Across the country, newspapers that weren’t ignoring the pandemic as part of President Woodrow Wilson’s World War I propaganda machine listed the sick and dead the way cable news tickers today roll across TV screens reporting the latest count of coronavirus infections and deaths.
Only the tickers of yesteryear -- this was before privacy laws were a thing, protecting the identities of those stricken with covid-19 -- named names.
A lot of names. In some cases, hundreds of names a day. Farmers, their families, the local postal carrier. To read these lists now is to experience a long ago pandemic in near real-time -- a news feed of human misery, right down to street corners.
In Chambergsburg, Pa.:
In Keytesville, Mo.,:
The lists of sick and dead appeared alongside mundane news that local newspapers chronicled back then.
Ferrell’s death was reported a few paragraphs below this: “Airplanes are frequently seen going over the county at high altitudes.” And above this: “Nearly all farms in the county have been posted against hunters. Stock has been peppered by juvenile nimrods until no more shooting will be allowed, even by hunters who know what a gun may do if monkeyed with.”
The lists served several purposes. For one, they fed the hunger for local gossip. Also, they let people know who to steer clear from. And if you needed to know why your mail wasn’t coming, updates like this helped:
But there was also profit to be had. The lists often appeared alongside advertisements for quack remedies, such as this one:
Eventually, the lists of the sick and dead grew so long that it felt -- even to headline writers -- that the Spanish flu was swallowing the country.
As for Mr. Homer McAmis, here’s some much needed good news: Census and other records indicate that he recovered.
Read more Retropolis: