"Spanish flu far outstripped Covid-19’s deadliness but produced nowhere near the moral panic of our time"
By Janice Fiamengo
Originally published in the Spring-Summer 2021 issue of The Dorchester Review, Vol. 11, No 1, pp. 12-16.
[PHOTO: Irish victims of the Spanish Flu 1918]
Last night, too, I heard a horrible thing. Miss Ferguson, the nurse I had when Chester was born, was married soon after to a Mr. Jenkins of Montreal. Last winter, she died of flu, leaving three little children. This has haunted me all day. What fun she and Frede had here together that happy summer! And now they are both dead!
— Journal, May 11, 1919.
SO WROTE LUCY MAUD MONTGOMERY, celebrated author of Anne of Green Gables, reflecting on the manifold losses of the past year due to Spanish Influenza. In 1918-19, Montgomery, a native of Prince Edward Island, was living in the village of Leaskdale (now part of Uxbridge, Ontario), with her husband, Ewan Macdonald, a Presbyterian minister whom she had married in 1911. They had two young sons, Chester, six years old, and Stuart, three.
Montgomery had been keeping a journal since 1889, hoping — and, as time went on, justified in expecting — that it would be published after her death. She wrote regularly, though not daily, providing a rich account of her thoughts and doings. By the time of the First World War, she was an internationally admired and financially successful author who stole time for writing from a busy schedule of mothering, visiting, church duties, and home-making. As the minister’s wife in a conventional parish, she confined her theological, and other heterodox, opinions to her journal’s pages. Providing a piquant, sometimes caustic, assessment of rural and small-town Canadian life, the journal entries are fascinating for many reasons, not least of which is Montgomery’s first-hand account of Spanish flu, which though far outstripping Covid-19 in deadliness, produced nowhere near the moral panic of our time.
Spanish flu emerged in Canada near the end of the war, likely brought from Europe and quickly spread by soldiers returning from the front. It initially came in a relatively benign form in the spring of 1918, causing simple cold-like symptoms. In the fall of 1918, however, it returned in a more virulent second wave, leading to many deaths, often with terrifying speed. It recurred throughout 1919 and 1920. Deaths from flu-induced pneumonia were common as sufferers’ lungs filled with fluid, causing many victims to die within a day or two of the onset of symptoms. Unlike in the case of Covid, Spanish flu did not predominantly affect the elderly and the already immune-compromised. Children were vulnerable, as were many healthy young adults in their prime of life. With a population of about 8.5 million people, Canada is estimated to have lost at least 50,000 to the flu.
The first reference to the pandemic in Montgomery’s journal occurs in the late fall of 1918. The previous entry, dated Oct. 6, had expressed her deep joy and relief at the news that Germany and Austria were suing for peace on President Woodrow Wilson’s terms. Noting that “our small burg was athrill [sic] with the excitement that was agitating the whole world,” Montgomery could hardly believe that the bloody war that had terrorized her imagination for over four years was at last nearing an end: “Yes, the great, the stupendous drama of hell is drawing to a close,” she wrote jubilantly. “At last — at last — at last! And oh God, at what a price!”
After this outburst, there is a nearly two-month gap in entries. “Huge, epoch-making world-events have jostled each other in [the interval],” she explained when she took up her pen again. “And in my own little world has been upheaval and sorrow — and the shadow of death” (Dec. 1, 1918). On the day after the previous entry, she explains, Montgomery had travelled to Toronto with her Aunt Annie Campbell, who had been staying with Montgomery and her family on an extended visit from Park Corner, Prince Edward Island.
The Campbell clan were second cousins on Montgomery’s maternal grandfather’s side; their farmhouse 14 miles from Montgomery’s home in Cavendish had been a central part of Montgomery’s youth and young adulthood. After seeing Aunt Annie off on the Montreal train, Montgomery stayed in Toronto with an old friend for a few days, shopping and socializing; she spent one evening with her younger half-brother Carl, a returned soldier who had had half his leg blown off at Vimy Ridge. She had a pleasant visit, even if the city’s people “were beginning to be panic stricken” over the outbreak of flu. She described how “The drug counters were besieged with frantic people seeking remedies and safeguards.” Montgomery felt no personal concern. “I didn’t think much about it — really had no fear of taking it” (Dec. 1, 1918).
