With all of the news about the measles epidemic in Washington State and the many cases of flue here in Montana, I thought it might be interesting to share a story about the flu epidemic of 1918-19. I recently came across a small envelope that had been stored for a century by my great grandfather, Arthur Fleming. It contained two telegrams and a couple of receipts that together with his journal made an interesting story about his son Virgil.
Virgil Fleming was two when he traveled with his family by wagon from Missouri to homestead north of Calgary Canada. Ten years later in 1910 the family retraced their steps to again homestead, this time near Sun River, Montana. In September of 1918 just before his twentieth birthday he signed his draft registration that indicated he was considered short, slender and with a right arm undeveloped since birth. He did not qualify to be drafted but this may have been what prompted him to seek an opportunity to be trained as a mechanic at the army’s Sweeney Automobile School in Kansas City, Missouri.. Just after Christmas in 1918 Virgil Fleming left Sun River, Montana on a train bound for Kansas City and training. In order to save on funds he road in a cattle car rather than the comfort of the passenger coach. On Dec 31st 1918 he paid his $100 tuition to Sweeney’s. During the next few days he went to see a family that his mother had asked him to look for a family in the area.
The mother of that family had been his mother’s cousin and nanny in 1880 when she was orphaned at age 3. He sadly wrote home on a postcard dated Jan 5 1919 that he didn’t locate them. (They had recently moved to California where the husband worked for Peet Bros. which later became Palmolive Soap Company.) He closed his postcard with “I am fine except for a little cold. Virg F. address me same as front card” It would be his last words to his family.
Perhaps the same day that the postcard arrived at home his family also received a western union telegram “1919 JAN 7, 4PM” “VIRGIL VERY SICK WITH PNEUMONIA LITTLE HOPES FOR RECOVERY”.
His father quickly left by train and was going through Billings the next day when the conductor on the Forty Four Train to Kansas City handed him the next Western Union Telegram “1919 JAN 8 4PM” “VIRGIL DIED SIX AM”. It would be a heartbreaking journey now. Arthur Fleming with the assistance of his brother Jim who lived in Amoret, Missouri went to the funeral home and recovered Virgil’s body, paying the undertaker $97 of the $100 refunded tuition from Sweeney’s. Arthur and Jim put the casket on the train and each left for their respective homes.
By the next evening, Arthur “commenced taking flu in night” while traveling through South Dakota and Wyoming. He arrived in Great Falls 7:50 pm on the 13th and bought tickets to Sun River. Before the train was scheduled to leave he went to the doctor and was ordered to the hospital. He recorded in his journal, “Dr. said I would never get back if I went to Sun River.” He remained hospitalized until the 21st. Then friend Ray Norris drove Arthur and Sarah Fleming to their home near Square Butte, where he remained under her care recovering for another week.
Virgil Fleming was buried at the Fort Shaw Cemetery, and in 1950 his father would be laid beside his son who had worked with him on the two farming adventures.
An article I read supposes that the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 killed between a low estimate of 21 million and perhaps closer to 100 million worldwide. The Kansas City area was hit especially hard and the Sweeney School reportedly had 2300 of its 3000 enrolled students contract the disease.