Ghosts of the Pandemic, Part 1: Arrival

One night several years ago – longer ago than I want to care to admit – I had an experience with something that I couldn’t quite explain.

I was a campus security guard for Iowa State University. Although we were supposed to keep an eye out for any potential trouble or people doing bad things they shouldn’t be doing, my main responsibility was to lock and unlock the doors to campus buildings.

On my route that night was a series of three buildings: LeBaron Hall, McKay Hall, and the Palmer Building. What was really neat about those three is that, if you knew the route, is that you could go through all three without ever stepping outside. We had to have virtually all the buildings on campus open by a certain time, and that meant you were always under a little time pressure to make sure that it was done. Knowing the fastest, most efficient routes was key to making this happen.

McKay Hall is a huge, four-story structure that had seen thousands of students come and go over it’s decades-old history. Roughly in the middle there are four sets of double doors that allowed for large numbers of students to come and go relatively freely during high foot traffic times on campus.

MacKay Hall, campus, scenic
McKay Hall, Iowa State University. Courtesy of Iowa State University

That night, I had just finished unlocking the final set of those doors when I decided to stop for a minute. I was standing just inside those sets of doors in what was a wide hallway. That section was maybe thirty yards long with a 90-degree bend toward the north on either end.

It was probably about half past four in the morning, meaning that, most likely, I was the only one in any of those three buildings. Occasionally, early-bird graduate students or professors would come in to take care of something, but it was a rare thing for them to come in that early.

When you’re alone in any building after hours, one of the first things that you’ll notice is how quiet it is. You can hear yourself breathing, and hear the sounds of the building as it settles and its various systems cycle through normal functions that go unnoticed during the day.

Suddenly, I heard footsteps.

That was odd. Matter of fact, it was just damned peculiar. I’d never heard footsteps in that building so late at night before.

At first, I had the idea that it was one of the professors or grad students that I mentioned. They had their own keys to the building, so technically they could get inside anytime that they needed. It made sense. Why they were there so early was beyond me, but that was their business.

But I felt that there was something different about this.

The footsteps were almost too measured. Most people want to get where they’re going, even If they walk slow. It has a sound, a feel, to it, that suggests movement. It’s free and loose, the sound of an action performed a million times before and isn’t thought about anymore.

But these footsteps, they were like someone was walking in a ceremony. They were slow and even, like the person was walking very deliberately. I couldn’t help but feel that there was something off about that sound.

I stood there, arguing with myself. Part of me was positive that it was just a professor coming in early. If it wasn’t a professor, then it was a student, or maybe a custodian. Whoever it was, they were just as real and tangible as I was.

But the other part, the more emotional, superstitious part of me, was saying something entirely different. It was practically screaming at me to get away, that if there was something off about whatever was coming my way than I needed to get out of there. Don’t rationalize, just run.

The whole decision-making process probably only took a minute or two at the most. By that time, whoever – or whatever – was making those footsteps was about to come around the corner.

In the end, that former part won out. I decided that I didn’t need to find out what was making those footsteps. There was something about that measured, steady tread that made me cringe a little inside. There was just something that wasn’t quite right about it. I walked the other way as fast as I could without breaking into a run.

How many times in our lives are we faced with something that we can’t quite see, something that appears almost completely normal, and yet there’s something about it that we don’t like. How many times do we hear the steady, measured tread of something ominous that we can’t see?

In 1914, tensions that had been brewing in Europe for years boiled over and war broke out. At that time, science and technology were rapidly evolving into the modern age, and it brought mankind’s capacity for destruction to new heights.

For the next three years, European armies tore each other apart on battlefields across the continent. Tanks and airplanes were used for the first time, and the introduction of weaponized gas added an entirely new dimension to the horrors of warfare. Thousands of young men sacrificed their lives in service to their various nations, spilling their blood into the muddy fields of lands both foreign and domestic.

Throughout those years, the majority of Americans wanted to stay out of what they viewed as European problems. If Germany and the allied forces of the French and British wanted to blow each other to hell, then let them.

