In April of 1917, LaVerne Roquette, a 22-year-old art student at the University of Minnesota, went dancing at the Roof Garden of the Hotel Radisson in downtown Minneapolis. There she met and danced with Russell Rathbun, a 27-year-old banker from Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. They immediately fell in love and danced every night for a week before he shipped off for France with the American Expeditionary Force to fight in what became known as World War I.
They then became regular correspondents, and some of her letters mentioned what became known as the 1918 influenza or flu.
On October 10, 1918, LaVerne wrote a letter to her beau from her hometown of Dickinson, North Dakota, where she was sequestered. She said, “Mother won’t let me out because that awful disease … is all over the United States in every little town. All the towns and cities for miles around are all closed — everything but the meat markets, grocery, and dry good stores. At some places people have to wear gauze masks when they appear on the streets … the government has closed all schools, churches, theatres. Somehow this pretty day has been wasted. Have just had to sit inside and look out, all day long.”
Later that month, she wrote that the flu “has been raging like wildfire in the United States. It didn’t miss Dickinson by any means. I wasn’t left out of the swim either.” She had caught the flu.
Another letter from LaVerne said government officials were endorsing whiskey “to kill the influenza germ” so she stole a drink from her father’s wine chest. “I drank quite a large glass full of whiskey. In a very short time I talked very loud and giggled to myself. . . I soon fell into a deep sleep and never even moved until almost noon the next day.” After a week in bed, she recovered.
After the fighting in the war ended on the Armistice of November 11, 1918 (“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”), Russell had survived and returned to the U.S. The two of them were married in January 1920.
They then lived in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota until 1922, when they moved to St. Paul after Minnesota Governor J.A.O. Preus appointed Russell to be State Commissioner of Banks.
These letters recently were discovered by their granddaughter, Holly Hannah Lewis, who used them to write a book for her family members.
Brown, Letters from earlier pandemic echo with resonance today, StarTribune (May 31, 2020). The 1918 flu has been the subject of other posts and comments to this blog: Pandemic Journal (# 3): 1918 Flu (Mar. 27, 2020); [Comment]; Naming of 1918-20 Pandemic (Mar. 28, 2020); [Comment]: Other Thoughts on the 1918 Flu (April 22, 2020); Pandemic Journal (# 22): Other Reflections on the Flu Pandemic of 1918-20 (May 17, 2020).