The Great Influenza Pandemic and Christmas 1919

If she had not had two small sons and a baby daughter, she said she would have been glad to die.

Leora Wilson, age 29, had the flu. Just the flu.

We think of the flu as a nuisance. But Leora Wilson of Stuart, Iowa, had survived the great influenza pandemic, called the deadliest plague in history by writer and researcher John M. Barry. Before finally fading away in 1920, it had prowled around the globe and killed over 20 million people.


It killed even more than the bubonic plague.

Fever was among the first symptoms, then a wracking cough. Victims experienced dizziness, vomiting, sweating, achy joints, trouble breathing. Often pneumonia set in, overwhelming the sufferer’s ears, sinus, and lungs. Death usually came quickly.

More than 500,000 Americans died–6500 in Iowa–dropping our life expectancy a whopping ten years because young adults seemed especially susceptible to complications.

Children would recover, but their young, strong parents would not.

Leora was the oldest in the large gregarious Goff family of Guthrie County, Iowa. She was the first to marry, her babies the first Goff grandchildren. In 1918, three of her brothers were drafted into the army and sent to Camp Dodge, where over 700 soldiers would die there of the flu before that winter.

The first wave of influenza had probably begun right here in the United States, according to many experts. The second wave spread over Europe. News about the illness was censored in England because of the war, but because Spain reported millions of deaths from the flu, it was known as the Spanish flu. It eventually spread worldwide.

The Goff brothers escaped the flu at Camp Dodge. They were sent on to Long Island, New York–where there had been deaths from the hottest days on record–to embark for France. By the time they arrived in France, a soldier had died of the flu in Long Island. The Goff brothers had escaped it again.

Americans were advised to stay warm, avoid crowds, keep the feet dry and the bowels open. Avoid needless crowding, the Surgeon General advised. Avoid tight clothes, tight shoes, tight gloves. When the air is pure, breathe all of it you can–deeply.


The first week in October, flu killed 100 soldiers at Camp Dodge. By mid-month, 450 were dead. Over 10,000 Camp Dodge soldiers caught influenza, and over 700 eventually died.

Leora’s husband Clabe came down with the flu in late 1918, during an ice storm. Leora remembered that he still managed to do the chores, feeding livestock, with ropes tied around his boots for traction in the barnyard. “It’s a wonder he survived,” she said. Some of Leora’s teen-aged and young adult siblings at home in Guthrie Center caught the flu, too, but their parents evidently were immune.

Leora’s Doughboy brothers returned safely from France in May 1919, as veterans of the war to end all wars. One of them came down with mumps over there, but they avoided the influenza.

When Clabe and Leora moved to the three-story stucco house east of Stuart, she probably thought she’d escaped getting the flu.

But that December she looked forward to having Christmas in the parental Goff home in Guthrie Center, with a big dinner, her brothers talking about France and the war, and always vigorous discussions about politics. Leora and Clabe would bundle up their three little ones and board the Liza Jane train that would huff and puff north up the Raccoon River Valley and through Windy Gap to Guthrie Center. Nothing short of a disaster would keep them from that wonderful day. But that’s exactly what happened the Christmas of 1919.

Leora was down with influenza.

Wilsons didn’t have a phone. On Christmas Eve, Leora’s brother, age 17, hiked down to the Guthrie Center train station when they heard the Liza Jane whistle. Their mother wrote her daughter a postcard: “Willis met the train last night and this morn when Liza whistled, thought sure she was bringing 5 of our very nearest relatives, but we had to give it up. . . .”

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Decades later Leora wrote: “We had flu the winter of 1919 and 1920–Delbert and Doris didn’t have it so bad, but Donald was a sick little boy. . . . I was much sicker than when [Clabe] had the flu in 1918. I got able to write and wrote the folks at Guthrie Center. We were getting over the flu but I was still in bed, doctor’s orders, and in a day or so my mother came down to Stuart from Guthrie Center on the Liza Jane train.

“It was after dark, icy, and she had crawled part way, pushing her suitcase along. When I saw her, I couldn’t believe my eyes, it seemed so impossible, she came to take care of me and my family. Bless her. She had taken care of my sister and brothers who had flu. She and Pa didn’t take flu, a God’s blessing.”

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Her mother stayed several weeks, but Leora did not regain her strength until late summer. Even a year later, those who had survived the flu would say they still didn’t feel right or have their normal energy.

Young adults have the strongest, most effective immune systems. But according to John M. Barry, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, the virus was often so efficient at invading the lungs that what had killed young adults, and orphaned so many children, was not the virus itself but the massive response of their healthy immune systems.