Eventually, however, that sentiment began to change.

Americans were already outraged by German attacks on American vessels or ships carrying American citizens. Still, this wasn’t quite enough to tip the scales, especially after Germany had agreed to stop their submarines in the Atlantic from waging unrestricted warfare.

Then, in March 1917, British Intelligence intercepted a communication from Arthur Zimmerman, the German Foreign Minister, to the government of Mexico. In it, he proposed that if Mexico allied themselves with Germany and attacked the United States, then Germany would see to it that all lands they lost during the Mexican War in the 19th Century would be returned to them.

That was just too much.

America was content to just let Germany and the other European nations do their thing overseas. All we wanted was to be left alone. This was what they got for their effort? This was how they were rewarded for staying neutral? Most people, including President Woodrow Wilson, decided that enough was enough.

In early April, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany and join the war. Congress agreed, and with that, America was launched into the midst of what Europeans would one day call the Great War.

At that point in the conflict, the British, French, Russians, and Germans all had armies numbering in the millions. By contrast, the United States had a little over 127,000 enlisted men in the Army, with almost 182,000 additional men in the National Guard. If the American effort was going to be successful, then they would need more soldiers. A lot more.

A national draft of all able-bodied men between the ages of 21 – 30 was instituted. While the idea of a draft was unpopular with most people, it was the only practical way for the United States to get the manpower it needed in such a short period of time.

While they prepared, the slow, measured footfalls of an approaching killer were masked by the thunder of approaching war.

In early 1918, Loring Miner, an experienced doctor in Haskell County, Kansas, began to see cases of a flu that he had never seen before. Dr. Miner was an intelligent man, and kept himself up to date on the latest scientific advances happening far from the remote area that he treated.

Several people became bedridden, unable to attend work or school. It hit not only children and the elderly, as did most types of flu, but this one seemed to hit younger adults between the ages of 15 – 40 just as hard.

Then, just as fast as it had appeared, the disease vanished, almost as if it had never been there at all. Gradually, the sick began to recover. Life returned to normal, and the flu was just another memory.

Dr. Miner, however, was deeply disturbed. This flu had acted in a way that he had neither seen during his years as doctor nor had ever read about. There was something different about this, and he had a bad feeling about it that he just couldn’t shake off.

State and federal health agencies didn’t require medical professionals to report outbreaks of the flu to them. It was a common and familiar disease, considered to be so unimportant that they didn’t even keep official records of the disease. Dr. Miner knew this, but was so convinced of the danger of this new strain that he wrote an official report about it.

As expected, no one really took notice of the report. There was a war going on, and it was just an outbreak of flu that was, no doubt, being reported by a silly doctor from the middle of nowhere. Dr. Miner’s report only ever appeared in one place, a journal called Public Health Reports, and was, for the most part, ignored.

Meanwhile, enlisted and drafted men alike were being trained for the hardships of war. Massive army camps were set up all across the county, and soon became populated by fresh troops destined for service on the European front.

Camp Funston was one of those camps, and was where several of the male residents of Haskell County came after joining the Army. They had been present during the flu epidemic, but had pushed past the illness and reported for duty, ready to serve in the war effort.

There is a certain amount of communal living in army camps. Thousands of men are housed in close quarters together in barracks, eat at the same canteen, use the same latrines. Looking back, it was really only a matter of time before one of those Haskell County boys started to have problems.

On March 4, the first soldier came to see the camp doctor. He was a cook, and had fallen gravely ill. He would be far from the last. A few weeks later, thousands of soldiers were sick with the flu. Over a thousand had symptoms so bad that they needed to be hospitalized.

Many of them recovered. Sickness was a part of life, and these young men had a war to fight. Whether they were healthy, sick, or recovering, they were loaded onto trains and transported to various bases across the country. Most went east, where they were crowded onto ships bound for Europe.

When they left, the flu went with them.

