Harmon’s Histories: ‘La grippe’ claimed thousands of Montana lives

By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current

The end table is cluttered with tissues. The night stand is covered with cough drops and cold remedies.

The inflammation of mucous membranes should have prompted a fire department response by now. The constant cacophony, day and night, should have triggered a noise complaint in the neighborhood.

TV ads depict giant green slimy animated muculent blobs attacking people in the streets. Cold and flu season has arrived, moved in, taken over and, worst of all, shows no sign of leaving.

I’ve spent the seemingly endless, disease-ridden days of the past week confined to my home office (though my wife has recommended a number of alternate locations she’d prefer, some of which I can’t find on Google maps).

Between aqueduct-filling nasal discharges and magnitude 8.7 hacking, I’ve been exploring the newspaper coverage of colds and flu in Montana over the past hundred years or so, seeking comfort through stories of fellow sufferers.

Now, most years weren’t so bad.

Every winter, the state’s papers were filled with notes about catarrh (the common cold and runny nose), winter fever (pneumonia) and la grippe, or just “the grip” (known today as the flu).

For instance, the Missoulian reported in 1894 that doctors were “kept quite busy of late attending grippy patients. … Mrs. Dan Jones is severely ill with la grippe (while) Mrs. R. G. Brenton has recovered from a sever attack of the grip.”

There were occasional deaths from the wintertime afflictions.

On a single day, March 9, 1891, the Anaconda Standard reported the city of Butte issued burial permits for “George Meany, aged 3 years 10 months (who) died of la grippe … Margaret J. Daniels, aged 37 years (who) died of pneumonia and la grippe at Rocker … (and) Eddy Walstrom, 20 years old (who) died of pneumonia.”

Sometimes the famous or infamous were victims of wintertime illnesses.

January 9, 1890, the Helena Independent reported the death of an area pioneer: “V. T. Priest died at his home at Priest’s pass yesterday morning at 3:30 o’clock. Three days ago he was taken down with pneumonia of a virulent type and nothing could be done to save him. His sudden taking off is a severe blow to his many friends, among whom he was loved and respected for his many good qualities.”

The Virginia City Madisonian carried a brief item in its October 24, 1896 issue that packed a lot of information into a single sentence: “Harry St. John, son of the ex-governor, and under indictment for wife murder, died at Oklahoma City of la grippe.”

Even if folks weren’t suffering from catarrh or la grippe, Rocky Mountain winters had other hazards.

The Philipsburg Mail on February 17, 1899 reported, “Peter Perrant, who had his feet frozen last week while going from this city to his ranch on Rock Creek, is … doing well and recovering rapidly …”

Meantime, Joseph Dixon had been “somewhat delayed on his journey south (to Mexico), having been snowbound in Colorado.”

From the late 1800s through the early 20th century, newspapers carried ads for all sorts of cure-alls, claiming to be effective for colds and flu.

An ad in Butte’s 1901 Daily Intermountain newspaper assured readers that to prevent … even, to cure … both the common cold and la grippe overnight, one simply needed to take “Krause’s Cold Cure Capsulese” every three hours. The remedy was said to be safe for even “the most delicate woman or child.”

Meantime, the Fergus County Argus suggested the benefits of “Foley’s Honey and Tar,” to “strengthen the lungs so they will not be susceptible to the development of serious lung troubles.

Other, slightly less dramatic, advertising offered up hot water bottles and horehound compounds at the local drugstore.

But, all of this becomes utterly insignificant when you read through the papers of 1918. It’s sobering, and leaves me apologetic for my earlier whining.

In the final year of the Great War, a flu pandemic, the likes of which had not been seen, rapidly spread across the globe.

Originally dubbed the “Spanish flu” (solely because the first news reports came from there), its origin was more likely France, China or even Kansas. No one’s sure, to this day – although the latest historical research points to China.

Whatever the case, it was deadly.

It was a new strain of flu so there was little or no immunity and it came at a time when people worldwide were thrown together –  whether in WWI troop trains, battle trenches in France, or the many war-support gatherings at home.

It claimed as many as 50 million lives, worldwide – more than all the lives lost in the Great War.

In Montana, the first wave hit in the spring with more deadly waves arriving in late summer through winter.

The state’s first case was said to have occurred in either Scobey or Whitehall (accounts vary), with Missoula’s first case attributed to the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) at Fort Missoula.

By the time it was over, 5,000 people – 1 percent of the Montana’s population – had died.

Butte was the hardest hit, with nearly 640 fatalities. Missoula recorded more than 100 deaths.

Next week, we’ll explore the darkest period of that historic pandemic in Montana – October to December 1918, through the reporting of the state’s newspaper journalists.

Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.