The 1918 influenza pandemic tore apart this small Pennsylvania family

When influenza swept through America in the autumn of 1918, it trailed misery and grief. More than 100,000 Americans died in October 1918 alone. Even those lucky enough to survive the pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, did not escape the impacts. Families were torn apart by the scourge of disease. In Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County, officials counted 3,000 orphans created by the epidemic.

It’s one thing to look at those immense numbers, as shocking as they are, but it is another to see the pandemic up close. I experienced this recently while writing last week’s post about the end of World War I in Williams Valley. In the column next to the announcement of celebration and excitement, I found a sober, simple note to the managers of Tower City’s emergency hospital. It was published in the West Schuylkill Herald on November 15, 1918.


Card of Thanks

I take this method of thanking the many kind friends for the assistance rendered during my late bereavement caused through the illness of my beloved wife and two children.

I also wish to thank the management and employees of the Emergency hospital for their help.

Arthur P. Hensel

I was crushed by this note.

But I also wanted to know more about Arthur P. Hensel and how influenza destroyed his family. His wife and two children were among the 115 from Tower City and the surrounding area who died during the autumn epidemic.

Arthur P. Hensel was a well-known barber in Tower City. Levina “Eva” White was 16 year old student from Sheridan. They married in the summer of 1906 and began their lives together in the mining town on the western border of Schuylkill County.

By the autumn of 1918, their family had grown to include four children, with a fifth child on the way. The couple had already lost one child, Roy, from heart failure in 1910. The boy was six months old.

The family lived near Eva’s home in Sheridan, a small community on the western edge of Tower City, directly below the sprawling West Brookside Colliery, where hundreds of tons of anthracite coal were processed daily. TowerCityBirdseye

Influenza swept into Tower City in early October 1918, following a Liberty Loan parade through Williams Valley. Within a week, an emergency hospital was established at the center of Tower City, in “Palace Hall.” The dance hall and event space was cleaned and put to use as a makeshift hospital for the hundreds of people who fell suddenly and desperately ill with the flu and resulting pneumonia.

Eva fell ill with influenza on October 18 and was rushed to the emergency hospital. She and her unborn child died five days later on October 23, 1918.

But influenza was not yet done with the Hensel family. On November 3, 1918, Fay Eva Hensel passed away from complications related to influenza. She was two years old. Death had taken three of the Hensel family and left Arthur to care for his shattered family.

He penned his brief “card of thanks” to the volunteers at the hospital on November 15. He wasn’t the only to do this.

Maud Miller authored a brief note in the November 8 edition of the West Schuylkill Herald, writing: “I take this method of thanking our many friends for the assistance rendered us and the many expressions of sympathy during our late bereavement caused through the illness and subsequent death of my beloved husband, Robert Miller.”

The Hensel family carried on after the horrors of 1918 and gradually, normalcy returned, just as it did for the millions of Americans impacted by influenza in 1918-1919.

It can be overwhelming when trying to tabulate and document the Spanish Influenza pandemic that ravaged the world as World War I came to a conclusion. So many people perished that it makes it difficult to see the individual grief and loss experienced by those living and dying a century ago.

Influenza 1918
Nurses demonstrate carrying a patient during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic (Library of Congress)

By getting up close and seeing the pandemic through the eyes of one family, like the Hensels, the devastation of humanity’s deadliest disease outbreak becomes horribly apparent.

Featured Image: Girl stands with her sister in October 1918 during the influenza pandemic. (Library of Congress)

4 thoughts on “The 1918 influenza pandemic tore apart this small Pennsylvania family

  1. Hi

    My name is Tony Catanese and I come from Edithvale, an outer suburb of Melbourne, Australia. I signed up to your site a few months ago as I have been trying to research the death of my grandparents, two great uncles and a great aunt within 5 days in the township of Barnesboro, Pennsylvania. It left five children orphaned including my dad, 4years 4months and my Uncle, 2years6months orphaned within 48 hours. It happened between 17-19 October 1918. Like your post, the true horror of the situation is only felt when you look into what happened to specific families.

    I was hoping to get your assistance in trying to find out what happened after the deaths to orphans. From some of the children born to the orphans in later life I have pieced together some of the story. It is very difficult because local historical societies have very little information. I have come across articles that describe it as the forgotten flu epidemic. Even when one looks at a recent publication on the history of Barnesboro, it is not listed as a significant event over the past century. The story I have is that the authorities took orphans away from extended family after their parents died. Then, after some period, they were returned to the extended family who made arrangements.

    The local historical society believes there is so little information because it was considered unpatriotic to talk about the flu. Being during the war. Are you aware that the only reason it was called the Spanish Flu was because of Spain’s free press at the time. It has been subsequently asserted that the flu had actually started in an army camp in Kansas and spread through Europe as survivors went to the war front. It spread through Europe and was only made public when it reached Spain.

    Hoping you may be able to give some advice on how to access accurate information on how orphans were dealt with.


    AA(Tony) Catanese


  2. Thank you for your thoughtful research into the pandemic. I am the granddaughter of one of the thousands of children that were orphaned. Mary Jane Frantz. Her mother and father died in Minersville PA in 1918. I think it is a miracle that anyone survived, and as a result I am alive today. Again, thank you for your research and blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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