The flu made living conditions horrible on some troop transports as they made their long, slow way across the Atlantic. It slept with them in cots in the army camps, and huddled with them in the muddy, water-logged trenches that scarred the once fertile fields and valleys of Europe.

American troops came into contact with French and British soldiers on a regular basis. The flu was incredibly infectious, and spread rapidly to these new hosts. As they visited loved ones or talked with a flower vendor, the flu kept moving, never stopping. It jumped from person to person, infecting as it went. Before long, tens of thousands of people came down with the flu across the world.

There were many who were able to recover after only a few days of rest, but there were hundreds who died.

Even though thousands of troops got sick, news of the flu never saw the light of day in either American or Allied publications.

The governments of those nations had deliberately suppressed the media in order to keep morale about the war high. The public didn’t need to hear about the high casualty rate of the front, or how there was a very dangerous illness laying low soldiers in the prime of their lives. The people at home who sent their beloved family members off to war needed to know that they were safe and comfortable, even if that was far from the truth.

The nation of Spain, however, was neutral during the war. There was no government suppression of the news media because they had no war effort to support. For the first time, the public started to hear stories of a flu epidemic amongst the fighting men. When the news broke, the public dubbed the outbreak the “Spanish Flu” because Spain was the first to report anything about it.

By August, cases of the flu had dwindled dramatically. Many hoped that it meant the epidemic had come to an end. But it wasn’t.

They say that war can change people. Apparently, it can change a virus, as well. Something, perhaps even the conditions of the war itself, had caused it to become something far, far deadlier than it had been before.

Tens of thousands of Allied and American soldiers were infected with this new strain just as it ran like wildfire through enemy combatants and the populations of other nations.

Aches and pains intensified, sometimes getting so bad as to make doctors think that their patients had dengue fever, a disease that could be so painful that it had been nicknamed ‘break bone fever.’ Some individuals suffered an acute loss of their senses, including loss of smell, hearing, and color vision. It wasn’t unheard of for some to bleed from their eyes, nose, mouth, and ears.

Worse still, the virus hit especially hard at the respiratory system, almost liquifying the lungs. They were broken down into a wet, pulpy mass within the chest cavity, robbing the organ of their ability to correctly process oxygen. As a result, the patient’s skin would take on a distinctive blue cast. Often when they reached that point, they were considered to be as good as dead.

Civilians and soldiers alike were returning home for various reasons in the late summer and early fall of 1918. As they walked up the boarding ramp onto their ships, the new strain of flu went with them, its steady, measured tread making unheard footfalls as it began to spread on the ships.

By the time many of these ships landed in cities like Boston and New York City, many of the passengers were already sick. Feeling light-headed and weak, they gathered their belongings and made their way into the crowded streets. Others made their way to homes and camps further west, such as Camp Sherman. on the outskirts of Chillicothe, Ohio.

Camp Sherman was erected in only three short months and was designed to hold about 45,000 soldiers. It included barracks, a hospital, a library, and a laundry, not to mention a rifle range and training grounds.

camp sherman
Camp Sherman, Ohio. Courtesy of Ohio Heritage

Chillicothe had gone all in when America had joined World War I. They did everything that they could to accommodate the thousands of soldiers coming into their area, and, in turn, the soldiers were highly encouraged to make themselves at home. This effort included making several entertainment venues available for their amusement, including the Majestic Theatre in downtown Chillicothe.

The Majestic was, even then, an old building, and had strong roots in the city’s entertainment community stretching back to the early years of the 19th century.

Originally, the first bank built in the city had been constructed there in the early 1800’s. Many buildings of that era were used for multiple things, and this was no different. Locals used the lobby as a stage to put on plays, and set the foundations of an entertainment tradition at that location.

Later, the bank moved and a local chapter of the Freemasons bought the building, turning it into their meeting lodge. An alley ran next to the building that the locals had dubbed Bank Alley. In honor of that, the Masons formed the Bank Alley Thespian Society and continued to stage plays, even hiring actors from outside areas in addition to utilizing local talent.

