become a missionary outside of North America. Like Signe Erickson, she went to the Philippines after leaving Bethel and died at a time of world war.

Bethel yearbook dedicated to the memory of Olivia Johnson

The 1919 Bethel yearbook was dedicated to the memory of Olivia Johnson (A ’13) – Bethel University Digital Library

Feeling called to missions as a child in Sweden, Johnson attended the Women’s Missions School in Chicago after arriving in the U.S. in 1904. After serving churches in Kansas, she worked her way through Bethel (e.g., as a nurse at Fort Snelling’s Soldiers’ Home) then went to the Philippines. Back in the U.S. during a furlough in the last year of the war, Johnson was studying at the University of Minnesota when she took ill and died in January 1919. As best I can tell, it was January 18th, the same day the post-WWI peace conference opened at Versailles.

(Her story is also told, less imaginatively but more believably than Wingblade’s version, in G.W. Carlson and Diana Magnuson’s Persevere, Läsare, and Clarion.)

Johnson’s last words (in italics below) were famous around Bethel long before Wingblade wrote, but he embellished them a tad:

Some will remember how during those last days before the Lord took me, a very dear friend of mine was a nurse at my side, and she began to weep. When I saw that she was weeping, I said, ‘Don’t cry. I am going up there to see how it is; but be sure to send three in my place to the Philippines.’ I sometimes wonder whether three have gone out there in my place yet. I hope they have.

If they could only see the light of joy in those dusky faces of the young people of the Philippines that I have seen, I am sure that many would want to go.

We’ll have to come back to the image of those “dusky faces” in a later post on missions, but here let me just fill in one detail: the cause of Olivia Johnson’s early death.

An influenza victim in St. Louis, 1918

An influenza victim in St. Louis, 1918

The influenza pandemic often — if misleadingly — called “Spanish flu” killed some 50 million people around the world, including as many as 650,000 Americans. Unusually for such a disease, it tended to be most deadly for young adults like Olivia Johnson, not children and the elderly. Nearly half of the victims were between the ages of 20 and 40.

(You can learn much more about the influenza pandemic and its effects on fifty American cities at Influenza Encyclopedia, a digital history produced by the University of Michigan, upon which I’ll rely for the following survey of the flu in Minneapolis and St. Paul.)

One possible origin of the epidemic was Fort Riley, in Kansas, and the close relationship between the spread of the flu and the American mobilization for World War I certainly shows up in the history of the epidemic in Minnesota. The first case in the Twin Cities showed up on September 27, 1918: a man who had caught the disease while visiting his son at Camp Dix in New Jersey. The vast majority of early victims were part of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) unit at the University of Minnesota, leading the school initially to postpone the start of the fall semester until October 9 and then to take the more drastic step of barring all students save those in the SATC.

If female and non-S.A.T.C. students were inconvenienced, so were the cadets. Due to the growing epidemic on campus and in the wider community, all cadets were confined to the campus, with no leaves of absences or passes granted. Making fun of their plight, a large group of student-soldiers vented their frustrations by staging a mock funeral for “Old Man Influ Enza,” who they buried while singing “We’ve got Spanish Influenza… That’s why we can’t get out,” to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” The University did not re-open to non-military students until October 23.

October 1918 influenza warning from a Michigan newspaper

October 1918 warning from a newspaper in Michigan – Michigan Tech University Library

Like the university, the city of Minneapolis moved fairly quickly to close public places, with all schools, churches, theaters, movie houses, and other gathering places shuttered as of midnight on October 12. (The order provoked a huge legal fight between the city and its school board.) Despite such precautions, Minneapolis had 3,000 cases of influenza reported within the week.

Across the river, St. Paul acted much more slowly, but with its number of cases also reaching 3,000 by early November, authorities finally issued closure orders. The Twin Cities didn’t reopen for business, schooling, and worship until November 15th. (A second, shorter wave of infection hit in mid-December.) Altogether, about 2,000 people died in Minneapolis and St. Paul in the fall of 1918.

While the worst of the outbreak had passed by the time influenza took the life of Olivia Johnson, that strain would not go away entirely for another year. A fourth and final wave hit the Twin Cities in the winter of 1920, as the president of Bethel Academy (Henry Wingblade’s brother) hinted in a letter to a pastor in California:

We are just getting over the influenza vacation at Bethel Academy and we hope to open up again next Tuesday the 10th. We are very glad that Miss Rosendahl is fast improving. Miss Satterberg has certainly shown herself a capable and self-sacrificing nurse.

Letter from A.J. Wingblade to Carl Vingren, February 6, 1920
(A.J. Wingblade Papers, The History Center:
Archives of the Baptist General Conference and Bethel University)

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One comment

  1. […] This week at Bethel at War, my summer digital history project… I looked at the influenza epidemic of 1918-1920, and Fletcher Warren found a fascinating array of Baptist General Conference responses […]

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