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· Sheriff Fay F. Brown’s Badge:
The Influenza Epidemic in 1918
Fay Forrest Brown and his wife, Cora May Phares Brown, are asleep in their bedroom. Fay is the Reno County, Kansas, sheriff; Cora is the jail matron and cook. It’s July 6, 1927.
“Cloe! Cloe!” screamed Fay. “Hold on!”
“Fay, wake up!” said Cora, firmly touching his shoulder. “You’re safe. You were dreaming.”
“I saw her turning blue, then purple,” said Fay, his body sweating and hyperventilating.
Cloe Marcia Brown Young, 25, died on December 5, 1918, at Kansas City General Hospital in Missouri. Her husband, Errett Samuel Young, 37, passed three days earlier. Both had developed bronchopneumonia after being infected by the “Spanish” influenza. Their orphaned son, Howard, 3, died later from the same virus, on December 28.
“The dream was so real,” said Fay. “Cloe was dying, but there wasn’t anything I could do to help. Her fever was blistering; she was bleeding from her nose, she was drowning from the fluid in her lungs.”
“Her pain was unimaginable,” said Cora. “In the fall of 1918, no one was safe.”
“It happened so suddenly,” said Fay.”
“Like a lot of other previously healthy young people,” said Cora, “Cloe was struck down and died within a day or two of developing symptoms. Doctors didn’t have any good answers to a global nightmare.”
“We still don’t have answers,” said Fay. “It could happen again.”
“Remember how people were told by so-called experts to eat onions and garlic, and to avoid kissing?” asked Cora. “I’m pretty sure eating the onions and garlic would have prevented most of the kissing.”
“They say at least fifty million people died worldwide,” said Fay. “But losing Cloe was so hard, different from losing my parents. One common element though, I was powerless to protect those I loved. ”
“We are powerless,” agreed Cora.
“I’m back to wondering how things could have been different,” pondered Fay. “Would Cloe and her family have been any safer if they had remained in Lincoln, Nebraska? Moving to Kansas City seemed like a good idea at the time, before there was an epidemic.”
“By the fall, the flu was everywhere,” stated Cora, “and it got much worse than the first wave which had milder symptoms.”
“I remember the quarantine regulations in Hutchinson,” said Fay. “They were strict, but necessary. If a house had a person with the influenza, the health department required it to be placarded. All patients with the disease were required to be isolated in a room.”
“And the quarantine of patients had to be continued for five days after the temperature had reached normal,” said Cora.
“All cases had to be reported to the health officer within twenty-four hours,” said Fay. “The police force was instructed to prohibit crowds of gathering at any place for any purpose.”
“And anyone caring for a patient having the flu, who wanted gauze masks, could go to the Red Cross Headquarters and pick up a free supply,” said Cora.
“Kansas City, Missouri, wasn’t as careful as Hutchinson,” said Fay. “If ‘Boss’ Pendergast and his powerful political machine had given the order, they could have closed businesses down as tight as a drum, but that would have been bad for their bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution.”
“It’s too bad that politics was so heavily involved in public health matters,” said Cora, “but remember, they didn’t know there was going to be a second wave of the epidemic. And there was a war on with a lack of nurses to care for the sick.”
“I still think they were more concerned about making money than saving lives,” said Fay. “Cloe and Errett and Howard deserved better.”
“Remember how the Elks Home was used as an emergency hospital?” asked Cora.
“They came through in a crisis,” said Fay. “Exceptional organizations and caring people stepped up when conditions were grave. I’m still proud of our community-minded people in Hutchinson.”
“Without a vaccine, so many people risked their lives for the sick,” said Cora.
“Like you, Cora,” said her husband. “Even though you wore a mask, you had telephone operators on each side of you all day. You and the other telephone girls made sure our country’s communication network was operating to battle the epidemic while fighting a world war.”
“At Bell Telephone, the extremely contagious influenza virus became deadly for too many,” said Cora, thinking of friends she had lost.
“Errett did laundry work,” said Fay. “He might have been exposed to the virus because he was helping others be sanitary. He might have lost his family because of his job.”
“Didn’t Cloe and Errett used to say that they would have never met if it hadn’t been for dirty laundry?” asked Cora.
Fay laughed. “She was a laundress,” stated Fay.
“We’ll never know where they picked up the virus,” said Cora. “Camp Funston was a few hundred miles away from KC and the soldiers were constantly passing through the area on rail. So many of them were infected.”
“Yeah,” said Fay, “people say the influenza started in Kansas, not Spain.”
“City leaders in KC were inconsistent with their messages,” said Cora. “On Armistice Day, the city had massive crowds of people celebrating in the streets, while at the same time, health officials told the public to avoid crowds and wash their hands.”
“Cloe was a one-year-old when father died, four when mother passed in 1897,” remembered Fay. “Some people said that Errett was both a husband and a father to Cloe, the father she never knew. I don’t know about that.”
“Errett was lucky to find Cloe after his first wife died,” said Cora.
“Cloe was the prettiest little girl,” said Fay. “Don’t tell Dora or Sallie I said that, but they’d agree. We all knew it. We were her cheerleaders and tried to be her protectors, but being children and separated, farmed out, made it impossible sometimes.”
“You, the girls, Dallas, all did your best,” offered Cora.
“Because she was the youngest,” said Fay, “after nearly a decade, it’s still hard to believe she’s gone.”
“Fay,” said Cora as she gently touched his shoulder, “you’ll always have your good memories of her.”
“Yes, that’s true,” said Fay, “and I’m glad to have this group picture of the five of us.” Fay picked up the framed photograph from the dresser and examined it.
“Look at her with her blond hair, curled in the back, and her pretty bows.”
“She’s precious,” said Cora.
“Yes,” agreed Fay as he exhaled, “gone, but precious.”
Until next time, happy writing and reading.