The Influenza Epidemic in South Dakota, from Suffragists’ Letters

As I’ve been reviewing scanned correspondence about the November 1918 election and its results in the University of South Dakota’s Mamie Shields Pyle Collection, a number of suffragists around the state reported to the South Dakota Universal Franchise League president Pyle about the status of the influenza epidemic in their communities — the work they had been doing in nursing or how the flu put up obstacles to suffrage work. The epidemic hit in the weeks before the election, ruining final campaign plans, and it continued in the time afterwards when the S.D.U.F.L. hoped to raise money to cover their $3,000-4,000 of remaining debts after the campaign.

[September 7, 2019: I’ll post for now and add to this as I find more… I’ve read through correspondence scans from November 1st to 10th, 1918.]

Notes from the collection:

In her letters, Pyle expected that the general voting numbers would be low because of the influenza epidemic. In Huron, there had been “a great many deaths in the last few days” and the emergency hospital was moved from the parish house to the Elks Hall. There were forty-three patients, five of which had come in the previous night [Pyle to McMahon, November 5, 1918, RA11691-RA11693, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 1-7, Pyle Papers USD]. Pyle wrote that her daughter Gladys, a teacher, had been doing nursing work at the emergency hospital since the school term was delayed from opening because of the epidemic. She wrote that her daughter looked “worn” with the work but believed to be safe because of the hospital’s precautions [Pyle to Rewman, November 2, 1918, RA11638, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 1-7, Pyle Papers USD]. In December, “some of the towns have had to close up again” and Gladys’ school closed and was turned into a hospital [Pyle to McMahon, December 17, 1918, RA12053, Pyle to Lewis, December 20, 1918, RA12059, and Pyle to Stevens, December 27, 1918, RA12071-RA12073, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, December, Pyle Papers USD].

Pyle writing to a national organizer in NYC: “but just when we had plans developed for a renewed and revised campaign, along comes the influenza and cuts off all possibility of public speaking and even of meetings in the open air. So many homes have been touched in each locality, if not with the actual disease, with the dreadful fear which seems to be worse, that we have not been able to work with the individual voter…. We are very much afflicted with the influenza and it is believed by all that the vote will be very light. Here at Huron, people are much depressed over the fact that we have lost, in the last three days, several of our business men. This morning, our City Auditor passed away.” [Pyle to Wilson, November 5, 1918, RA11694-RA11695, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 1-7, Pyle Papers USD].

After the successful election, Pyle wanted to plan a state meeting to determine how to reorganize the S.D.U.F.L. into what would become the League of Women Voters “although nothing can be accomplished until after this scare is wiped out and people feel there is no danger of being sick” [Pyle to Ghrist, November 9, 1918, RA11777, and Pyle to Hipple, November 11, 1918, RA11787, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 8-14, Pyle Papers USD].

In December, Pyle wrote to many that her correspondence was delayed because she was struggling through moving her office to her home (to save money) as well as having a close neighbor ill with the flu and then passing away [Pyle to Wanzer, December 20, 1918, RA12062, and Pyle to Flahart, December 27, 1918, RA11811, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, December, Pyle Papers USD].

Other letters of Pyle’s that mention the epidemic [Pyle to Bower, November 2, 1918, RA11632, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 1-7; and Pyle to Catt, November 9, 1918, RA11776, and Pyle to Larson, November 12, 1918, RA11804, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 8-14; and Pyle to Stadie, December 20, 1918, RA12061, and Pyle to Thorp, December 27, 1918, RA12075, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, December, Pyle Papers USD, Pyle Papers USD].

Mary Bird wrote to Pyle that “influenza has struck Clear Lake very hard” [Bird to Pyle, November 1, 1918, RA11615, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 1-7, Pyle Papers USD].

Emma Byrne wrote from Faulkton that “we have had no response from the county to our appeals for money, I have not been surprised at this as the ‘flu’ is the only topic of interest, but she will work on it when the quarantine lifts. Writing on November 7th, she had worked the ten previous days at the local hospital, “which has been turned into a Flu Hospital, it has seemed much of the time like going into the Lion’s den” [Byrne to Pyle, November 1, 1918, RA11618, and Byrne to Pyle, November 7, 1918, RA11722, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 1-7, Pyle Papers USD].

Mabel Rewman from Deadwood wrote to Pyle: “I just don’t see how so many things could have happened to make it so hard during the last few months.” Deadwood had financed circulization work because of influenza at Lead, where emergency hospitals were set up in the Episcopal rectory and in the large Homestake Recreation building where “bed after bed after bed were ranged along in rows, and the place full of Red Cross nurses, and volunteer help.”  “Yesterday we billed the roads between Lead and here and also between here and Central, and I am doing my utmost to make up for what Lead cannot at this time.” After the election, Rewman reported that the total vote was much “lighter” in Deadwood and Lead because of the flu and the war. She planned to hold meetings in Spearfish and Belle Fourche to help raise money when the “flu epidemic dies down” [Rewman to Pyle, November 1, 1918, RA11629, Rewman to Pyle, November 7, 1918, RA11737, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 1-7, Pyle Papers USD]. In December, Rewman reported that the flu was still a problem in Lead. Some suffragists tried meeting at a member’s home and “the health officer appeared on the scene and scattered them.” She tried to assure Pyle that she would work to raise the balance of their county’s apportionment after the epidemic, “so that when you come up on the porch of any one they don’t first ask if you have had the flu.” She had just sent hospital beds and mattresses to Nisland and Newell “and they are all scared to death” [Rewman to Pyle, December 7, 1918, RA12038, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, December, Pyle Papers USD].

