A Kansas Tale

Not so long ago a letter came into my possession which continues last Sunday’s Weekly Postcard story.  You might find it of interest.

Note the date, and don’t be fooled as I nearly was; this letter was sent from Camp Funston, a training camp at Fort Riley in Kansas, on 5th October 1918.  The camp, built in the summer of 1917, comprised 1,400 buildings on a 2,000 acre site, and was still in operation into the 21st Century – the Military Transition Teams that operated in Iraq & Afghanistan were trained there – but its early history is a dark one, and perhaps casts a shadow across the next hundred years of its existence.

Historians will presumably continue to argue exactly where the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 first emerged – in France in 1916, Southeast Asia, perhaps, the following year, but a serious branch of research suggests that it originated on the wind-blown prairies of Haskell County in Kansas, where, in late January 1918, the County doctor first noted that the coughing, sneezing, illness that was infecting fit young Kansas farmers was ‘influenza of the severe type’ and appeared to affect young, strong and seemingly healthy people the worst.  So concerned was he that he contacted the U.S. Public Health Service on the matter, a document that is now accepted to be the first recorded report in 1918 of unusual flu activity from anywhere in the world.

With America gearing up for war and the local Santa Fe newspaper reporting families and soldiers travelling to and from Haskell County and nearby Camp Funston, the largest training camp in America with some 50,000 soldiers undergoing training at any one time, on 4th March 1918 the first soldier reported ill with flu symptoms at the camp.  Within a fortnight this had risen to over a thousand, necessitating the creation of temporary hospital wards (above) to deal with the influx, with many more sick confined to their barracks.  Nonetheless, men still came and went, spreading the disease across most of the Army camps throughout the country, from where it spread through the local civilian populations and from there into the towns and cities……and yet by the end of April this wave of flu across the United States had apparently peaked and seemed to be on the wane, and across the seas there was an enemy to defeat, so let’s get on with it!  At which point nobody was taking much notice of the soldiers still with flu-like symptoms who were being packed onto trains taking them not only to other camps, but to the major U. S. ports from where they, and the flu, would cram aboard ships heading for Europe.  And once in Europe, well, to paraphrase the guy who runs the current museum at Fort Riley, ‘we gave the flu to our allies who gave it to our enemies’.  And it’s interesting that the main French port used by the Americans arriving in France happened to be Brest.  And which French port saw the first outbreaks of influenza in 1918?  Brest.  Coincidence?  I think not.

But by autumn – sorry, fall – the flu had returned (with tragic irony, brought back to America by returning soldiers) and mutated, the strain now sweeping the United States, and the world, a far more virulent beast than that from earlier in the year.  The above photographs show the memorial (and its creator) to flu victims of the 10th Sanitary Train at Fort Funston; I would guess the sanitary teams had a particularly hard time of it.  Which brings us, at last, to the contents of the envelope, a letter documenting a brief moment in time during the outbreak:

Eight hundred hospitalised in a day, and the deaths of thirty seven men in one night.  The Spanish Flu would mutate once again, the 1919 version so malevolent that initial symptoms and death could occur in a twenty-four hour period, or even less.  And then it would disappear (or did it mutate yet again, and become that yearly thing that still claims lives each winter*), leaving an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide.  One wonders if Dan was among the 45,000 U.S. servicemen who had died from the flu by the end of 1918 – by comparison, 53,402 Americans were killed or died of wounds during the Great War.

*The current strain of influenza known as A/H1N1 that appeared in America, once again, in 2009, is so close, just eight amino-acids different, which I gather is minuscule, to the 1918 strain, that it’s scary.  99% of those 50 million deaths a hundred years ago were people under 65 years of age.  I suggest we could do without a new flu pandemic at the current time.

And finally, if there are any scientists out there among you who know about such things, and if mass is finite, and if a dead virus still has mass, might this letter of mine have dead Spanish Flu virus on it?  I think I should be told.