But take it she did after two days of sniffles. When her husband came for her in his car at the close of her visit, she motored back to Leaskdale, 50 miles northeast of Toronto, with a light cold that developed that evening into a high fever, congestion, and irregular heartbeat. Two days later, her doctor visited and gave her medication to induce perspiration, telling her later that of the 75 cases of Spanish flu he had treated, hers was “the worst save one — and that one died!” Montgomery was not impressed with his casual doctoring. “I certainly don’t think it was any merit of Dr. Shier’s that I didn’t die too,” she commented wryly in her journal. “I think he did a perfectly dreadful thing in going away as he did and leaving me with no skilled attendance. I was too stupid to ask for a trained nurse but he should have suggested it” (Dec.1, 1918). She spent ten days in bed, aided only by the family’s live-in maid, Lily, and was exhausted for nearly a month afterwards. No one else in the household took ill.
WHILE SHE WAS still in bed, she heard by letter from her Aunt Annie, now back at home in Park Corner, that the flu had come to Annie’s household also, perhaps carried there from Ontario. Seriously ill was Annie’s adult son, George. A week later, and just after Montgomery had risen from her bed, word came that George had died of pneumonia, leaving behind his wife Ella and “six small children under eleven.” A day later, Montgomery heard again by mail that her cousin Frederica Campbell (George’s sister and Montgomery’s dearest friend) was travelling from Montreal, where she worked at Macdonald College (McGill’s agricultural college), to Park Corner to help the family. On Nov. 2, Montgomery heard that all the children had come down sick and one, a son also named George, had died. Montgomery packed that night and went to give assistance. She reported on the conditions in the house upon her arrival, noting the family’s pained acceptance of the elder George’s death.
With so much illness and death in her close family, it was no wonder that Montgomery began to feel what she called a “physical cringe” whenever she heard “the name of Spanish flu” (Dec. 1, 1918). Yet despite her intimate experience of its lethality, the flu never came to dominate her thoughts as Covid-19 has dominated public and private conversations in our own era. There is no record in her journal entries of the pervasive fear and agitated demand for safety at any cost that are often seen today, and which have been stoked and tended by government figures and media. Montgomery continued to perform her tasks in the community, as her husband did his. Both travelled, attended prayer meetings, and entertained at home. She recorded no conversations about flu or flu precautions with neighbours. Her oldest son, Chester, continued to play with the village boys. In fact, aside from the record of her terrible personal experiences, there is almost no mention of the disease other than Montgomery’s awareness that it was a “deadly pestilence of which thousands have died — are dying” (Dec.1, 1918).
Perhaps because it came at the end of the war, after so many years of acute anxiety, Spanish flu had less power to terrorize than Covid has had in our own, more protected, era. Montgomery was not by nature a placid personality. The First World War had been a daily torment as she followed its progress obsessively, awaiting the arrival of the afternoon newspaper with dread. War news dominated her journal entries, which frequently found her “worried and depressed” (Apr. 20, 1918) or worse. Often she lamented the strain, complaining somewhat histrionically on Jun. 10, 1916 that, “This war is slowly killing me. I am bleeding to death as France is being bled in the shambles of Verdun.”
DAILY LIFE WAS thus for years shadowed by horror and fear. When the news was good, Montgomery could do her work relatively calmly; when it was bad, she paced the floor for hours. Paperless Sundays brought respite but made Mondays even more awful. Throughout the four-year ordeal, Montgomery recorded many dreams of the war, fretted over reports of German atrocities in Belgium, puzzled over maps, contemplated the horror of “asphyxiating gases” (Apr. 26, 1915), and was never without helpless concern for the “future of humanity and of civilization” (Feb. 10, 1918). Reading of children’s deaths in 1915, she was thankful that her boy was too young to fight, but felt guilty that other mothers had to send their sons to the slaughter (Jan. 1, 1915). She saw the war by turns as a great calamity, a judgement, a test, and even a holy sacrifice. At other times, it seemed nothing more than a senseless waste. On May 29, 1918, she wrote of the military funeral of Col. Sam Sharpe that she and her husband attended in nearby Uxbridge: “He came home from the front quite recently, insane from shell shock, and jumped from a window in the Royal Victorian at Montreal.” What a cost indeed.
