When I was attending Iowa State University, I decided that I needed to take up running. Up until that point, running was never my thing. I didn’t like it. I preferred to walk.
All through my life, I had loved to go hiking out in the woods. I would walk for miles, taking in the sights and sounds of nature, or the bustle and noise of the city. I walked to clear my head, or to think deep thoughts. I walked just because I liked to do it.
No, I was of the opinion that if I had to run, then something better be chasing me. And, if that was the case, then I would have plenty of motivation to run. I would have all the adrenaline and panic-induced fuel I needed to escape from the bad thing.
My first few attempts at running were, um, not successful. I thought that running as far as I could as fast as I could was the way to go. I’d be in shape in no time at all. I was wrong. The only thing that I succeeded at was getting really good at spending time doubled over.
Eventually, I figured out that I could solve a lot of problems by just running a little slower and taking my time. It worked. But, as the weather began to get colder, I realized that I would need to find a place to run indoors.
That’s when I discovered State Gym. I heard that there was a track there, so I decided to go check it out.
State Gym had style.
Built in 1912, it had all the old-fashioned architecture of that era that I loved. It felt well-worn and comfortable, like a carpenter’s favorite hammer. The track encircled the top of the main gym. It was open in the middle, allowing you to watch kids play basketball or do whatever else while you ran in endless circles.
I saw a lot of things from that track in the time that I spent using it. But out of those things, I never imagined that there could have ever been doctors and nurses walking along rows of cots separated by sheets.
Some of them would have been hunched over the young men and women lying in those beds, some of them already tinted blue from the deadly disease savaging their lungs while they were still alive.
But if I would have been there in 1918, that’s exactly what I would have seen. It was a time when the whole world was in the grip of a deadly killer that they could never run away from.
In 1918, the United States was in the middle of a patriotic fervor. The year before, they had just entered World War I. After having already raged across Europe for the past three years, America was finally going to join.
People were encouraged to support the war effort in every way possible. Young, able bodied men were expected to volunteer to go fight. If that wasn’t an option for you, then you were supposed to support the war financially by buying things like liberty bonds.
In rural areas, farmers were highly encouraged to put their individual operations into overdrive. Their crops and livestock were needed to not only support the war effort right now, but also to help feed a devastated Europe as it got back on its feet after the war. To encourage this, the market value of various crops soared, giving farmers a tremendous opportunity to make serious money.
Farmers plowed up every bit of land that they could get their hands on, including ditches along the roads. They were happily supplying their country with their good in support of the war, and getting paid very well for it.
In 1918, there was a very strong German-American presence in America. As the largest immigrant group to come to the United States, they had formed large communities where they celebrated German language and culture. This was obviously problematic for a nation at war with Germany. The last thing the government needed was for people to decide how cool Germany was when you wanted them to go and slay the sons of the Fatherland overseas.
All over the United States, campaigns both spontaneous and deliberate were launched to discriminate against German culture. German Americans themselves were attacked, and the bits of German language that had seeped into American culture was suddenly changed. Probably to further inspire patriotism, many of those word changes involved the word ‘liberty.’ For example, sauerkraut was now called ‘liberty cabbage.’
German language books were burned in huge bonfires. German music and operas were banned, with exceptions perhaps being made for classic masters, like Beethoven and Bach, from earlier centuries.
In Iowa, Governor William L. Harding took one of the most extreme measures of the war to strike a blow against German culture in his state.
In May of 1918, Harding issued what is now known as the “Babel Proclamation,” outlawing the use of any language except English to be used in spoken conversation or even over the telephone. While it technically included any language, it was focused primarily on German.
18-year-old Helen Esther Roberts probably heard about it at her home in Strawberry Point, Iowa. Even more likely, she knew some young men who were marching off to war.
Her father ran a successful furniture store, and sometimes they had to travel as part of that business. As an only child, Helen was her parent’s constant companion as they travelled both to local towns and cities further away. Just the previous year, Helen was able to take in the sights and sounds of San Diego, California.
In 1918, she had made the decision to attend Coe College, a liberal arts college in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her parents were probably saddened by the prospect of their daughter moving away, but might have been consoled by the fact that Cedar Rapids was only a few short hours away.
The Roberts family must have spent that summer just enjoying each other’s company the best they could. Perhaps they reminisced about the many trips that they had taken, or talked about Helen’s future. Either way, the horrors of the Great War were far from their lives as the warm summer sun shone through their comfortable home.
For others, those same horrors were all too real. For them, the war raged in front of them, threatening to tear the world apart in its ferocity. Men were blown apart in artillery barrages, or buried alive as the trenches where they huddled caved in and filled with dirt. Some were shot to death as they charged enemy fortifications, stitched across by waves of bullets sent from German Krupp guns.
