influenza

During the fall of 1918 the Cody General Hospital on Rumsey Avenue (originally the Waples Hospital) had to quickly increase its capacity to care for all the Cody residents who suddenly contracted the Spanish Influenza. 

One of deadliest plagues in human history began in the spring of 1918 on a remote military facility in Kansas and quickly spread around the world. 

The Big Horn Basin wasn’t immune. In the month of November there were 51 reported cases of the flu in Cody, 89 in Powell, 30 in Elk Basin and 15 in Meeteetse. 

In December Cody only had 21 cases and Elk Basin only 11, but Powell and Meeteetse witnessed an enormous spread of the disease to 187 cases and 84 cases respectively. These were only the reported cases.

While it is popularly called the Spanish Influenza, it’s not because it was Spanish in origin. While it had been internationally publicized that King Alfonso XIII of Spain had been stricken with the disease and the association stuck, influenza was just an exceptionally fatal strain of the H1N1 virus.

The flu hit communities in waves, the worst of which occurred in the fall of 1918 and lasted into the new year. The epidemic coincided with the end of World War I, hampering efforts to fight the disease and overshadowing its danger. 

As the war was reaching an end many soldiers were already traveling back to their homes, ultimately spreading the disease to even the most isolated communities.

Unlike most other illnesses that often hit children and the elderly hardest, for reasons that are still unknown, Spanish Influenza was extraordinarily deadly to healthy adults in the prime of life. Although people of every demographic became contaminated with the flu, young adults between 20 and 40 years of age were by far the most likely to die as a result. 

This trend was all the more crushing because the same generation was simultaneously sacrificing so many of its number to the World War.

Although Cody avoided a massive outbreak, the flu still caused a great deal of anxiety and disorder. There were so many residents concurrently sick the Cody General Hospital on Rumsey Avenue had to be quickly enlarged to accommodate more patients and relieve overworked doctors who often had to travel great distances to treat the afflicted.

In an attempt to suppress the spread of illness Dr. Trueblood, acting as the county health officer in the absence of Dr. Frances Lane, instituted a public meeting ban in early October 1918. Schools closed, worship services were canceled, civic meetings were postponed, movie theater doors were locked, public dances were banned and even large private parties were discouraged. Cody never enforced a full quarantine, as did many other communities, but local doctors often put placards on the houses of the sick to discourage visitors and advised going out in public only when necessary.

Only about one dozen Cody residents died as a direct result of the Spanish Flu during the fall of 2018. Given Cody was a town of some 1,000 inhabitants at the time, this low number is rather remarkable. Most neighboring towns around the Big Horn Basin experienced a much more devastating mortality rate.

Regardless, the flu still had a profound impact on Cody, not only on people’s physical health, but also their emotional well-being. The isolation brought on by public meeting bans and fear of contagion only exacerbated their anxiety of seeing so many friends, neighbors and family members fall suddenly ill. Many people scorned the loosely imposed restrictions only to later become stricken themselves.

At its most devastating the flu fractured entire families. For example, Carl and Hulda Johansson, recent immigrants from Sweden, briefly adopted Elinor Wylie, a 2-1/2-year-old child whose parents both died from the flu within days of each other, a not uncommon tragedy.

Perhaps Cody’s most recognized victims of the epidemic where Fred and Irma Cody Garlow. Both in their mid-30s, the Garlows were managing the Irma Hotel and the TE Ranch at the time of the epidemic, Irma being William F. Cody’s last surviving child. The Garlows left three children at the time of their deaths.

In Wyoming roughly 780 people died as a result of the flu epidemic, more than the roughly 500 Wyoming men who died fighting in the First World War.

Across the United States nearly one-third of the entire population became infected to some degree and more than 500,000 Americans succumbed. Globally the flu was estimated to have killed more than 50 million people, making it one of the deadliest plagues in human history.

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