My name is Willie Sutton, and I have a story to tell. I was born in Hamburg, just down the road from here, in 1897. I was the oldest child of Jim and Annie Sutton. I spent my whole life in this area, but my whole life wasn't a very long one because I died in 1918 when I was twenty-one. What killed me was influenza, or what became known as the Spanish flu epidemic.
In the fall of 1918 the most deadly epidemic this world has ever known began rampaging from continent to continent, leaving at least fifty million of the world's 1.8 billion people dead in its wake, the majority of them dying in a six month period. This epidemic was the 1918 influenza outbreak. Although its most deadly work was done in and near the larger cities of the world, even rural communities like those around here would eventually be touched by its horror.
The 1918 influenza epidemic probably had its beginning in Kansas, but certainly was spread through American troop movements of World War I. The first accounts of the deaths came from military encampments throughout the United States, from which thousands of infected soldiers were shipped to the front in Europe, thereby ensuring the eventual spread of the disease to the rest of the world. Midwesterners had a great sense of dread as we learned about the wave of death that was headed our direction. Perhaps the hardest hit city in America was Philadelphia. All schools, churches, and other public places had been closed, and hundreds of shipyard workers were ill with the deadly flu. Bodies accumulated because gravediggers and undertakers were also being sickened and killed by the disease. A shortage of coffins soon resulted. Doctors and nurses died as they heroically tried to stop the onslaught.
Influenza roared into the town of St. Charles in October of 1917. On October 10, St. Charles closed all schools, churches, and other public gathering places. By October 16, 200 citizens were infected. The City Board of Health ordered a quarantine of all influenza cases. Public funerals and open caskets were banned. The county physician described precautions against influenza in the rural areas as “useless.” By the middle of October, Wentzville closed its schools. The village of Augusta temporarily closed its businesses. The epidemic worked quickly, and by early November health officials reported fewer new cases, although those already infected continued to die.
In fact, I was one of those who died in December. It took the flu just five days to kill me. I came down sick on December 21. On Christmas Day, Doc Belding from Howell came to the house to see what he could do, but I died on the day after Christmas. My illness had especially gruesome symptoms: “Flu victims, often young people, fell ill and died within days (sometimes hours) as they drowned on a frothy, bloody fluid that filled their lungs. The stricken suffered a general weakness usually comprised of sore muscles and aches in their heads and backs combined with fevers up to 105 degrees. They also endured respiratory distress, each breath a struggle, with their faces and limbs eventually turning gray then blue/purple from lack of oxygen.”
Mine isn't the only sad story, though. Everywhere in rural St. Charles County there were tragedies resulting from influenza. On October 31, Ben and Anna Griesenaur of Dardenne Township, died of influenza, leaving four children ranging in age from seven to three months. Mrs. George Price, who lived near Enterprise School with her husband and four children, was killed by influenza. In Callaway Township, fourteen year old Stella Betchel succumbed to the disease on November 2. Three weeks later her ten year old sister, Lucy, also died. Fred and Lizzie Muencher, also of Callaway Township, lost their premature baby on November 7 because Lizzie was ill with influenza; twelve days later the disease also took Lizzie. Three days before Christmas, twenty-six year old Rena Zollmann, married just ten months and the mother of a baby, died in New Melle. All told about seventy people from the southern half of the county were killed by the flu between October of 1918 and March of the next year. The previous year only two people the area had died from the flu.
Thomas Howell Cemetery Stories
These are stories collected for historic tours of cemeteries each year. A selection of stories from those buried in a particular cemetery are scripted to be read by the characters. The cemeteries so far are :
•Thomas Howell Cemetery •
Femme Osage UCC Cemetery in Femme Osage—up the hill above the church.