Aug 312011

Well, I regret to report that Verne and Elaine’s garage has been searched and there are no letters there. So there is a gap from late Jan. 1918 to the end of May 1918. I’m afraid we will never know what happened with the villainous “Dr. Hillman.” I suspect Verne figured out that he was a con man. I would like to think so anyway.

In late May 1918, Verne was working for the Associated Press in L.A. receiving stories by telegraphy. He had just acquired an Underwood typewriter which he refers to as a “mill.” It’s not clear if he was able to receive telegraphy and type it out at the same time yet. He was working on being able to do it, but obviously having just one hand had become difficult again.

He mentions that he would receive the news on “the ponies” every afternoon, news from the races, as part of his work. He certainly wasn’t betting on them, although he complains about the very low wages in L.A., so perhaps he was tempted a little.

(I probably misinterpreted was Verne was saying – he actually said “reading the pony.” I think from later letters that this was some particular newsfeed, perhaps the main AP newsfeed – “reading the pony” may be a reference back to the earliest days of the AP in 1846 when news was delivered by pony express to an outer station of the telegraph network. I can’t find the phrase on Google so it may have disappeared into the mists of history.)

He says that L.A. was full of people willing to work for low wages just to stay in the area. He is still not so impressed, but he is enjoying going to the beach some.

He was still attending the MacKay Business College some, but not finding it very useful.

Measles was going around – his roommate had it and V. stayed elsewhere until he was better. He himself had just gotten over the “grippe” (influenza.) The great influenza pandemic of 1918 had appeared first in the U.S. in Kansas earlier in the year and had spread widely among the troops there in March. By late March it had reached New York and had probably reached L.A. Verne almost certainly had a mild case of the deadly H1N1 in late May, 1918.

I’ll see what I can dig up…

This turned out to be easy. I love Wikipedia (but I hate it too, because it makes everyone else just as smart as me or smarter, for whatever that is worth.)

The 1918 pandemic flu came in at least 3 waves. The first wave in the spring of 1918 was about as virulent as a usual flu season, but it provided some immunity to the strain in the deadly second wave that started in August, 1918. Verne didn’t know it, but that little touch of “the grippe” in May 1918 may well have saved his life.

1918 Influenza Pandemic

The really deadly wave came during the fall of 1918, and some have hypothesized that it may have helped end the war by affecting the Germans even more severely than the Allies. The epidemic became known as the “Spanish flu,” not because it began in Spain (it didn’t) but because, being neutral, Spain did not have media censorship and it was thus easier to follow what was going on there by reading newspapers.

Well, it gets more interesting. At the end of Aug. 1918, Verne got the “grippe” again, and said it was the worst he had had since arriving in Calif.; it only kept him in bed for 2 days, but he was very weak when he went back to work. This was the deadly strain no doubt and he got off lightly because he had already had the milder strain of the first wave. This was the deadliest epidemic in human history and they had no idea what was happening. It was just another bout with “the grippe” at this point.

He quit his job with the AP because he was so weak that he couldn’t work, but got on immediately after recovering with the Salt Lake Route Railroad at their dispatch office. The railroads were being controlled by the government because of the war, so the new job meant working 12 hr. days, but he liked the job.

In late Oct. Verne had what he believed to be a mild case of influenza. By that point he is calling it influenza, rather than the grippe. Churches, theaters, schools and other public gathering places were closed to slow the spread of the disease, so everyone was aware of it at this point.

In a short letter on Sat. Dec. 21, 1918 he says that he had had the flu again and this time he had had a fever of 106 and been down for 2 weeks, quarantined in the house with a nurse. He says he had his doubts about whether he would survive. He expected to be released from quarantine the next day. “You can bet your life that the flu is no Joke. I was never very sick before, but this time I am weaker than a cat. I can hardly walk now, but I hope that I will be stronger next week.”

He wrote another letter on Mon. Dec. 23 from the offices of an E. Shelby Smith, Investments. Mr. Smith was evidently a friend. V. says he still has trouble standing up for very long, but there was a typewriter (a “mill”) available in the office and he took advantage of it to write a one page Xmas letter while he was waiting for Mr. Smith. He says he had a terrible case of cabin fever, being kept in one room on the north side of the house where there was no direct sunlight, with a nurse who only disturbed his sleep to give him medicine (which was no doubt worthless.)
Aside: I had a case of the flu myself in Dec. 1976 that was a similar experience. I was down for 2 weeks, starting with a high fever and getting so weak that I crawled to the kitchen to get a drink (I had no nurse or roommate, only a girlfriend who was busy with grad school finals) and a third week where I could hardly stand up. At one point I really thought I might die.

I made the mistake of telling my girlfriend this. Then, Xmas vacation came and I left San Antonio for Ft. Worth, still weak. The day after Xmas I felt fine and left on a ski trip to Colorado, forgetting to call my girlfriend. I had had a good day skiing before she found out that I wasn’t incommunicado because I was dead. It wasn’t pretty. Good thing she had a week to cool off before I saw her again. There was one benefit. I didn’t have a single respiratory infection for 20 years afterward.
The people who died in 1918-1919 died because of viral pneumonia and in some cases secondary bacterial pneumonia. Influenza pneumonia is so serious that my 70′s era internal medicine text says flatly that it is invariably fatal – perhaps not quite true, but probably close. Some people bled from their mucus membranes, gastrointestinal tracts, ears or into the skin. It was a terrible virus that was more deadly for healthy young adults than for all but the very oldest or the very youngest. Verne almost certainly survived only because he had built up immunity in at least two previous bouts in 1918.

Concluding scientific postscript:

A friend of mine pointed out to me a couple of years ago that we owe a good bit of what we now know about this virus to a guy named Johan Hultin, a pathologist who came out of retirement to go to Alaska and dig up a body of a flu victim that had been buried in permafrost during the epidemic.

Hultin had tried to revive the virus in 1951 by digging up bodies in Brevig Mission, Alaska (where 72 out of 80 people had died of the flu in 1918), but, possibly luckily for everyone, he failed. He read in Science in 1997 that attempts were being made to find remnants of the viral RNA for sequencing. He volunteered to go back to Brevig and found a body which contained plenty of RNA for sequencing. Thus we know exactly what the virus was that killed so many (3-6% of the world’s population at the time.)

Preston G.

Retired biochemist. One of 16 grandchildren of Verne Garrison and Dorothy Logan Garrison.

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