Soldiers were maimed, losing eyes and limbs. Some combatants were left whole physically, but were deeply scarred mentally and emotionally by the things they witnessed.
However, the deadliest killer of all moved silently among them in the trenches and through the camps where they thought they were safe.
Many historians and scientists now believe that this new strain of flu originally came from the plains of Kansas. As thousands of soldiers were moved to various places across the country, it travelled with them. When they went to Europe, it went with them.
American soldiers frequently came into contact with their allies in the French and British armies. The flu spread to them, and to the Germans they fought with. In a short time, it had travelled all over the world.
As it spread, something happened to it. It got stronger, deadlier.
It hit the upper respiratory tract like a freight train, causing high fevers and crippling muscle and joint aches. Worst of all, it shredded the lungs of its still-living host, often turning them into a gory slush. The infected would often turn blue because their blood could no longer get sufficiently oxygenated.
While it might have thrived in the vast solider populations in Europe, it also spread just as fast through civilian populations.
In late summer, civilian passenger vessels and troop ships began to arrive on American shores, full of people who were either already exhibiting symptoms of the disease or would be in just a few short days.
It began to spread in the large eastern cities first, like New York and Boston. But the people on those ships had travelled to cities and towns, as well.
In Chicago, Illinois, sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station began to exhibit signs of the flu. After a few days, army cadets in other places in the city began to show them, as well.
The military immediately placed the training station under strict quarantine. They had already seen how quickly it could spread through other army camps in other places, and wanted to limit the spread as quickly and completely as possible. All leave was cancelled, and any sailors showing signs of the flu were isolated from everyone else.
By the end of September, authorities were confident that they had contained the spread. While they might have there, Chicago itself was not. A week later, nearly 300 cases of the Spanish flu had been reported to health authorities in Chicago.
Doctors and medical professionals across the world were at a loss as to what actually caused the Spanish flu or how to effectively combat it.
While several types of bacteria had been identified, classified, and successfully treated by scientists of that era. At first, it was widely thought that a type of bacteria caused the Spanish flu, but the symptoms that it caused were different from the ones caused by the Influenza. As they did more research, they realized that it was something else that caused the flu.
They began to suspect that it was caused by a virus, but in 1918, not much was known about them.
Even if they had known, antibiotics hadn’t been discovered and developed yet. Even sulfa drugs, a kind of antibiotic that would later be used to treat bacterial infections, hadn’t been invented yet.
However, doctors didn’t know that then. They had to use that they knew and had available to them. They tried such treatments as enemas, saline injections, and bleeding. Nothing worked.
Despite the ferocity of this new strain, influenza was still a familiar disease to medical professionals. They understood that it spread from coughing, sneezing, and close personal contact with infected individuals. They also understood that one of the best ways to stop the spread of communicable diseases was to isolate that infected patient from the healthy population.
Military bases had already begun to quarantine themselves away from the outside as much as possible. Inside those bases, healthy soldiers were further quarantined away from the thousands of infected whose ranks seemed to grow every day.
As more and more cases of the flu began to appear in the civilian population, cities across the United States began to implement quarantine ordinances of their own.
Social gatherings of all kinds were banned. Church services were cancelled. School classes were stopped. People were strongly advised to avoid any kind of large gatherings.
College campuses were especially vulnerable. Large groups of students were always in close contact. They sat closely to one another in classes and lived in dormitories together. The University of Iowa and Iowa State College, later Iowa State University, both put themselves under a strict quarantine as soon as the first students began to exhibit signs of the flu.
At Iowa State College, the administration went so far as to have the grounds patrolled by guards. Inidividuals had to have an approved pass to be allowed on or off the property. Despite their precautions, the flu was far from stopped.
Hundreds of students contracted influenza, and before long the campus hospital facilities were full. Still, more sick students came in.
To accommodate these new arrivals, State Gym was converted into a sick ward. Cots were lain at intervals across the hardwood floor, with sheets put up as dividers to separate the patients.
At the end of September, Helen Esther Roberts moved into Voorhees Hall at Coe College. A little over a week later, 200 people had already been reported as being sick with the Spanish Influenza. The next day, the numbers had soared well past that.
As the flu spread and everything began to be cancelled and quarantined, Helen tried her best to settle in and adjust. Only a few weeks later, on October 14, she began to cough.
She was immediately placed under quarantine with other students infected with the flu at her dormitory, Voorhees Hall. Five days later, on October 19, 1918, Helen died. She was buried in the Roberts family plot in Strawberry Point not long after.