Death from natural causes, in contrast, was a sad fact of life for Montgomery as it was for all Canadians in the early 20th century when many diseases were incurable and hospital treatments were often painful and unreliable. Most sick people were tended at home with basic treatments. Infant mortality, as well as maternal mortality, took many lives during the period. Children were born at home, sometimes with a nurse in attendance, and the prevention of infection was poorly understood. In 1912, as she prepared at age 37 for the birth of her first child, Montgomery had been well aware that she might die of her confinement. “All my life I had heard and read of the anguish of childbirth, its risk, its dangers,” she confided in her journal after the birth (which went well). “There were times when I could not believe that I would get safely through” (Sep. 22, 1912). Two years after she welcomed her first baby, she was heartbroken when her second child, Hugh, was still-born, due to a “knot in the cord — an accident that could not be foreseen or prevented” (Aug. 30, 1914). Her own mother had died of tuberculosis before Maud reached two years old; and her grandfather’s sister, Elizabeth Montgomery, had lost four children to a cholera outbreak in the 19th century. Few families were untouched by such tragedies.
"Montgomery was admitted to her cousin’s bedside ‘shrouded in mask and overall’ (her only reference to protective material) and tended her friend to the last"
Accounts of Spanish flu in Canada stress that preventive measures such as mask-wearing, quarantine of the sick, the shuttering of businesses, and the forbidding of gatherings were put in place then as now. But Montgomery makes no mention of any such restrictions — or any public demand for them. Church services seem to have continued without interruption, as did related activities such as Red Cross meetings and Sunday School classes. On one occasion, on Dec. 17, 1918, Montgomery mentions that the planned Sunday School concert was called off “owing to another outbreak of flu in the vicinity,” but she makes no further mention of the outbreak or other cancellations. She does not seem to have sought out news reports about the flu; she expressed no angry demand that her children or friends be kept safe, and she did not occupy herself for a moment with thoughts of any neighbour’s failure to respond to the flu with sufficient moral seriousness. Her son Chester began school in 1919, and Montgomery travelled to Boston on legal business connected to her publishing contracts. Train travel between Canada and the United States seems to have continued uninterrupted.
IT WAS WHILE Montgomery was in Boston in January 1919 that the worst flu-related blow fell: she learned that her cousin and beloved friend Frede Campbell had taken ill. At first Frede’s condition was not considered serious, and Montgomery planned to stop in to see her in Montreal at the conclusion of her legal dealings in Boston. But pneumonia set in shortly, and Montgomery hurried to her side. By the time she arrived at Macdonald College, in St. Anne-de-Bellevue on the island of Montreal, Frede was dying.
As was common in such cases, the struggle was short. Montgomery was admitted to her cousin’s bedside “shrouded in mask and overall” — the only reference made in her journals to the wearing to protective material — and tended her friend to the last (Feb. 7, 1919). She was permitted to touch her, speak to her, and sit close to her in the final hours, a mercy not extended to many of those who have lost family members and friends to Covid in our own time (and which may be, in my opinion, the greatest inhumanity we have practised). She heard Frede’s last words (a shared joke about her difficult sister Stella), heard her laugh for the last time, and draw her final breath. She reminded Frede to pay her a visit, a spiritualist reference to their promise of old that whoever died first was to “cross the gulf” and appear to the other if possible (“But oh Frede, you have not come yet. The dead cannot return or you would have come,” Montgomery wrote despairingly afterwards). Frede died at dawn on the second day after Montgomery had arrived. She was 35 years old.
This death was the worst, constituting the loss for Montgomery of an intimate friend with whom she had found the only near-perfect intellectual and emotional companionship she had ever known. She wrote in disbelieving sorrow that
half [her] life had been wrenched away, leaving [her] torn and bleeding in heart and soul and mind. I had one friend — one only — in whom I could absolutely trust — before whom I could in Emerson’s splendid definition ‘think aloud’ — and she has been taken from me. Truly, as has been said in such an instance as this, ‘it is the survivor who dies’ (Feb. 7, 1919).
