Saturday, February 2, 2013

Sickness Saturday - Influenza 1918

Mary Fletcher Hospital (Library of Congress photo)
Some of the bloggers that I follow have recently written about the 1918 Influenza outbreak.  Heather Wilkinson Rojo of Nutfield Genealogy pulled together a nice list of articles, prompting me to write my own story of how the flu outbreak affected my family.

In 1918, 2,146 people died of Spanish Influenza in Vermont [1].  Among those unfortunates was my great-grandmother, Christine (Wilkinson) Batchelder.  Though the worst of the flu was over in November of that year [2], great-grandma Batchelder passed away at Mary Fletcher Hospital in Burlington, Vermont on December 7th, at the age of 38, due to pneumonia caused by the flu [3].

The effect of her passing is illustrated in the memories of her daughter, Helen, in an autobiography that was written in 1979.

It was near Christmas time in 1918 when the first big change took place in my life,” her story begins.  “On Dec 5th of 1918, father received a telephone call from Burlington Hospital where mother had been taken for surgery the week before, telling him she was dying. Father caught the daily stage (which was also the mail route over the mountains) to Manchester and a train to Burlington.”[4]

Great-aunt Helen, age 8 at the time of the story, then goes on to describe the blizzard that hit their farm while their father was away.  Her older brother, the family’s housekeeper, and neighbors helped keep the farm running through the storm, clearing paths, milking cows, and keeping her and her 5 year-old brother entertained while snow piled two stories high around their house.  Helen’s next set of sentences recall a heart-breaking scene from another era.

“It was about noon on the 9th when we heard a different noise above the wind.  Voices, a lot of them.  Nine men with three teams of horses and the snow roller had made a road for the stage mule team to bring mother’s body and coffin home.  Father was broken and bitter and could be of no comfort to us at the time.

It was nearly a week before the town could get the roads opened, so the close relatives could come for the funeral.  Also mother’s body need to be taken to Londonderry to be placed in a vault until spring.  It was a rough week for two small motherless children.  It seemed as if with mother’s death we lost everything.”[5]

70 years later, when I was a child, stories of how broken-hearted my great-grandfather had been were still being told by his children.  It was obvious what an impression the event had left on their small rural family.  The aftermath of Christine’s passing was also impactful.  After describing the funeral of her mother, Great-aunt Helen continues:

“Now the silence was broken. Everyone on mother’s side of the family wanted to help out and to split us up as a family. They wanted to take just one of us and raise us like their own. … Father seemed to come alive at the time, grabbing us and telling the relatives ‘over my dead body you split them up or take them away from me. They are all I have left of Christine, and all I have left to live for.  I am going to take care of them myself.  And I don’t want any help from any of you!’”[6]

The family did stay together, continuing to live on the farm.  Helen’s older brother Erwin (my grandfather) occasionally came home to help them out.  Their oldest brother, Lyle, was away at the time of Christine’s passing, stationed in France at the end of World War I.  He would not learn of her death until he returned home in the spring of 1919.

It’s interesting to look at my children, who have all had the flu this winter, and think how lucky they are to have access to the conveniences we all enjoy today.  Slightly less than a hundred years ago, a flu epidemic took away a wife and mother.  It took her husband two days, a train, three teams of horses and a snow roller to bring her body the distance that a car would cover in less than three hours today.  Her children, due to the society at the time, were almost taken away from their home and father.  Ultimately, though, that family’s strength was passed down by those same children to us.  Their stories of hardship and family became ingrained in me, and I can only hope to pass a part of that strength down to my own children.

[1] Sherman, Michael, “’Awful, Awful’: The Spanish Flu in Vermont, 1918-1919”, Historic Roots, volume 3, number 1 (April 1998): 12.

[2] Ibid, 16.

[3] "Vermont, Vital Records, 1760-1954," index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 02 Feb 2013), Christine Batchelder, 1918.

[4] Helen (Batchelder) Billings, The Other Mission Field: Where the Unloved Are Loved, (Privately printed, 1979), 2.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 3.


  1. Thanks for mentioning my list of blog posts. I added your post to the roll up. I'm curious about your Wilkinson ancestors (did they originate in New Hampshire?) We might be cousins!

  2. I wondered about that as I was writing the post. If I remember correctly from stories my great-uncle and grandmother told me, Christine may have been adopted. I'll have to dig into that line some more and see what I can find.