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“He’ll Come Home in a Box”: The Spanish Influenza of 1918 Comes to Montana

In 1918 and 1919, the Spanish influenza killed 550,000 people in the United States and 20 to 40 million worldwide. In a 1982 interview with Laurie Mercier, Loretta Jarussi of Bearcreek, Montana, described how people would pass through that tiny town seemingly healthy, only to be reported dead two days later. Her father went undiagnosed for many weeks and had plans to go to a nearby hot springs to rest. She believed that her father’s death was averted only because the son of the local doctor was an army doctor who recognized flu symptoms that others missed.

Listen to Audio:

Loretta Jarussi: People would come along, and young men, nineteen, twenty years old, they’d come along and take their [inaudible]. [Sister: They were hauling wheat to Columbus, you know, they were the war years.] And they’d stop and say hello to us. My mother was very friendly. She loved to see those people. She was kind of lonesome there, you know, just us kids and her. So when anybody passed by, she always stayed with them. And, you know, maybe a week later, they’d say so-and-so died, and they had been past our place. So many people had that flu, and young people, and they died.

And, you know, my father contracted that flu, and everybody in the family had it except my mother. And he was in and out of the hospital. He had a shoe shop in Columbus at that time, and he was in and out of the hospital, and he’d go to the hospital and they’d tell him, “There’s nothing wrong with you,” and he’d go. And then he’d come back to the hospital. He just didn’t feel right. He went through that for a number of times. And he finally decided he was going to go to Thermopolis to the springs. He thought going there would help him. And just before he was leaving, he went to the doctor. Dr. Gardner was the doctor at that time, his doctor. And he said, “Dr. Gardner, I’m going to try and go to the springs and see if that helps me.” And he said, “Well, Louie, it might help you.” So while he was there, Dr. Gardner’s son, who also was a doctor, happened to be in there, and he had been in the Army, an Army doctor, and was home on leave, I think. He said, “Dad, if you let that man go to the springs, he’ll come home in a box.” And he said, “Well, what would you suggest?” And he said, “I’ll tell you what we did in the Army,” and it seemed to work. They had a powerful medicine. I don’t know what it was. But he said, “We gave them doses of this medicine, and that seemed to help.”So he gave him this prescription and told him to get it filled, and he said, “Now it’s going to be pretty rough on you. You be sure to tell your wife to use a lot of blankets, wool blankets on you, and as you perspire, to change those blankets and keep you real warm.”

So dad went home and told mom, and mom said, “Okay. Let’s get things going.” And he took a dose of medicine, and it seemed to help a little bit. Then time for a second dose. That also seemed to help. Then he had the third dose, and at that time he thought he was going to die. And he called all the kids around the bed and said, “This is for you, and you’re supposed to do this, and this is yours,” and then he kind of went into—I don’t know—a sleep, a coma. [Sister: It wouldn’t be a coma.] A sleep, a deep sleep. And mama thought, she really did, he had died, but he came out of it, and he felt better. But it took two years to get over that.

Source: Oral history courtesy of Montana Historical Society.

See Also:"Please, Let Me Put Him in a Macaroni Box" The Spanish Influenza of 1918 in Philadelphia