Montgomery’s grief caused her to feel at times angry at God for allowing such pain, but she did not express any anger at human authorities or institutions for failing to protect Frede. There is none of the sense, common today, that if only Frede had stayed in, or others been kept away (or masks zealously worn, or distance maintained, or stores closed, or classes cancelled) that her safety might have been secured. Such thinking was almost completely foreign to Montgomery’s generation, though measures were taken to prevent infections from spreading and sick people were subject to quarantine.
Even during the worst of her grief in the succeeding weeks and months, Montgomery believed and resolved that she would recover “strength and energy for [her] work and duties” (Apr. 13, 1919). There were her sons to consider; she wished to see them “educated, well-started in life and — if the fates are kind — happy in homes of their own” (Mar. 12, 1919). She had her role in her husband’s parish to uphold, however much it grated. Always there was her writing, satisfying and even exhilarating, and her love of nature to sustain her. In time, other pains and worries, including her husband’s religious melancholia, which came on in the summer of 1919, replaced the overriding sadness of Frede’s death. The Spanish flu was a dreadful episode, but for Montgomery despite the loss of her closest friend it was far from the defining event of the era.
IN OUR OWN time, it has quickly come to seem normal — or at least, expected — for every aspect of private and public life, from family dinners to pick-up hockey, from babysitting to vet visits, in fact all of work, school, social, and religious life, to be transformed in the name of public health, even when some of the measures seem directly opposed to health. My elderly mother has not been able to see her doctor in person for many months and has not seen most of her friends for almost a full year — all for her own good. Unelected officials have become the masters of our daily lives, imposing or easing restrictions according to their estimation of case counts and cumulative death tallies. Such extreme measures were rarely pursued at the time of the Spanish flu, and it will be up to future commentators on Covid-19 to assess not only whether health authorities and governments acted prudently, but also whether the response of Canadians in general has been courageous and commensurate to the threat. Montgomery, could she observe us, would likely be surprised at the lengths many Canadians have been willing to go to feel safe. One Canadian journalist has recently called for jail terms for those villains who go maskless in public.
Now, as we begin to hear warnings that even with vaccines Covid measures may continue for years into the future, with normal life suspended indefinitely, perhaps we are better off reading Montgomery’s journals.
Originally published in the Spring-Summer 2021 issue of The Dorchester Review, Vol. 11, No 1, pp. 12-16.
Janice Fiamengo retired in 2019 from the University of Ottawa, where she was Professor of English for 16 years. Her specialty areas were 19th century British and Canadian literature. In 2013, she became interested in men’s issues, which led to the publication of Sons of Feminism: Men Have Their Say in 2018. She also wrote and presented “The Fiamengo File,” a series of videos online about the travesty of academic feminism.
This superbly informative, well-written article couldn’t be more timely. It certainly hits home for me. My grandmother was just 28 years old when the flu took her in 1918. My mother was only 4 at the time. Her father owned and operated a saloon in Philadelphia, and she, her parents, and her two brothers lived a solid middle class existence. Prohibition came in 1920, and my mother and her brothers were dispatched to live with relatives in New York. My grandfather fell on hard times, and died young. My mother and her brothers never fully recovered from their devasting loss. Just as we see today, the flu had many victims besides the ones who died.
Fantastic article. Due to lack of interest or just plain ignorance of history, the public in general has absolutely no perspective with which to properly gauge their reaction to this illness. I like to look at old, digitized newspapers from the time period of the Spanish Flu to see how it was covered by the press during this period. Considering how deadly this was, it’s very difficult to find much discussion on it. Compare this to how our media is saturated with Covid news. Interestingly, in the few opinion pieces I did find in these older papers, the writers were giving tips on how to protect oneself and were trying to be reassuring, advising people to ‘not live their lives in fear.’ Today our thought leaders seem to just focus irresponsibly on gaslighting and hyping hysteria.