National organizer Ida Stadie reported from Hutchinson County that the flu was bad there — “One of our recent converts died… Many others who are favorable are ill.  I know we will lose a great many voters for that reason alone” [Stadie to Pyle, November 3, 1918, RA11654-RA11655, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 1-7, Pyle Papers USD].

Mrs. E.P. Wanzer reported from Armour that Douglas County was quarantined and no meetings of any kind were allowed [Wanzer to Pyle, November 4, 1918, RA11679, and November 7, 1918, RA11740, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 1-7, Pyle Papers USD]. By December, she wrote that “our town is having a great many cases at the present time, but all in a mild form and I am pleased to note that your city has greatly improved in health conditions” [Wanzer to Pyle, December 12, 1918, RA12046, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, December, Pyle Papers USD].

May Ghrist, state vice-president of Miller SD, reported to Pyle that “No congregating is allowed any where… a perfect plague of the flue[sic], and of course any one who isn’t sick is afraid.  There have been several deaths in the county, only one or two in Miller.  They have turned the city hall into a hospital and it is full.”  She wrote that she’d set a bad example and hadn’t left the house for a week, though she and Mrs. Waters had put up posters a week ago in town and distributed others to folks in the county for posting [Ghrist to Pyle, November 5, 1918, RA11682-RA11683, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 1-7, Pyle Papers USD].

In the fall of 1918, Pyle had disagreements with three young women working as organizers for the National American Woman Suffrage Association that disrupted the state campaign plan. Writing in reply to Pyle about the issues, Carrie Chapman Catt wrote: “I presume they were tired; I presume they were oppressed; I presume they were more or less frightened over the Influenza and therefore sensitive” [Catt to Pyle, November 4, 1918, RA11656, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 1-7, Pyle Papers USD].

Grace R. Porter from Fort Pierre assured Pyle that they would raise their share of funds after the epidemic. Community donations had been directed to the Red Cross primarily, but she felt their resources were sufficient that other organizations could expect to be able to again raise funds for other things [Porter to Pyle, November 6, 1918, RA11713-RA11714, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 1-7, Pyle Papers USD].

The letter from Mrs. L.M. Hardin of Flandreau included “the epidemic struck us pretty hard at this place” [Hardin to Pyle, November 7, 1918, RA11724-RA11725, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 1-7, Pyle Papers USD].

Lydia B. Johnson of Fort Pierre reported doing a lot of last-minute campaigning in the county alone because other women in the area were occupied with nursing the sick, and meetings were forbidden — “I am not nursing, so I made my time count for the amendment.  I have sent out every scrap of literature you sent us.” She hoped that Pyle would be able to organize a state convention to celebrate their victory after the epidemic [Johnson to Pyle, November 5, 1918, RA11684 and Johnson to Pyle, November 7, 1918, RA11730, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 1-7, and Pyle to Johnson, November 8, 1918, RA11755, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 8-14, Pyle Papers USD ].

Mrs. G.A. Larson from Lemmon reported that influenza was a hardship to fundraising [Larson to Pyle, November 7, 1918, RA11731, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 1-7, Pyle Papers USD].

Mrs. O.J. Hill in DeSmet reported to Pyle that the campaign work of Mrs. Bryan in Iroquois was handicapped by the flu [Hill to Pyle, November 8, 1918, RA11745, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 8-14, Pyle Papers USD].

Alice A. Tollefson in Elk Point hoped to be able to raise donations to cover their county committee’s remaining debts of $26 for printing expenses after the influenza ban was lifted, but expected little surplus money to send to the state organization [Tollefson to Pyle, November 8, 1918, RA11765, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 8-14, Pyle Papers USD].

Alice Lorraine Daly in Madison reported working in the Red Cross emergency hospital for three weeks and that the State Normal School’s (where she was on the faculty) girls’ dormitory was turned into a hospital [Daly to Pyle, November 9, 1918, RA11771, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, November 8-14, Pyle Papers USD].

Influenza spoiled plans for holding a celebration jubilee [Pyle to Waters, December 4, 1918, RA12018, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, December, Pyle Papers USD].

Louise Winter of Parkston reported that the county committee had held no meetings recently because of “sickness” [Winter to Pyle, December 4, 1918, RA12022, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, December, Pyle Papers USD].

Nettie L. Berry from Tyndall reported that “the flu is so bad here again that it is quite impossible to do anything” [Berry to Pyle, December 7, 1918, RA12035, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, December, Pyle Papers USD].

Fanny F. Millett wrote to Pyle that the suffrage club at Stanley County was still organized and “as soon as the flu is over we will collect some funds” [Millett to Pyle, December 8, 1918, RA12040, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, December, Pyle Papers USD].

Mrs. L.W. Robinson of Parker reported that “altho there are still several cases of ‘flu’ and some quite serious, the ban has been lifted and free intercourse allowed” so they had started to work on fundraising. However, a previous collection had been held by their treasurer Mrs. Hansen who had been an influenza victim, and her widower could not find the money [Pyle, December 9, 1918, RA12043, Box 4, Correspondence, 1918, December, Pyle Papers USD].

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