Killer in the Heartland: An Early Epidemic of “Spanish” Flu in Kansas

“Girls’ dormitory, Haskell Institute, United States Indian Training School.” Lithographed postcard in my collection.

My article A 1918 Influenza Outbreak at Haskell Institute: An Early Narrative of the Great Pandemic was published in Kansas History, a Journal of the Central Plains, Vol. 43, No. 2, Summer 2020. The article garnered an Edgar Langsdorf Award for Excellence in Writing from the Kansas Historical Foundation.

Here is a PDF of the article, retitled, sectioned and lightly reworked, with new imagery. Inside the window below is a control bar that appears at the bottom when you select the window. The 2.2 meg file can be enlarged and/or downloaded.

Spanish Flu in Kansas


Why an article about a “Spanish” Flu epidemic in Kansas in this “local history” of the pandemic?

In 2018, the centenary of the devastating worldwide outbreak, I started to track what is known about the nature and spread of the disease. I compiled a chronology of the pandemic, based on the searching ability of and a survey of the secondary literature, of which there was a regular torrent in 2018. I took note of an account of an early outbreak in Kansas, in Haskell County, as early as January 1918. Curiously, my sleuthing turned up another epidemic early in 1918, and it was also in Kansas and also at a place called “Haskell” — but it was the Indigenous multi-Nation boarding school Haskell Institute in Lawrence. Both accounts claimed to be the source of a health alert early in April 1918 about an influenza epidemic in “Kansas — Haskell.” The alert is historically important because no such nationwide alert had ever been issued for influenza; but it is ambiguous as to what and where “Haskell” was. The clincher was in the Haskell Institute newsletter The Indian Leader: a letter from a Senior Surgeon with the U.S. Public Health Service to the head of the school reporting on the outbreak of a “severe” form of the disease that had attacked 16 students and killed 4; the final counts were higher, but the point is that those very numbers appeared in the national alert, and both bore the same date: March 30.

So the boarding school narrative had the facts on its side. Yet the Haskell Institute story is nowhere to be found in the recent literature. Its precedence in the annals of the Great Pandemic had been usurped by a false narrative that appropriated a key historical document to bolster an account that proposed the American origin of the disease. Surely it would be of benefit to correct the historical record by telling the true story of the outbreak at Haskell?

That turned out to be a bit of an Odyssey. Why did “Spanish” Flu appear at Haskell so early in its career? Short answer: Haskell, like other Indigenous boarding schools, was no stranger to disease. And, if it didn’t actually start in Kansas, as many believe, where did it start? Short answer: we do not know that, but we know that it first appeared in force in the European war zone. Proving the precedence of the Haskell epidemic in the American annals of the pandemic required attention to those larger events in the unfolding of the worldwide catastrophe that left fifty to one hundred million people dead in its two-year career.

Published August 11, 2020; latest update November 29, 2021.

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