Ohio’s Camp Sherman & The Spanish Flu

With all the talk about the Coronavirus, I couldn’t help but think about the world’s greatest pandemic, the 1918 H1N1 Spanish Flu outbreak. The flu pandemic struck close to home in that the World War One military post at Camp Sherman outside Chillicothe was hard struck by the flue. I did some Googling and found this brief but informative article from the National Park Service’s website. I might add that of the many building used as makeshift morgues and hospitals a woolen mill on Barrett’s Mill Rd., outside Rainsboro was used as a hospital to treat victims of the pandemic.

“While the allies battled an enemy in the fields and trenches of Europe in 1918, the entire world would have to engage and fight a seemingly invisible enemy that wasn’t isolated to war combatants on the field of battle. The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918 would tally a greater mortality rate than that of all who were killed during combat in WWI. No one is quite sure where exactly the Influenza originated, but once it began to spread there was no hiding from this silent and deadly disease. Over 20 million people, almost 5% of the world population, died as this disease spread with ruthless efficiency. 43,000 U.S. soldiers, around half of those who died in Europe during the war, were killed by the influenza virus and not by a mortal enemy in combat. In the U.S. alone, over a quarter of the population would become infected and nearly 700,000 would die as a result of the disease. Conditions around the globe would mimic that of the Black Death Bubonic Plague in the 14th century. However, this strain of influenza would kill more people in one year than what the Bubonic Plague did in four total years.

A Global Killer comes Home

A group of female Red Cross ambulance attendants in St. Louis, MO. holding stretchers, awaiting influenza patients. c.1918

In Chillicothe and at Camp Sherman, the disease spread just as quickly as it did everywhere else. Thousands of residents and soldiers were infected in a very short time. Approximately 5,686 cases of influenza were documented among Camp Sherman soldiers in 1918. 1,777 of them were unable to ward off the disease and died. Statewide in Ohio, hundreds of thousands of people became infected and tens of thousands died. During one week alone in the fall of 1918, 1,541 people were confirmed to have died throughout the state.

With the high mortality rate at Camp Sherman, The Majestic Theater on 2nd Street in Chillicothe became a temporary morgue. Bodies would be “stacked like cordwood” at the theater while it was operated as a morgue. Body fluids that were drained during the embalming process ran off into the alley next to the theater giving it the dubious nickname of “Blood Alley.” Once victims’ bodies completed the embalming process, they would be transported by wagon back to the camp so they could be sent back to their hometowns by railway. As these wagons made their way through Chillicothe, funeral hymns were played to reflect the somber mood. As with all public places in the U.S., meeting places, bars and theaters were closed to try to prevent further spread of the disease. All personnel at Camp Sherman were quarantined from Chillicothe as well.

By summer of 1919, the pandemic would come to an end as the influenza ran its course and the world’s population built up an immunity towards it. This was a pandemic that the world had never seen the likes of before and hasn’t seen the likes since. While other strains of influenza have popped up through the years since 1919, the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918 remains the most devastating and deadliest disease that the world has ever seen.”

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