In 1852, two blocks of buildings were destroyed in a fire adjoining the Masonic Hall. The Freemasons bought the property and built a new, larger building on the site. It reopened the following year on October 7th as the Masonic Opera House, now officially an entertainment venue and Masonic Lodge.

The building was renovated and expanded in 1876, making it larger with more elaborate decorative features. Later, the Masonic Opera House because the first venue in Chillicothe to show motion pictures, then a brand-new invention.

In 1904, the Masons’ finally sold the building to a man named A.R. Wolf. For the next decade, the Opera House ran the most popular movies and featured some of the biggest name live acts of the day, including Laurel & Hardy and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

By 1918, the Opera House was sold yet again and renamed the Majestic Theatre. Soldiers and civilians alike filled its seats nightly, both to escape the monotony of daily life as well as the horrors of the war in Europe.

Late that summer, the first sick soldiers began to come back into Camp Sherman, carrying the new strain of flu with them. Just as it had before, the sickness spread quickly, moving freely amongst the soldiers packed into their barracks. All over the rest of Ohio and the eastern United States, stories of the rapidly spreading pandemic began to dominate news headlines.

Just as fast, the death toll began to rise.

Before long, thousands of soldiers were infected at Camp Sherman. The camp quickly quarantined itself away from the outside world. Relatives that had once been highly encouraged to come and visit their loved ones were now turned away.

Chillicothe soon followed. Public gatherings of any kind were cancelled and banned. Public venues, including schools, churches, and theatres, including the Majestic, were closed until further notice.

At the camp, soldiers began to die at a staggering rate. Many of the men were from other places, and the families wanted their loved ones returned to them for burial. It would take a while for the bodies to get back home, and with the war and the ongoing pandemic, it might take even longer.

No one wanted to ship a rotting corpse back home, so embalming the bodies became very desirable. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t have been an issue, but so many soldiers were dying so fast undertakers couldn’t keep up. Not only that, but funeral homes and mortuaries were rapidly running out of room to keep the deceased.

Unusual times require unusual measures. Making an exemption to their strict quarantine rules, the city of Chillicothe allowed wagons loaded with the bodies of dead soldiers to be brought in from Camp Sherman. They were taken to two local mortuaries, where they were embalmed and placed into coffins. These coffins were then stored in the Majestic Theatre until they could be shipped out for burial.

By the end of the Flu Pandemic of 1918, nearly 1,200 soldiers died at Camp Sherman.

Eventually, the Majestic Theatre was returned to normal use. Time passed, and World War I and the Spanish Flu became terrible memories for most. Life moved on, and even the memories slowly faded.

majestic theatre
Majestic Theatre, Chilicothe, Ohio. Courtesy of majesticchillicothe.net

But, seemingly, not for the Majestic itself.

For the next several decades, people reported unusual sightings at the historic venue.

Theater students rehearsing after hours have claimed to have distinctly heard the sound of clapping coming from the audience seats, but there was no one else in the building at the time. Others claimed to have seen a man walking over the orchestra pit, several feet above the floor.

In 1996, a local author, Neal Parks, had a strange experience of his own at the theater.

He had walked in to use the bathroom. A man was standing there, mopping the floor. Parks greeted him, but received no response.

When he had finished his business and started to wash his hands, Parks decided to try talking to the man again. The apparent custodian finally stopped what he was doing and gave the author a very pointed dirty look. After a moment, he turned and walked out the door and into the lobby.

Parks dried his hands, then followed. The custodian was nowhere to be seen. As he stood, Parks had the feeling that someone was watching him. He began to look around, and, to his surprise, saw the custodian standing at the top of the stairs leading to the second floor. The man looked confused, like he wasn’t sure what was going on.

Before Parks could say anything, the man turned and walked off. Wondering what was going on, Parks decided to follow him.

At the top of the stairs, Parks arrived just in time to watch as the custodian walked right through a closed door. Shocked, he crossed the room and opened the door, only to find an empty supply closet.

Later, Parks claimed that he found a photo of the man in the lobby, listing him as a former staff member in the 1950’s.

