Smorgasbord Posts from Your Archives #Family and #Friends – #History The Great Influenza Pandemic and Christmas 1919 by Joy Neal Kidney

Welcome to the new posts from your archives with a theme of family and friends. Very important as our support system at the moment as many of us are isolated and out of physical touch. If you would like details on how to participate here is the link: Posts from Your Archives April 2020 Family and Friends

Author Joy Neal Kidney with a post that is particular relevant at the moment as we face a global pandemic. Joy shares her grandmother’s story of the Christmas of 1919 and her own brush with death from this virulent epidemic. Eerily this was written in December of 2019, and as you read the posts, and the advice that was given to the population about avoidance, has changed little in 100 years…

The Great Influenza Pandemic and Christmas 1919

If she had not had two small sons and a baby daughter, she would have been glad to die.

Leora Wilson, age 29, had the flu. Just the flu.

We think of the flu as a nuisance. But Leora Wilson of Stuart, Iowa, had survived the great influenza pandemic, called the deadliest plague in history by writer and researcher John M. Barry. Before finally fading away in 1920, it had prowled around the globe and killed over 20 million people.


It killed even more than the bubonic plague.

Fever was among the first symptoms, then a wracking cough. Victims experienced dizziness, vomiting, sweating, achy joints, trouble breathing. Often pneumonia set in, overwhelming the sufferer’s ears, sinus, and lungs. Death usually came quickly.

More than 500,000 Americans died–6500 in Iowa–dropping our life expectancy a whopping ten years because young adults seemed especially susceptible to complications.

Children would recover, but their young, strong parents would not.

Leora was the oldest in a large gregarious Goff family of Guthrie County, Iowa. She was the first to marry, her babies the first Goff grandchildren. In 1918, three of her brothers were drafted into the army and sent to Camp Dodge, where over 700 soldiers would die there of the flu before that winter.

The first wave of influenza had probably begun right here in the United States, according to many experts. The second wave spread over Europe. News about the illness was censored in England because of the war, but because Spain reported millions of deaths from the flu, it was known as the Spanish flu. It eventually spread worldwide.

The Goff brothers escaped the flu at Camp Dodge. They were sent on to Long Island, New York–where there had been deaths from the hottest days on record–to embark for France. By the time they arrived in France, a soldier had died of the flu in Long Island. They had escaped it again.

Americans were advised to stay warm, avoid crowds, keep the feet dry and the bowels open. Avoid needless crowding, the Surgeon General advised. Avoid tight clothes, tight shoes, tight gloves. When the air is pure, breath all of it you can–deeply.


The first week in October, flu killed 100 soldiers at Camp Dodge. By mid-month, 450 were dead. Over 10,000 Camp Dodge soldiers caught influenza, and over 700 eventually died.

Leora’s husband Clabe came down with the flu in late 1918, during an ice storm. Leora remembered that he still managed to do the chores, feeding livestock, with ropes tied around his boots for traction in the barnyard. “It’s a wonder he survived,” she said. Some of Leora’s teen-aged and young adult siblings at home in Guthrie Center caught the flu, too, but their parents evidently were immune.

Leora’s Doughboy brothers returned safely from France in May 1919, as veterans of the war to end all wars. One of them came down with mumps over there, but they avoided the influenza.

When Clabe and Leora moved to the three-story stucco house east of Stuart, she probably thought she’d escaped getting the flu.

But that December she looked forward to having Christmas in the parental Goff home in Guthrie Center, with a big dinner, her brothers talking about France and the war, and always vigorous discussions about politics. Leora and Clabe would bundle up their three little ones and board the Liza Jane train that would huff and puff north up the Raccoon River Valley and through Windy Gap to Guthrie Center. Nothing short of a disaster would keep them from that wonderful day. But that’s exactly what happened the Christmas of 1919.

Leora was down with influenza.

Wilsons didn’t have a phone. On Christmas Eve, Leora’s brother, age 17, hiked down to the Guthrie Center train station when they heard Liza’s whistle. Their mother wrote her daughter a postcard: “Willis met the train last night and this morn when Liza whistled, thought sure she was bringing 5 of our very nearest relatives, but we had to give it up. Me, Pa, Willis, Wayne only ones here for dinner, rest working at the cafe.”

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Decades later Leora wrote: “We had flu the winter of 1919 and 1920–Delbert and Doris didn’t have it so bad, but Donald was a sick little boy. . . . I was much sicker than when [Clabe] had the flu in 1918. I got able to write and wrote the folks at Guthrie Center. We were getting over the flu but I was still in bed, doctor’s orders, and in a day or so my mother came down to Stuart from Guthrie Center on the Liza Jane train.

“It was after dark, icy, and she had crawled part way, pushing her suitcase along. When I saw her, I couldn’t believe my eyes, it seemed so impossible, she came to take care of my and my family. Bless her. She had taken care of my sister and brothers who had flu. She and Pa didn’t take flu, a God’s blessing.”

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Her mother stayed several weeks, but Leora did not regain her strength until late summer. Even a year later, those who had survived the flu would say they still didn’t feel right or have their normal energy.

Young adults have the strongest, most effective immune systems. But according to John M. Barry, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, the virus was often so efficient at invading the lungs that what had killed young adults, and orphaned so many children, was not the virus itself but the massive response of their healthy immune systems.

Barry wrote that the later the virus struck in an area, people did not become as sick, and were not as likely to die.