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12 Responses to A Kansas Tale

  1. Nick Kilner says:

    Fantastic! What an amazing document to have. I wonder what delights were in the box? Something he was very glad to receive I’m sure. I just hope it kept, as it sounds like it had been in transit longer than a Royal Mail parcel with a second class stamp! Lol
    As regards the origins of the ‘spanish’ flu, I’m with you on this one, and I think many people are now beginning to feel the same. There’s a very strong case for it originating in America. It’s also interesting to note the H1N1 virus, which both the Spanish flu and the current pandemic are linked to was also of course related to the ‘avian flu’ virus (H5N1) outbreak of 2008. It seems that the Spanish flu was also avian in origin and that it may have been caused in part by keeping extremely high numbers of chickens in very poor and confined conditions in order to feed troops. America’s first foray into battery farming?
    Another fascinating piece MF

    • Magicfingers says:

      I told you an interesting follow-up to Sunday was coming up. It is indeed an amazing document to own. Afa the flu, how about birds to pigs to humans on those Kansas prairies? I think that’s most likely. I believe that increases in flu in swine were actually noticed by vets at the time. Anyway, quite clearly we’re all doomed, Cap’n Mainwaring. Have a nice day, now.

  2. Margaret Draycott says:

    Fascinating insight to what went on a hundred years ago. I read a story and don’t laugh that the virus started with a Canadian farmer who contracted it from a Duck, he joined the army and so it spread.
    The letter was quite difficult to read in parts his handwriting deteriorating as the letter went on, one wonders did he survive.
    The camp was dreadful reminiscent of the concentration camps, can’t believe they were still using it in recent times.
    Interesting that that virus targeted the under 65 population where as this one targets above that age.
    The message on the tram was on the nail. How tragic that the returning soldiers brought it back with them.
    Basically we are never free of this virus albeit in less vicious forms until it gathers strength and becomes a pandemic. How that document survived and ended up with you, the story it could tell.
    You two are funny.

    • Magicfingers says:

      We’re like the Chuckle Brothers, us two! And, of course, you make some good points. What an amazing document though.

  3. Daisy says:

    Hello Magicfingers and Nick,

    The sister’s address is Mr(s?) J. E. Carey (Cary, Carny?). 1626 Central. Kansas City. Missouri.
    Central what? Avenue, Street, Road?
    There is now no 1626 Central whatever… Ave. St. Or Rd. Between 1622 Central Ave. there is a street and the next building is 1700 Central Avenue..
    Amazingly another Central St. is the entrance to the National WW1 Museum! What?
    What happened to 1626 Central?

    I note in the Camp Funston temporary hospital ward photo there are very few people wearing masks. Some things never change…

    Kansas City (in 2020)
    The emergency order in Kansas City requires people to wear face coverings while indoors in public places. Additionally, the June 29 2020 directive requires employees and visitors in places of public accommodation to wear masks when social distancing is not possible.
    “Our country’s leading health and scientific experts have indicated in no uncertain terms that mask-wearing is the most effective way to curb the spread of COVID-19,” Mayor Quinton Lucas said in a statement. “Case numbers in Kansas City continue to rise, and we are taking all the steps we can to ensure public health and safety.”

    However there is no mandate to have compulsory wearing of masks in Kansas City Missouri.

    Daisy.

    • Magicfingers says:

      I can answer none of your questions, but I will be on the ball should I nip over to Kansas in the next few weeks. Slightly hijacking this response, can I inform any of you who care, and any like your good self Daisy who may be anticipating replies to emails etc, that I am computerless at the moment (have borrowed the missus’ Mac for this), have been for a few days, will be for at least a few more days, and then I will find out if I will be any longer. So bear with my temporary absence – I’m sure you’ll manage.

      • Daisy in Indonesia says:

        I know exactly how you feel with my own laptop being in the computer repair shop 3 times over 5 weeks, thus me being miles behind and replying to posts and emails from June onwards. Uuurrgghh. Sigh.

        I do know a really good computer repair shop in Kansas City Missouri although Kansas City is bisected by the border of Kansas and Missouri so the really good computer shop could be in Kansas City Kansas. Since you might be nipping over there in the next few weeks…

        • Magicfingers says:

          Computers, eh? Who’d ‘ave ’em! I won’t bore you with details, but one of two things were wrong, both cost a few quid to fix, so which one did I choose to replace first, the one that was working fine, or the one that was broken. Yep, you got it……..

  4. Epsom Girl says:

    Thanks for letting us know. Hope you get it sorted soon!

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