Barry wrote that the later the virus struck in an area, people did not become as sick, and were not as likely to die. 

The Guthrian reported April 1, 1920, that “Mrs. Wilson is just convalescing from a severe attack of flu.” She remembered being ready to die, except for those three small children to care for. And perhaps another on the way.

Leora may have also experienced a flu-related miscarriage. Barry said that pregnant women were more likely to die from the flu. And that about a quarter of them who survived lost the baby.

A clue to a miscarriage comes from a postcard to Leora from her mother: “Sorry you were sick. Take good care of yourself.” Another from her sister: “You’ll just have to quit working too hard.” And Leora said that after both times she miscarried, her next pregnancy was twins.

Indeed, Dale and Darlene were born in Stuart in May of 1921.

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Doris Wilson, Grandmother Goff (Leora’s mother) holding twins Dale and Darlene Wilson, Delbert and Donald Wilson

Leora lived to bear five more children, including another set of twins. She was a healthy, sturdy woman, still living on her own when she died at the age of 97–even after having lost three sons during WWII and her husband shortly after. It was said at her own funeral that she had had true grit.

She needed true grit to get through the deadliest pandemic in history.

Published in the April 7, 2020, issue of The Des Moines Register.

This story is also told in Leora’s Early Years: Guthrie County Roots.



  1. What a story! My paternal grandfather succumbed to that ‘flu whilst living in Calcutta – only a couple of months after my father was born.

  2. My goodness, what a strong lady we had for a grandmother. I am so glad we got to spend so much time with her and great grandmother as well.

  3. An amazing story, such an informative post on the history of this pandemic. Great post and I really appreciate all the hard work and research that went into this. She truly had ‘true grit’ – this could be a movie for sure! Would you mind if I shared this with a friend in the movie industry? with your name, credit and contact with the blog post

    • Bless you for your comment! That would be fine. I’m working on a book about her war years (working title: Leora’s Boys), but she left memoirs, sending my mother and me sleuthing along country roads with the clues she left. My husband has even taken me to NW Minnesota and NE Nebraska because of the stories she told about them. Plus, I’ve transcribed old postcards and letters. I’m having fun!

      • This was great. My fathers folks both lost there lives to the flu epidemic. They had five children and I always wondered why the kids lived. The kids were split between several family members. I think my day was about 10 or 11 when they died. I believe he had one brother that was a baby. I wish I knew more about what happen but I did not ask when my Dad and his brothers and sister were still alive. At least this helps me understand why the kids did not die for the flu but the parents did. Thanks so very much for this info.

      • Thank you, Kerry. I didn’t understand either until I got John Barry’s book and started lining up dates. It said so many children were orphaned because their robust parents succumbed to the influenza. I was surprised at how quickly it could happen to young adults.

  4. My grandfather came home on leave from serving in Europe in 1917. My Grandma Campbell was expecting her first child. It was thought Walter brought the flu home to her, even thought he didn’t have the flu himself. Grandma Campbell survived, but her baby did not. My mother’s birth was the result of her second pregnancy.

  5. I remember that Grandma Wilson was a strong lady but, had no idea how strong she really was during this time.

  6. You know, you just got me thinking. I knew about this, but I’ve never thought about it impacting my family or the San Luis valley area. But my father had a brother and sister, older than he was, who died during that time period. Makes me wonder, and might prompt a little investigating. I’d never given it much thought till I read this and started thinking about it.


    • I put my grandmother’s story together with clippings and old postcards, and of course the fascinating book, to come up with this one! A very enjoyable endeavor.

  7. Thanks for posting this, Most younger people today have no idea that the flu can indeed kill so many. Even today the flu is a threat. When the Bird Flu hit Italy several years ago, I asked a pharmacist if he had Tamiflu. He laughed and said Americans watch too much television. When we returned next spring, 37 people had died in our small valley. Here in North Carolina, we had 391 flu deaths in the 2017-2018 flue season.

    • I had no idea. Were they mostly older people. The amazing thing about the flu 100 years ago was that it was the strong immune systems of the young adults that ultimately doomed so many, at least in the beginning of the pandemic. And how quickly they succumbed.

    • I’ll bet they will. I was thrilled when I found the Barry book to cast some light on Grandma Leora’s memoirs. I thought she had the year wrong, but combed through postcards from her sister and newspaper clippings and decided she’d recollected well. Whatever she had, I don’t want. Don’t want this one either!

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