Fort Benjamin Harrison was ‘ground zero’ for 1918 influenza outbreak in Indiana

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LAWRENCE, Ind.– Johnny Aitken was a forerunner in Indiana as the first driver to lead the pack around the first lap at the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911.

He was later among the first wave of Hoosiers to die of the so-called Spanish flu outbreak of 1918.

“Indiana lost over three thousand Hoosiers by the end of the pandemic, and because these were people who were in their prime, it also left us with over three thousand orphans,” said Jill Weiss Simmons, staff historian at the Indiana Historical Bureau.

That the flu struck the young and healthy in the fading summer of 1918 and the last few months of the Great War was evidenced by the Indiana ground zero of the outbreak at Fort Benjamin Harrison, nine miles from downtown Indianapolis in northeast Marion County.

“There was one training detachment at the Indiana School for the Deaf, so it hit them at the same time, but Fort Ben was both the largest and the most affected,” said Weiss Simmons. “Fort Ben had been converted from a training facility to a hospital just a month previously in the summer by the War Department and the goal at Fort Ben was to prepare 300 beds to receive Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio’s soldiers from the front who either were injured or suffering from what they then called “shell shock” but they started to get sick, the men who were stationed there to prepare to begin to receive these casualties, began to get sick in September and we saw our first casualties in early October there.”

For the first time in the nation’s history, millions of Americans were crowded into military barracks with soldiers from all across the country, giving the virus a fertile breeding ground that was then spread as men shipped out to fight the Great War in Europe and eventually return home.

Indianapolis newspaper accounts report 24 deaths at Fort Ben by Oct. 11 and 28 deaths in the rest of the city a week later before the surge began to ebb.

Quarantines, school and business shut downs, the posting of influenza warning signs on the homes of the infected and stay-at-home warnings contributed to an Indiana impact that was more modest per capita than many other states caught up in the pandemic death wave.

“Our response as Hoosiers was to come together,” said Weiss Simmons. “We saw nurses coming out of grad school going into infected areas like Fort Benjamin Harrison, we saw people signing up to help the Red Cross, we saw business owners, despite personal loss, closing their businesses.

“Our city officials and state officials worked together almost seamlessly. There wasn’t infighting or politicking that we saw in some of the other states so we had one of the lowest deaths tolls in the United States.”

The end of the pandemic coincided with the end of the Great War on November 11, 1918, and Weiss Simmons said that may have been one reason why the influenza outbreak, which actually caught Indiana in its second wave, came back for a third act before the end of the year.

“Fort Ben was a couple weeks ahead, so, in some ways, people in Indianapolis could look there for what we’re now calling ‘The Curve’, it peaks in Fort Ben before it peaks in Indianapolis, and when it started to ease up at the end of the month at Fort Ben, then city officials in Indianapolis start planning to reopen, which is where I think we can draw a few lessons from them to today was that they did start reopening at the end of October which was too soon, so we saw another wave in November which is certainly in part because the war ended and people wanted to go out and celebrate and have parades but also because some of those quarantine measures were lifted a little too soon.”

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