Often called "the forgotten pandemic", the Spanish flu swept the world from August 1918 to March 1919.
It made its way to Minnesota and North Dakota, hitting Fargo-Moorhead in early October of 1918.
"And very, very quickly the first case showed up on the fourth of October," said Mark Piehl, Archivist for the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. "Five days later there were 50 cases in Dilworth, 350 in Moorhead, 2,000 cases in Fargo ... it just exploded in the community."
The outbreak eventually got so bad emergency hospitals were set up at Gethsemane Cathedral in Fargo and Trinity Lutheran in Moorhead.
In Rollag, Minn., Jens Larson mourned the loss of two children, Clarence and Anna. Pictures of their funeral are now part of the Historical and Cultural Society's archive on the Spanish flu pandemic in Clay County.
"We have a photograph of the funeral with both caskets out there and Mrs. Larson sitting in between," Piehl said. "A few months later, Mrs. Larson died from the flu."
Weeks after the Spanish flu hit Fargo-Moorhead, the towns of Ulen, Hitterdal, and Barnesville would also suffer great losses.
"Northeast Clay County was hit really hard, and then in January of 1919, Hawley was hit hard. Only 450 people (lived) there and 23 died in November and shortly thereafter," Piehl said.
The Clay County Historical and Cultural Society tells the story in its "War, Flu and Fear" exhibit — a look at a crisis where nurses and doctors were in short supply.
"They were quickly overwhelmed; hospitals could not keep up," Piehl said. "Doctors and nurses were getting sick; by the eighth of October, 11 or 14 nurses at St. Luke's got the flu."
Like the coronavirus today, over a century ago, the Spanish flu also sparked an outbreak of confusion and fear. There were those who capitalized on the tragedy, selling "magic" cures.
In one case, a rumor that lemons and onions cured the Spanish flu spread in the newspaper.
"The story ran in The Fargo Forum and the next day there was a rush on lemons and onions and you could hardly buy them," Piehl explained.
The Forum also reported in 1918 that four men arrested for public drunkenness said they drank as much as they could to get immunity from the flu. For the record, drinking alcohol has the opposite effect.
In the end, the Spanish flu killed anywhere between 1,378 and 5,000 people in North Dakota and more than 7,000 In Minnesota. While there's hope that fewer will be killed by the coronavirus, it's important for the public to remain calm and vigilant as both sickness and misinformation spread.
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