The Guthrian reported April 1, 1920, that “Mrs. Wilson is just convalescing from a severe attack of flu.” She remembered being ready to die, except that she had three small children to care for. And perhaps another on the way.

Leora may have also experienced a flu-related miscarriage. Barry said that pregnant women were more likely to die from the flu. And that about a quarter of them who survived lost the baby.

A clue to a July miscarriage comes from a postcard to Leora from her mother: “Sorry you were sick. Take good care of yourself.” Another from her sister: “You’ll just have to quit working too hard.” And Leora said that after both times she miscarried, her next pregnancy was twins.

Indeed, Dale and Darlene were born in Stuart in May of 1921.

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Doris Wilson, Grandmother Goff (Leora’s mother) holding twins Dale and Darlene Wilson, Delbert and Donald Wilson

Leora lived to bear five more children, including another set of twins. She was a healthy, sturdy woman, still living on her own when she died at the age of 97–even after having lost three sons during WWII and her husband shortly after. It was said at her own funeral that she had had true grit.

She needed true grit to get through the deadliest pandemic in history.
© Joy Neal Kidney 2019

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About Joy

I am the author of Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II.

It tells the story of the five Wilson brothers who are featured on the Dallas County Freedom Rock at Minburn, Iowa. Leora was their mother–my grandmother.

All five enlisted. Only two came home.


About the book

The day the second atomic bomb was dropped, Clabe and Leora Wilson’s postman brought a telegram to their acreage near Perry, Iowa. One son was already in the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Four more sons worked with their father, tenant farmers near Minburn until, one by one, all five sons were serving their country in the military. The oldest son re-enlisted in the Navy. The younger three became U.S. Army Air Force pilots. As the family optimist, Leora wrote hundreds of letters, among all her regular chores, dispensing news and keeping up the morale of the whole family, which included the brothers’ two sisters. Her fondest wishes were to have a home of her own and family nearby. Leora’s Letters is the compelling true account of a woman whose most tender hopes were disrupted by great losses. Yet she lived out four more decades with hope and resilience.

“Joy lets us see her grandmother’s personal family correspondence through letters. It is heart-tugging. Be ready to be moved by this true story.” –Van Harden, WHO-Radio Personality

Joy Neal Kidney, the oldest granddaughter of the book’s heroine, is the keeper of family stories, letters, photos, combat records, casualty reports, and telegrams. Active on her own website, she is also a writer and local historian. Married to a Vietnam Air Force veteran, Joy lives in central Iowa. Her nonfiction has been published in The Des Moines Register, other media, and broadcast over “Our American Stories.” She’s a graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, and her essays have been collected by the Iowa Women’s Archives at the University of Iowa.

One of the recent reviews for the book

I always stick to reads that are of a true nature or are derived from true events. I have always read WW2 books based on these facts, as a whole or individuals, but I have never read a book based on true events derived from hand written letters to and from. This book and the heartfelt letters invites you in as part of their family. One of the particulars I loved about the book is how people wrote in those days, the slang if you want to call it that. This book reminds me of my mom who was raised during WW2 as a small child. The book is wonderful and heartbreaking as if you had actually received the letters yourself.

I was so saddened as I read through the book, as family members stopped receiving letters from one of ( and eventually three boys) sons, my heart sank as I read the telegrams from the war office. I felt so saddened by the effects of these letters and what could have been (and were) going through the minds of Clabe and Leora. I feel stuck in time wondering what might have been if those three sons might have made it home, what might have been going through their minds moments before their demise. I really loved this book and recommend to anyone who might enjoy history & WW2. Thank you so much Joy Neal Kidney & Robin Grunder, you have shared something that will never be forgotten.

Read the reviews and buy the book: Amazon US

And: Amazon UK

Connect to Joy

Website: Joy Neal Kidney
Facebook: Joy Neal Kidney Author
Twitter: @JoyNealKidney

My thanks to Joy for sharing this 100 year old story about her family that reminds us of this pandemic that rocked the world and devastated families. A time when there was not the medical knowledge or equipment we have today to save lives. Your feedback is always welcome.. thanks Sally.

42 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Posts from Your Archives #Family and #Friends – #History The Great Influenza Pandemic and Christmas 1919 by Joy Neal Kidney

  1. Pingback: The pandemic dominates our lives, and calls to mind my grandmother’s survival a century ago – Joy Neal Kidney

  2. A fascinating account. I’d read something quite recently about the Spanish flu having a greater impact on the fit, young population and this bears that out. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. What a story from Joy. It’s amazing to me what people endured and the incredible strength they had during a time of pandemic, and world war on top of that. We have so much more information now, and for many, greater resources, but the flu feels the same. Powerful share, Sally and Joy. Take care.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Its always so heart touching, reading about the past wars, and what happend beside. Most times no food and less help. Thank you for mentioning this, Sally! However, nowadays we are in a much more better situation. Michael

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Hi Joy and Sally, This was so relevant and fascinating.The Spanish Flu was certainly a terrifying disease – and shocking how it affected those young people in the prime of life. Toni x

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Wow. What a fascinating story. My mother in Switzerland was fourteen years old at the time and got sick with that flu. She barely survived, but she did survive, obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing this. In fact, she lived to be a wonderful 102 years! Stories such as these always remind me how precious life is and how we so often take it for granted, until something like pandemic or natural disaster happens. Thanks for sharing this Joy and Sally and stay safe all of you!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Weekly Round Up 26th April – 2nd May 2020 – Music, Hoisin Sauce, Humour, Books, Reviews, Health and Guests. | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

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