While thousands of men were being killed on the battlefields of Europe in the fall of 1918, many more men, women, and children were being killed worldwide; not by combat, but by something invisible to the naked eye. The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 spread across the far reaches of the world, infecting 20 to 40 percent of the world’s population, and killing over 20 million. Approximately 500,000 deaths occurred in the United States in less than a year. Although the origin of the epidemic is unknown, the first cases reported in the United States came from an Army base in Kansas in March 1918. It took six months to spread to Pennsylvania, beginning in Philadelphia and reaching western Pennsylvania by the end of September.
On September 23, Dr. Phillip E. Marks, director of the Bureau of Infectious Diseases in Pittsburgh, seemed to shrug off the seriousness of the outbreak, believing it was nothing more than “old fashioned Gripe” (the common name for influenza at time). “If persons will take care to sneeze into their handkerchiefs, there will be no danger of the germs spreading,” Dr. Marks said. The danger, however, became quite clear by the beginning of October. By this time, the epidemic had enveloped Pennsylvania. On October 5, Dr. W. L. Steen, Pennsylvania State Commissioner of Health, ordered all public places of entertainment to close and prohibited all public gatherings. Two days later, the Butler Eagle reported 139 new cases of influenza, bringing the total number of reported cases to over 1,100.
Already shorthanded by the war in Europe, influenza further weakened the medical personnel in Butler County, sickening nine nurses and a number of staff, and hampering their efforts to combat the disease effectively. The Pennsylvania Department of Health sent a doctor and three nurses to the city to supplement the small number of hospital staff. Meanwhile, the hospital neared full capacity. The city health board considered requisitioning a hotel in the city as a temporary hospital. The Department of Health sent tents to Butler so patients could receive open-air treatment, which seemed to improve patients’ health. By mid-October, however, the Butler City Health Board reported 3,000 cases since the crisis began only a few weeks before.
Butler County’s Red Cross chapter contributed money and resources to help combat the epidemic. They published articles in the Butler Eagle with information on prevention and treatment, as well as advertisements requesting volunteer nurses. Two local women, Clara Beach and Helen Campbell, worked with the city’s health board to recruit volunteers through a countywide telephone campaign, calling over 400 Butler County residents and recruiting 31 volunteers by the end of the first week.
On October 21, the New Castle News in neighboring Lawrence County reported that conditions in Butler County were worst among the “foreign population.” Around this time, influenza struck down an unidentified number of recent immigrants to Butler County, likely originating from Eastern Europe and with no immediate family to care for them. Their employers, local industries from the Saxonburg area, buried the victims in a mass grave in Winfield Township. Father O’Callahan from St. John Parish in Coylesville, performed the Catholic Burial rites and commissioned a wooden cross, made of railroad ties, for the site. Elsewhere in the county, influenza continued to sicken communities, but the number of new cases began to decline sharply.
By the beginning of November, the total number of cases reported in Butler County since the outbreak began exceeded 7,000. However, the number of active cases statewide had fallen so dramatically that the Department of Health lifted the month-long ban on public gatherings. The crisis, it seemed, had abated. The influenza outbreak in Butler County lasted only a month, but nearly a quarter of the population contracted the disease and several hundred died.
The epidemic faded from public memory almost as quickly as the disease itself vanished. The deaths of servicemen in the Great War received far more press attention than deaths caused by influenza. Furthermore, on November 11, 1918, fighting ended in Europe, overshadowing the end of the epidemic in western Pennsylvania. The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 became the “forgotten epidemic” until similar outbreaks of various flu strains in recent history brought the 1918 epidemic back into public consciousness.
In 2002, the Saxonburg chapter of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) spearheaded a campaign, let by Doris Herceg and Drenda Gostkowski, to designate the mass grave of influenza victims in Winfield Township as a historic site. In a ceremony at the site, Father Valerian M. Michlik and Janet Pazzynski of St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh performed a Greek Catholic Service, respective of the victim’s Eastern European origins. A granite cross was erected at the site to replace the original wooden cross, and a historic roadside marker was placed adjacent to the site.