During the current COVID-19 pandemic, many references are made to the Spanish Flu that killed 675,000 Americans. In the state of Colorado, 50,000 were infected and 8,000 people died.
According to some reliable sources, it did not come from Spain, but rather our neighbor to the east, Kansas – not Spain.
The Spanish Flu, or La Grippe, traces its origins to hog farms in western Kansas — specifically Haskell County — not far from the Colorado border, according to John M. Barry, author of the acclaimed book “The Great Influenza.” Barry, who wrote about the Spanish flu for Smithsonian Magazine, theorized that migratory birds moving through that part of the state may have passed the H1N1 virus on to pigs, which eventually transferred a potentially mutated form of it to humans. In March 1918, a soldier stationed at Camp Funston in central Kansas took ill with the flu.
The first documented death from Spanish flu in Denver occurred Sept. 27, 1918, when a University of Denver student, Blanche Kennedy, succumbed to the new disease.
DU’s outstanding historian Steve fisher wrote in The Denver Magazine that, “Kennedy is something of a mystery. Twenty years old at the time of her death, she came from a prominent Colorado pioneer family. Her father, also named William, had been a member of the Colorado Constitutional Convention of 1876 and was later City attorney of Leadville. Her uncle was D. F. Crilly, who built the Windsor Hotel in Denver.
According to a Rocky Mountain News article at the time, Blanche acquired the flu while visiting family in Chicago. A week later, brother William also died of the flu, becoming Denver’s sixth casualty. William had been a Denver assistant city attorney and left behind a wife and child. His home at 2070 Birch St. was immediately quarantined.
Records in the registrar’s office show that Kennedy attended the DU Preparatory School from 1916 to 1918, though she never appears in the student yearbook, the student newspaper or in any other DU administrative records.
Classes at DU had just begun when Blanche died. On Oct. 2, 1918, DU and all other schools in Denver were shut down by order of the city board of health. A week later, all outdoor gatherings in Denver were banned.
It is believed by scientists that the initial outbreak was carried by troops-in-training in Colorado and on September 28, 1918, a group of 200 Montana college students arrived at the Colorado College campus to train for the world war raging in Europe. The same day, a group of 250 Montana students/soldiers arrived at Boulder’s University of Colorado campus. Two dozen of the students who arrived in Colorado Springs were stricken with Spanish influenza, and 13 were sick in Boulder.
On Oct. 16, 1918, Colorado Governor Julius Gunter banned all gatherings, a move that led to aggrieved protest but has become known today as ‘social distancing’. Denver residents were urged to take many of the same measures being currently advocated to stop the spread of COVID-19: avoid crowds, cover all coughs and sneezes, keep homes and offices well ventilated, and seek a doctor if symptoms develop.
The town of Gunnison, Colorado took extreme measures isolating their town from the outside world in what has become a classic case study. By banning travelers, barricading the town, and jailing violators, the town recorded no deaths due to the Spanish flu.
Unlike today with elder populations particularly vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19, researchers theorized older Americans were spared in 1918 because of immunity developed from earlier, weaker versions of a similar flu virus. The lack of those same antibodies often killed the young and strong in the Spanish flu.
And the lessons learned?
As cases declined during the fall of 1918, Denver business owners and desperate constituents pressured government officials to let them open back up. Theater owners even descended on Mayor Mills’ office to demand he ease up on restrictions that were costing them $50,000 per week.
The mayor relented. On Nov. 11, Denver residents poured into the streets to celebrate Armistice Day — the end of World War I. Two weeks later, the city recorded 605 cases of Spanish flu and 22 deaths on a single day. Restrictions had to be reimposed as public life once again ground to a halt. It wouldn’t be until January 1919 that the Spanish flu would finally disappear from Colorado.
Photo Courtesy of The Colorado Sun