Friday, October 17, 2008

Orphaned by the Flu

My grandmother was orphaned in 1918, when she was 9 years old. Between July and December she lost her father, her mother, and her older sister. This was the Flu Epidemic of 1918.

Kids playing ball in the street in San Francisco, ca. 1900. From Pictures of the American City.

San Francisco was a city of immigrants then, as it is now. My great-grandmother, Annie, came from Ireland with her sister and brother and settled in San Francisco's Mission District. She married an Austrian man and they had four children. Her sister Mae married an Irish man--he was killed in a car accident on the day of their child's baptism in 1914. Mae was left a single mother, but she had her sister to rely on. They shared a pair of flats on Bartlett Street.

Then in July of 1918 Annie's husband, Fred, came down with the flu. He died five days later. Her daughter Louise was next, and then Annie herself in late December of the same year. My grandmother, Kathryn, was left alone with her younger sister and brother, with only their Aunt Mae to care for them.

Mae worked in a milliner's shop, decorating hats. When she found herself with four children in her care, she did what any good Irish Catholic would do, she made an appointment to see the Archbishop to ask advice. Archbishop Hanna advised her to send the children to a convent boarding school outside of the City, so that's what she did. She worked to pay for their schooling, and they boarded at St. Gertrude's and St. Joseph's Academies in Rio Vista.

And so they helped each other grow up, and they helped each other through life's trials, because they had only each other to rely on.


Mama Goose said...

Thanks for sharing this bit of your history. It's stories like this that remind me to count my blessings. You're very lucky to know so much about your ancestors. I'd love to hear more.

Dudley Poston, Jr. said...

The flu epidemic of 1918 is sometimes referred to as the Spanish flu epidemic because Spain was the first European country infected. It spread throughout Europe in 1918 and then to the rest of the world. It resulted in the deaths of up to 30 million people (estimates range from 20 million to 50 million) and may well have infected almost 1 billion people, or nearly one-half of the population of the world at that time. Large numbers of flu deaths went unreported in less developed countries. By the time the epidemic had run its course in North America, nearly 700,000 had died in the U.S., and around 50,000 in Canada. Some small villages in Quebec and Labrador were almost wiped out entirely. The most common victims of this epidemic were young adults, 20 to 40 years of age. In the U.S. the impact of the Spanish flu was particularly heavy in the last quarter of 1918, and especially in the month of October. In 1918 in San Francisco, a law was passed requiring residents to wear masks when venturing outside the home to visit public places, and the following slogan was promulgated by the city’s Health Department: "Wear a Mask and Save Your Life! A Mask is 99% Proof Against Influenza". Still, over 3,500 residents of San Francisco and nearby places were victims. Your grandmother, Kathryn, my mother, also contracted the Spanish flu in San Francisco in 1918, but, thankfully, she recovered. Had she not survived, I wouldn't be here writing this to you, and you wouldn't be here to read it.