Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Flu Epidemic of 1918

View from a vantage point above Rte 30 looking north west across the Green Mountains
toward the Adirondacks of New York state.
photo by C. deLancey

Autumn came to the Green Mountains of Vermont in 1918 as it had always come; war, worry, heartbreak, rationing, are no deterrent to the cycle of seasons.
In September the swamp maples along the stretch of Rte 30 running from Whiting to Middlebury  flamed into banners of orange and scarlet.  As the month wore on the rock maples, the beech, ash and oak made brave patches of brilliant color on Vermont hillsides, while the slopes of the Adirondacks towering above Lake Champlain on the "New York side" flaunted fall foliage among the ranks of hemlock and pine.

Middlebury is the shire town of Addison County, a bustling place of businesses, the courthouse, banks, and home of the illustrious Middlebury College.
Perhaps in that autumn of 1918 fewer footsteps rang through the "hallowed halls of ivy" for even the sons of the wealthy were required to register for the draft.
On the streets, in offices, in the gatherings of women, and in the quiet of family homes after supper the talk would have been of the war:  of sons, sweethearts, young husbands lost; of fear and of hope.

web photo view of the older part of Middlebury College as it appears from Rte 30
at the south end of town.

By the first week of October Addison County gardens may have felt the nip of frost. The warm golden afternoons offered time to dig  potatoes, load Hubbard squash into a wheelbarrow; time to carefully cull the last of the ripening tomatoes to line the windowsills of the back kitchen in the large white clap-boarded farmhouse standing across from the college campus.

Gilbert and Elizabeth Desjadon shared the back part of the Chapman's comfortable two-family house courtesy of their sons, Napoleon and Arthur, who were employed by Thaddeus Chapman, a retired merchant with a well-kept farm on the edge of town.
Napoleon had registered for the draft in June, 1917 and was now in France, leaving Ada, his wife of six years, in his parents' household. Napoleon and Ada had no children.
Napoleon's younger brother Arthur with his wife Mary and two sons, ages 2 and 5, were also part of the multi-generational family group.
Arthur filled out his draft registration card in June, 1917,
giving his employment as farm laborer for
T.M. Chapman.
Rounding out the household was Gilbert and Elizabeth's youngest child, Curtis John, age 20.
Curtis, unmarried, was Baggage Master for the Middlebury Depot of the Rutland Railroad.

There was nothing about this early October day to hint at what lay ahead for the Desjadon family.
Their anxious thoughts often turned to Napoleon in the trenches of France, but likely only his wife Ada would have written to him.
Gilbert and Elizabeth born in Quebec, Canada, were French speakers, possibly barely literate even in that language of their childhood. Surely their offspring had some schooling and were bi-lingual, but Napoleon's signature on his draft card appears stiff and clumsy--not that of a young man accustomed to much writing.

As the afternoon sun slanted golden through the yellow-leaved elms and crimson maples lining the streets of Middlebury, perhaps Gilbert, age 72, gave Arthur a hand with the farm chores, brought in wood for the kitchen stove or puttered at tidying up the garden.
In the house Ada and Mary were busy preparing supper. Elizabeth  may have rocked small Walter or 
pared apples for a cobbler.
The meal would be ready when Curtis arrived home from the station.

Curtis's greeting when he entered the kitchen from the back door was hoarse-voiced. Still wearing his jacket he pulled a chair to the side of the stove and huddled, shivering visibly. In anwer to his mother's anxious queries he croaked that he had felt ill since lunchtime, his throat sore and his head aching.  Quite unaccountably he had suffered a nosebleed. 
He wanted no supper, just a hot drink, but was sure that a night's sleep would see him able to work in the morning.
Family lore doesn't give the details.  At what point did the family realize that they were not contending with a heavy cold or with some form of grippe?  When was a doctor called?
I imagine the women of the family struggling to launder soiled bedding, tending the sick round the clock, offering tea or morsels of food.
It is said that Mrs. Chapman came from next door to help with the nursing.
It is not clear how many members of the combined households fell ill.
Curtis John Desjadon died on October 3, 1918, age 20 years, 5 months, 21 days.
His death certificate gives cause of death as broncho-pneumonia with influenza as contributing disease.
Curtis had registered for the draft less than 3 weeks earlier. 
 On October 9, 1918, Arthur Desjadon died, age 29 years, 3 months, 10 days.
His death certificate bears the same information for "cause of death."
The next day, October 10, 1918, Napoleon's wife, Ada, succumbed to the same illness.
Ada was 30 years, 2 months, 7 days of age.
All three death certificates were made out and signed by the same doctor, P. L. Dorey.
Peter L. Dorey was an osteopathic physician, Vermont born, of Canadian parentage.  It is likely he was bi-lingual and able to converse comfortably with his patients who had little English.