Do the restless spirits of World War I soldiers still like to take in a movie or a show at the theater where their body lay before burial? Does the ghost of a former staff member still work at maintaining the building?

Today, the Majestic is the oldest theatre in continuous operation in the county. It has seen the rise of a city, a state, and a nation. Along the way, it has also witnessed more than its share of tragedy. Having been around so long, the building is steeped in history.

Perhaps, there are things at the Majestic that aren’t satisfied with merely being a part of the past, but seeks to actively interact with the present.

World Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson once explained that everyone has a plan until they get hit. You know exactly how you’re going to handle the aggressive person; you know exactly what moves you’re going to do to win the fight, you know exac…WHAM!

Next thing you know, you’re looking straight up at the sky and wondering how you got there.

An experience with the unexplained is much the same way.

You know that you believe in ghosts, and look forward to the inevitable moment where you can finally see one. Or, you’re absolutely positive that the paranormal doesn’t exist. This is it. There’s no afterlife, no magic, no anything. Just cold, hard science, and complete oblivion when you check out.

And then you hear the slow, measured tread of footsteps coming down an empty hallway in a campus building.

I didn’t think about what I knew and what I didn’t know. I stood there in an eternity of indecision that took place in the span of a few seconds, clinging to reason and wanting to run away at the same time.

Thinking about it now, I have to wonder if someone else ever heard it. I’ve never spoken to anyone that has, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t. That would mean that I’m not alone, which makes me feel a little better. But it also means that it’s happened more than once, which makes me wonder if, in the lonely hours of the night when few others are around to hear, does it walk there still?

To this day, I have no idea what those footsteps were. Was it a college professor? Or was it the same kind of footsteps that fell silently and steadily across the world in 1918, bringing something unseen and sinister with it?

 

Sources

Garamone, Jim. World War I: Building the American Military. www.defense.gov

Barry, John M. The site of origin of the 1918 influenza pandemic and its public health implications. Journal of Translational Medicine, 2004.

Barry, John M. How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America. Smithsonian Magazine, Nov. 2017.

Roos, Dave. Why the Second Wave of Spanish Flu Was So Deadly. www.history.com

The 1918 Spanish Flu – A Conspiracy of Silence. Mysteries of the Microscopic World, Great Courses Plus.

www.cdc.com

De Bonis, Michael. Central Ohio and the 1918 Flu Pandemic. WOSU Public Media, http://www.radio.wosu.org

Hicks, Robert D. Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 in Philadelphia. Penn Museum, www.youtube.com

The History of Camp Sherman in Chillicothe. http://www.columbus neighborhoods.com

National Park Service. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 at Camp Sherman. Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, http://www.nps.org

www.majesticchillicothe.net

Vollet, Tim. How the Gazette reported the Spanish flu 100 years ago. Chilicothe Gazette, 3/18/2020

Robertson, Karen. The Spanish Influenza Comes to Ohio. Ohio History Connection, www.ohiohistory.org

Ison, Jona. Want to hunt the Majestic for ghosts overnight? Chillicothe Gazette, 7/23/2018

Ison, Jona. Majestic ghost tales inspire local group to investigate site. Chillicothe Gazette, 3/9/2009

Tour of the Majestic Theater. Interface Death, www.youtube.com

Zimmerman Telegram. http://www.theworldwar.org

 

 

 

 

 

I am an author and historian who writes about long-forgotten and out of the way events and places. I love the bizarre, the unusual, and the downright weird. I write a regular blog at my website, www.johnbrassardjrcom.wordpress.com, and also manage a facebook page about things of historical interest called The Kitchen Table Historian.

5 thoughts on “Ghosts of the Pandemic, Part 1: Arrival

  1. I enjoy all your stories, but the one about the Spanish flu was very captivating. Some of those paragraphs were very descriptive & well written–vivid & expressive. Good job.

  2. I believe though he wasn’t diagnosed my husband’s grandfather died of this in 1918 leaving a wife and 4 children in North Dakota

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