Genealogists should be aware that a century ago this month a huge spike in Wyoming Valley deaths (no less than in deaths internationally) was getting under way. A massive outbreak of influenza, known then as the “Spanish flu,” was just beginning to ravage humanity.
Whatever you want to call it, a peculiarity of the 1918 flu was its outsize impact on younger and supposedly healthier people – the opposite of what you’d expect. So, don’t be surprised if you read that it was the young members of your ancestral families that suffered most.
Since the local epidemic received intensive press coverage, it’s easy to learn if your ancestors contracted it with fatal results. Since the public was vitally interested in the progress of the disease, newspaper obituaries of the time tended to make it clear that the deceased person was specifically a flu victim. Incidentally, many flu victims passed away at home rather than in a hospital.
It was not until year’s end that the disease began to wane.
Where do you go to see if your ancestors of a century ago were impacted? Back files of Wyoming Valley’s newspapers are readily available. The Osterhout Free Library has the Wilkes-Barre Record (a daily) and the Sunday Independent (a weekly) for 1918. The neighboring Luzerne County Historical Society (where you have to be a member or pay a $5 reading fee) has the Record plus dailies the Times Leader and the Evening News for 1918. The LCHS is open this month, a reversal of its previous policy of closing for February.
If you want to know who else was in the family at that time, or check on ages, both libraries have the Luzerne County U.S. Census for the key years of 1910 and 1920.
Before you travel anywhere, though, visit the institution’s website or Facebook page to make sure the microfilms you need are not temporarily sent away for digitizing. If you can’t make the trip, use the website and Facebook page for policies on distance research.
Of course, you can also contact the state vital records office in Scranton for death certificates.
Even apart from its death toll, the flu outbreak impacted the community in many ways. For a long time, the schools were closed and public gatherings, such as at movie houses and dance halls, were forbidden.
Genealogical Society News: The Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society research library is open Thursdays 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on the second Saturday of the month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It’s on the grounds of the Hanover Green Cemetery, Main Road, Hanover Township. In case of inclement weather, call 507-829-1765 for possible closure.
Genealogy Training: Family Search will offer some basic help to new genealogists with an online class Thursday. Entitled “The Research Process,” the webinar is set for Thursday at 3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (1 p.m. Mountain Standard, which Family Search uses). It’s listed as beginner level and is just one of many online training sessions offered by Family Search this month. Go to www.familysearch.org, create an account (it’s free) and look at the site map. Most of their online courses are recorded for later viewing if you wish.
News Notes: Congratulations to all who organized or otherwise took part in the host of presentations for Mining History Month in January. With coal mining once the dominant industry of Luzerne County, many genealogists have mining ancestors and can benefit from learning about the area’s anthracite mining past.
Tom Mooney is a Times Leader genealogy columnist. Reach him at [email protected]