Many questions will never be answered. 
Were Ada's family called to her bedside?  They lived a few miles away in Cornwall.
Where were the little boys, Arthur and Walter during the time of their father's fatal illness?
Did their mother, Mary also have influenza and recover, or was she spared?
[Mary was an orphan who had been raised by Arthur's older sister and brother-in-law.]
It seems certain that at some point the house was placed under quarantine.
My late Aunt Helen, my father's older sister, believed that her grandfather Gilbert had the flu but recovered.

One cannot help but wonder how funerals were managed in a time of such widespread crisis. I have read that as the flu epidemic raged, public gatherings of all kinds were curtailed or prohibited.
Theaters were closed, meetings cancelled, even church services were sketchy.
Funerals may have been limited to the members of an immediate household.

 In Orwell, less than 15 miles from Middlebury, my father Larry was a month short of his 2nd birthday when his mother's brothers and sister-in-law were taken ill. My grandparents' last child, Elizabeth, was less than 3 months old.  Would my grandparents, even in a time of family extremity and grief have taken the risk of visiting the stricken household in Middlebury?
All of Gilbert and Elizabeth's surviving children, all with spouses and young ones of their own, lived in Addison County within a few miles of Middlebury.
I have no information on which of them, if any, may have become ill, but all lived for many years after the epidemic.
As for Napoleon Desjadon, he was not given word of his wife's death nor that of his two brothers until he disembarked from a troop ship some time after the Armistice in November, 1918.

One other death in the family of Gilbert and Elizabeth could have been attributed to the effects of influenza.
Their youngest daughter Helena [Lena] Desjadon Cameron, also a resident of Middlebury, had been pregnant with her third child prior to her death on January 10, 1919.
Her death certificate gives cause of death as pelvic peritonitis with contributing illness
"bronchitis followed by spontaneous abortion."
Lena was 24 years, 6 months and 20 days of age.
Helena's death certificate was signed by Stanton S. Eddy,
not Dr. Dorey who had attended the other flu victims.

The 1920 census for Middlebury, Vermont lists the depleted family of Gilbert and Elizabeth Desjadon
 still residing in part of the T.M. Chapman house.
Their son Napoleon, age 31, widower, is listed in the Chapman household.
With Gilbert, 74, and Elizabeth, 68, are their grandsons, Arthur J. age 7 and Walter J. age 4 1/2. Their mother, Mary, age 29, widow, is with them.
Also listed with Gilbert and Elizabeth is son-in-law Gilbert R. Cameron, age 31, widower, and Elizabeth M. Cameron, age 5, the daughter of Helena and Gilbert Cameron.
The census form on which this family was listed was enumerated on the 14th and 15th of January, 1920.
My great grandfather, Gilbert Desjadon, died on May 25, 1920.
His death certificate is signed by P.L. Dorey, the osteopathic physician who attended the deaths of Curtis, Arthur and Ada.
The cause of Gilbert's death was bronchial pneumonia with an underlying factor of arterio sclerosis.
Great grandmother Elizabeth died August 5, 1929 in Shoreham, Vermont where many of the family, including her oldest son resided.
Cause of death; myocarditis, chronic nephritis.

I found the following in a web article attributed to Scott Wheeler, although the same paragraphs appear in several seemingly unsourced presentations.
"The flu epidemic swept into Vermont with a vengence during the waning days of September."
From a source 1918,
The largest outbreaks of flu occured at Middlebury, ST, Johnsbury, ST. Albans, Montpelier, Barre, Randolph, Northfield.
"During the final week of September there were over 6,000 cases in the state. The disease probably peaked in Vermont during the week of October 12 [1918]. Inflluenza remained prevalent throughout the state during the winter and spring of 1919.
The Public Health Service did not require states to report influenza before September 27 [1918.]
Vermont first reported the presence of influenza on October 19, but the disease was undoubtedly present in the state much earlier."
The official death toll attributed to the flu epidemic in Vermont is given as 1772.  It is certain that this does not represent the full count.
A survey taken in 1919 indicated that 440 children had lost both parents as a result of the epidemic.

