Monday, March 9, 2020

Louise Brooks and the Coronavirus of 1918

The 1918 influenza pandemic, which was colloquially known as "Spanish flu" or the "grip," was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic, the first of the two pandemics involving the H1N1 influenza virus. It is thought to have lasted between January 1918 and December 1920, and infected 500 million people around the world, or about 27% of the world population. The worldwide death toll is estimated to have been between 17 million and 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest epidemics in human history. Among the dead were an estimated 675,000 Americans.

It is not known for sure were the disease came from, though at the time it was suggested Spain - which was especially hard hit, hence the name Spanish flu. Others claim France or Austria - then in the grip of the first World War, as the point of origin. And still others now claim the epidemic originated in the United States, specifically Kansas. In fact, the location of the first recorded outbreak of the flu pandemic in the United States was in Haskell County, located in the Southwest part of the state. It has also been claimed that, by late 1917, there had already been a first wave of the epidemic in at least 14 US military camps, some of them located in Kansas and nearby Oklahoma.

U.S. Army photo of the influenza ward at Camp Funston, Kansas, showing the many patients ill with the flu.
Wherever this strain of influenza came from, it effected everyday life and must have been on everyone's mind, even little Louise Brooks, who was born in Cherryvale, Kansas in 1906. By all accounts, she was a healthy child, but on November 29, 1917 the Cherryvale Republican newspaper reported that Brooks had been out of school for more than a month due to illness. The nature of her illness is not known, though given the historical context, one might suspect a serious case of the flu.

Brooks and her family knew soldiers serving in the war. In fact, the Cherryvale newspaper reported that Louise had helped at a social gathering in February, 1918 to welcome home a family friend, Sergeant Lee Douthat, who was stationed in Camp Doniphan, in Oklahoma. Louise was also present in March, 1918 when her cousin, Robert Rude, visited the Brooks’ home while on furlough from the same Camp Doniphan. The war was not just "over there."

In July, 1918 the local newspaper reported that the Brooks family was packing their household in preparation of moving from Cherryvale to Independence. The move, the paper stated, was being made so that the Brooks children could take advantage of better school facilities in the larger Kansas town. Wherever they lived, however, the local newspapers were filled with articles like this, which was printed in the Independence newspaper in October, 1918.

Louise Brooks loved going to the movies, even as a preteen. Highlighted in the article above was the notice that the movie houses in Independence would be closed until further notice (as they were most everywhere around the country). Group gatherings were discouraged, and generally banned.


As the influenza spread throughout the population, local papers reported on those who had gotten sick and those who had died, including, eventually V. L. Wagner, the owner of the three movie theaters in town. There were also reports of young soldiers - the sons of Independence parents - dying in army camps across the country; a popular high school athlete passed away, as did local citizens from all walks of life. Daily life at the time must have been an anxious, even frightening experience.

I could post dozens of similar newspaper clippings, some of which are heart wrenching, like the letter home from a young soldier who described conditions at the camp where he was quarantined and how his fellow soldiers were dying in rapid succession. As a precocious teen, and as someone who read, young Louise was likely aware of much of the suffering and sorrow which surrounded her.

Eventually, the influenza abated, and the various prohibitions against people gathering were lifted. The day after Louise's 12th birthday, the Evening Star ran a story announcing "Influenza Ban is Lifted."

As the article suggests, life began to return to something like normal. Brooks returned to school. And the movie theaters reopened. On September 2, 1919 Brooks attended a showing of Boots, starring Dorothy Gish, at the Best theatre in Independence. And on September 5 she took in You Never Saw Such a Girl, starring Vivian Martin, at the Best theatre. The occasion was Paramount's annual better motion pictures week.

Louise Brooks in Independence in 1919
If you want to learn more about the influenza of 1918 and how it affected America, I would strongly recommend the PBS "American Experience" documentary "Influenza 1918."


  1. Readers of your blog who live in eastern Massachusetts can see the "American Experience" documentary "Influenza 1918" on Thursday, March 12, 2020, at 7 p.m. on the WORLD channel. I agree: it's worth checking out. I found your post about Louise Brooks and the flu epidemic fascinating. It's certainly timely, and 102 years later.


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