Helen’s parents didn’t want their Helen to be forgotten, though. They donated an enormous grandfather clock to the school, which was placed in her former dorm. Inside, a small plaque commemorates her memory.
Gradually, the Spanish Flu pandemic receded. World War I came to an end, and life moved on. Memories faded.
Not many of the young women who lived in Voorhees Hall were aware of the temporary sick ward that had been set up there in 1918, or the lives that had been claimed by the flu. But they were aware of certain stories.
However, there were several that knew of another story: the ghost of Voorhees Hall.
Over the years, several students there reported having odd experiences.
Some had felt cold breezes blowing down the dorm hallways. Others would hear a piano playing in the early hours of the morning. When they went to see was playing it, no one would be there.
Doors would slam by themselves, and sleeping students would have their blankets thrown off of them. Pictures would randomly fall off walls, as if someone had deliberately done it.
Sometimes, residents of Voorhees would receive eerie phone calls from a woman whose voice they didn’t recognize. Other times, residents would even see the apparition of a young woman.
While no one knows exactly how or why, at some point the students at Coe College began to attribute the apparition and strange happenings to Helen. Perhaps this was because at least some of the mysterious phenomenon seemed to be associated with the grandfather clock that had been donated in her name.
Some students claimed that the clock would go off at the time of Helen’s death, while others claimed that her spirit lived within the clock itself.
Eventually, the clock was removed from Voorhees Hall and placed in Stuart Hall, a campus building that houses, among other things, the psychology and sociology departments. When it was, the hauntings moved with it, just as strong as ever.
One story alleges that once, on a Halloween night, Campus Security received a call from Stuart Hall. They said a young woman was severely distraught, and no one could calm her down.
When the officers arrived, they found the caller easily enough. As the phone call had implied, the young woman was scared almost to hysterics. She couldn’t seem to stop shaking and crying. Something had obviously terrified her, but the officers weren’t sure exactly what. They suspected that someone had played a particularly unfunny Halloween joke on her. The officers called an ambulance for the girl and she was taken to the hospital.
Sure enough, when they questioned the girls’ friends, they were informed that yes, the entire thing had started out as a prank.
The girl had been dared to walk alone through the empty corridors of Stuart Hall and touch Helen’s clock. She accepted and went along her way. A few minutes later, her friends heard a blood-curdling scream. Before they knew it, their friend came running through the corridor. After their attempts to calm her down failed, they decided to call for help.
Later, at the hospital, the girl had calmed down enough to tell her story.
She remembered that the clock had looked perfectly normal. Smiling to herself, she reached out and gently slapped it. When she did, someone…something…actually walked out of the clock and then passed right through her. It was cold, just so mind-numbingly frigid. She didn’t remember much after that.
Could the spirit of Helen Esther Roberts still haunt the Coe College campus? There are several students at Coe College who think so. Many think that perhaps Roberts is just trying to introduce herself. Or maybe she just wants to join into a life that she wanted, but wasn’t able to have.
Everyone agrees that her pranks are harmless, and that Helen is just a playful spirit. She doesn’t seek to harm anyone.
675,000 people died of the Spanish Influenza across the United States, including Helen Roberts. It had swept across the country, infecting soldier and civilian alike during one of the greatest conflicts that mankind had yet known.
A good number of those were, like Helen, young and strong, in the prime of their lives. And yet, despite that strength, they couldn’t outrun the flu.
I think back on all the time that I spent at State Gym as a young man. I remember all of the different things that I watched on that basketball floor far below as I ran, everything from ROTC events to members of the university marching band practicing. Never once did I suspect that it had been a hospital filled with sick and dying students. But that story, that history, was there the entire time, just under the surface.
A similar history can be found at Coe College, where students also spent their last moments in a hospital sick ward ravaged by the flu. Perhaps there a part of that history still seeks to interact with our present.
Fannon-Langton, Dianne. The Ghost of Helen Roberts. The Gazette, 10/20/2019
Langton, Diane. Time Machine: Flu killed more that 6,000 Iowans in 1918. The Gazette, 2/18/2018
Dougherty Maulsby, Darcy. Family Letters tell of 1918 pandemic’s effects. The Gazette, 3/29/20
Kienzle, Kayla. State Gym: A history of recreation and athletics. Iowa State Daily, 2/2/2012
Fetty, Nick. ME alum Edgar Stanton helped to lead Iowa State through 1918 flu pandemic. Iowa State University; College of Engineering News, 3/27/2020
Babel Proclamation, May 1918. State Historical Society of Iowa, iowaculture.gov
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slickshadow. Story time: Helen Esther Roberts. The ghost of Coe College Cedar Rapids, Iowa. imgur.com
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