 My father, Larry, holding portraits of his grandparents,
Gilbert and Elizabeth [LaValley] Desjadon.
Cropped from a photo by cousin Pat McG. taken at a family reunion in 1998.

I missed the family gathering organzied in Shoreham, Vermont by Pat Cameron McGrath and the chance to meet Cousin Pat in person, having moved to Wyoming from Vermont in the spring of 1998.
Pat and I have since connected via e-mail and I am indebted to her for her generous sharing of family information.
Over the years of my interest in family research I was not successful in prising much information from my father.
Whether he was not interested in his family history or simply hadn't paid much attention is questionable.
He stated that as a boy he was bored when "the old people" gathered on Sundays and "spoke French."
Living now many miles from Vermont I think of the hundreds, possibly thousands of times that I rode into Middlebury and unwittingly passed the house where such family tragedy took place.
Vermont has recently made photostats of vital statistic certificates available online to those who have a paid subscription.
Records from the early 1900's to the present are fairly complete and have helped to piece together the details of my father's large extended family.


  1. Woderfully interesting post. The flu epidemic of 1918 affected both my family and that of my late husbands ....but no so devistatingly.

  2. Hi --- Found you because I had a google alert set to "Dejadon" .... What a fantastic story!!!!! I've tried to sign-in so I get your blog regularly but I have a feeling I've not done something correct so please email me and let me know how to find you on a regular basis!!!! My tech stuff is on genealogy programs and not Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc! SO glad I found this!!!!!! Cousin Pat Mc

  3. I was in my computer tech's shop the other day and he told me of a web site that helps with genealogy.
    It is and I have found a few things on my family.
    I am not sure if it would help you, but I thought I would mention it.

  4. What a fascinating piece of research and so well written. I was absolutely mesmerized by that photo of your g.grandfather - what piercing eyes he had. Well done on piecing together all these details.

    You've shaken the flag for me to do some more work in that direction too!

  5. fascinating family history,and so sad of course; we were threatened a flu pandemic last year I think but thankfully it never materialised.

  6. So interesting. I don't think I lost any family members to the flu.

  7. What a fascinating and sad story. I rather think I've been to Middlebury at some point, the photo of the college rings a bell. The flu epidemic took a huge toll of lives all over the world, I believe that more people died as a result of the flu than died on both sides together in WW! Great post.

  8. wow what a great and educational story I never new about this event of vermont history, I know my mom said her grand parents died of what she called comsumption, fever when she was a baby, but never knew how the family was affected, and what if moms parents had gone to middlebury we might not be here today.

  9. Angie; I knew none of this family history until a few years ago. It may be that such a deep loss was not often spoken of when my Dad was growing up.
    Cousin Pat; The thanks are on my side--if you had not orchestrated that family gathering and shared your findings I may never have had opportunity to explore this chunk of our past.
    Denim; Thank you for passing on the website. I've had only a few minutes to spend there. So far I've only found it to offer social networking connections for the surnames I tried. Any lead is worth trying.
    BB; As you know, genealogy at any level of involvement takes us down some interesting paths. I've been surprised at how my own efforts toward this post have completely gripped me this week.
    Thelma; I read some scary articles while researching for this post. So often science, even with the advances made since 1918, does not have good answers.
    Janet; I hope your family was spared this. Looking back it seems that the illness struck almost capriciously.
    Rowan: You may well have been to Middlebury, VT when you visited in New Hampshire. Dartmouth College, located in the Connecticutt River town of Hanover, N.H. is just across the border from Vermont and has campus architecture that is similar. I didn't look up the death toll from the flu but I believe you are correct that it killed more than died in the WWI battles.
    Cousin Tom; How nice of you to stop by and comment. Your Mom has been such a help to me as I dig into the family history. Your sister is great also; she sees that I receive what she calls "Mom's scribbles". It is interesting to find how tradition and vitals records compare.