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. . . .”
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.”
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.
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.
Leora is the heroine in Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II by Joy Neal Kidney.