To call 1918, just 100 years ago, “dramatic” would be a conspicuous understatement. Not only had the so-called Great War just ended, after claiming an estimated 40 million casualties, but as the surviving doughboys began returning home from Europe, the most lethal epidemic in human history struck worldwide, claiming an estimated 50 to 100 million more.
Nobody knows for sure exactly where the “Spanish flu” started, or how it mutated into such a killer of human beings. Wherever it came from, or how, its metastasis was aided by the mass movements of troops and refugees in cramped quarters, and crowded hospitals full of sick and wounded. The military information folks (the first casualty in war is the truth) wished not to pin the blame for the epidemic on anything martial, so they reported the lethal results for neutral Spain; thus, Spanish flu.
Recently, Brian Zecchinelli, co-owner of the Wayside Restaurant in Montpelier, commissioned a multi-ton monument to be installed in Barre’s famous Hope cemetery, in memory of the hundreds of Central Vermont citizens who died in the epidemic. Brian’s tribute was motivated by the death of his grandfather, Germinio, who, though in good health, succumbed in 1918 at the age of only 35.
Scientists have long puzzled over the apparent anomaly of the young and healthy dying of the flu at often higher rates than the middle-aged and children. Tests with samples of the Spanish flu virus taken from frozen corpses suggest that it was (and still could be) especially aggressive, triggering an overreaction of healthy patients’ immune systems, known as a cytokine storm. In effect, it’s the body’s own reactions that doom it. Patients with weaker or compromised immune systems often survived.
The flu spread virtually everywhere, affecting most severely the indigenous people with little resistance to alien viruses. The explorer Peter Freuchen’s wife, Navarana, died of it in Greenland in 1921. Some years later, after a brief visit by a patrolling Mountie, the Roman Catholic priest at a mission to the Inuit on the north coast of Canada nursed as well as he could, and then buried, almost all his tiny parish.
In far northern New Hampshire, just east of the border with Canada in the Town of Pittsburg and at the foot of the Tabor Road, lies the tiny Indian Stream Cemetery. There are several monuments in it, but the grave way at the back that attracts the most attention is a small slab set in the ground and partially overhung by grass. The name on it — MENE — is misspelled, no doubt phonetically, and the date of birth is wrong as well — symbolic, perhaps, of the incredibly ill-starred life of the young man buried there. It’s the subject of a book, “Give Me My Father’s Body,” by Kenn Harper, which, written with a Northern perspective, provides a window into the morbid curiosity that Americans of the day exhibited toward the “savage races.”
Minik was one of six Polar Inuit who had the misfortune to fall afoul of the explorer Robert Peary. Peary, like King John in A.A. Milne’s poem, was not a good man. Asked to bring back several Inuit to the Museum of Natural History for ethnographic studies, he persuaded six to accompany him south to New York. They would receive return passage and valuable gifts. What they got was abandonment in the basement of the museum, where four, Minik’s father among them, quickly died. The museum staff staged his father’ burial to assuage Minik’s grief, but instead cleaned the skeleton and put it on display.
Taken in for raising and educating by William Wallace, a wealthy official of the museum, and his wife, Minik became quite the little gentleman, with a bicycle, hoop and knickers. But, eventually he realized what had happened to his father; and about the same time Wallace was found to have been embezzling from his employer. Unsuccessful in a highly publicized effort to obtain his father’s remains, he eventually managed to return to Greenland. He turned out to have a knack for subsistence hunting, and with his language skills guided exploration expeditions. He married, but his wife, Arnannguaq, “turned out to be sleep personified,” and they divorced. (She suffered the same result with a second husband.)
Eventually, Minik became homesick for the United States, and during the war returned. He bounced around from job to job, and wound up with an employment agency that shipped him off to the north woods to work in a lumber camp. A hard worker, he apparently fit in well, and made a fast friend of a local farmer who worked winters in the woods. He lived with the farm family in the off-season, and it was here, in 1918, that he contracted the flu and, with some other family members, died.
I visit his grave whenever I’m near the Indian Stream valley. Appropriately, it’s a little over halfway to the North Pole. He’s not forgotten; other people have left little trinkets and miniature inuksuit on the edges of the stone. With the stream just rods away, it’s a peaceful place, and I hope he finds it so.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to the Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.