Grave matters: Victims of 1918 flu pandemic

WATERTOWN TWP.-The current flu season is off to an early start, and widespread cases of hospitalizations and even flu-related deaths have been a source of growing concern. However, even this year’s flu numbers can’t compare with the influenza pandemic that struck the nation in 1918.

In Watertown Township, Robert Schwendeman, 75, remembers his father telling the story of the Oliver family, who lost three children to the pandemic and buried those children in the back corner of the family farm.

“I can’t remember their first names,” said Schwendeman. “I only remember coming out here and seeing two big, old field stones.”

According to census records, Joseph and Alice Oliver were the only Olivers in the area at the time. The farm is situated off Waterford Road.

Schwendeman was told by a later owner of the property that the Olivers had originally marked the plot with six stones, three head and three foot stones.

Nearly a century later, none of the stones remain. However, bordered on two sides by fences, the small triangle of land where the stones once rested is the only spot of land for acres that has been untouched by a tractor.

“It’s never been farmed. You can see there where the tractor just goes around it,” Schwendeman pointed out.

It is not certain why the Olivers would have buried their children on the family farm, rather than in a nearby cemetery.

“By then, that was more of a throwback practice,” said local historian Scott Britton.

Joseph and Alice are both listed as buried in the Beverly Cemetery in Waterford Township.

However, it is possible that the Olivers, like many at the time, were overwhelmed by the sudden veracity of the epidemic.

In fact, Ohio was so overwhelmed by the illness that state officials were a month late in complying with a demand from the Public Health Service that all states compile a report of the flu’s effects.

The October 1918 report said Ohio was currently experiencing 125,000 cases of the flu. It also reported that the flu had contributed to 1,541 deaths in Ohio in a single week that month.

Washington County and Marietta were not spared. Combined city and county records showed that flu, pneumonia, and emphysema were listed as the cause of death for 87 county residents in 1918, nearly three times as many as the previous year.

The 52 influenza-related deaths inside the city of Marietta accounted for approximately one-sixth of all the deaths in the city that year, said Sandra Hickey, registrar for the Marietta City Health Department.

“There was a lot that died of the flu back then,” said Schwendeman.