By DAWNE LEIKER
Four years ago, I asked my friend, Janet Stramel, about her Memorial Day plans for the upcoming weekend. She said she and her husband Dean planned to place flowers on Baby Alma’s grave, as had long been their custom.
“Was she a relative?” I asked.
“No,” Janet said. “It’s the strangest story, really. Alma was a circus lady who died here of the Spanish Flu. As far back as I can remember, Dean’s family has left flowers for her every Memorial Day.”
Janet related snippets of the legend of Baby Alma. Relatives and descendants of Dean’s grandfather, Theodore Gosser, who was born in 1902, have remembered Alma every year since her death in 1918, because, as Janet said: “No one else ever did.”
The story goes that Theodore watched from the street the day six husky men lowered Alma’s body to the ground after removing the south window of Hays City hall’s second floor. Alma had died a couple of hours earlier from pneumonia brought on by Spanish Flu in the city hall makeshift hospital. Since the first week of October, Hays City hospitals had been overwhelmed with patients as the second pandemic wave hit the town. Local women, mobilized by the Red Cross to serve as nurses, had tended to Alma on her cobbled-together bed the floor of city hall.
According to a 1944 edition of The Hays Daily News, which looked back on the pandemic of 1918, Alma awoke with a case of the sniffles in her tent pitched on the fairgrounds near Big Creek the morning after the Golden Belt Fair’s opening. In a few hours, she knew she had the flu, and “had it bad.” Folks moved her to city hall for treatment.
The Oct. 3 Hays Free Press had hawked Alma’s claim to fame, her weight, as 600 pounds, although carnivals of the day were known to exaggerate the weight of their human exhibits. Follow-up stories told of her disagreeable temper, and hatred of nurses.
“Baby Alma, despite her weakened condition would lie there and scream forth the most blood-curdling string of cuss words,” remembered Ada Schwaller, who volunteered at the city hall hospital. “I don’t know if it was her religion or what, but she sure could swear with professional vigor, a 16-year-old, too.”
Neither Alma’s family in California, nor her carnival employers, took the responsibility of paying for Alma’s funeral expenses. Gus Havemann, local undertaker, was reported to have “fixed up a rough wooden box,” and overseen her burial in Mount Allen Cemetery, “without fanfare, flourish or tears.”
The Oct. 24 edition of Hays Free Press credited the MacGregor family for donating $5 to pay for Baby Alma’s “good service,” and all bills, including medicine and a small marker which was to be placed at her grave.
I first searched for Alma’s grave in Mount Allen cemetery four years ago, after my visit with Janet. The gray slab, near the shadow of an overgrown shrub, read: Baby Alma – Age 17. (Note: This age conflicts with Ada Schwaller’s quote from The Hays Daily News.)
On that day, it never entered my mind that I would ever experience life during a pandemic. I believed that our modern medical advances had made pandemics obsolete. Hollow-eyed, face-masked people walking the streets were a dark segment of history, not something I would likely see in my lifetime.
An article in the Oct. 3, 1918, Hays Free Press comes to my mind when I hear of protests or dismissals of the facts of our current pandemic. That article enthusiastically encouraged Hays City residents to attend the Golden Belt Fair. It read: “The facts of the case don’t justify the wild accusations made. The evidence we see is that it is just the old fashioned grippe.” Days later, the second wave hit Hays City and the nation, leaving funeral notices piling up and coffins in short supply.
Hays Free Press, Oct. 10, carried an apology about the thinness of the paper, due, it said, to staff members suffering from the flu. In that edition, also, a plea went out for residents to donate pillows and pillowcases for the new emergency hospital located at city hall. That makeshift hospital operated for 11 days, serving 25 patients.
Schools were out of session that October, leaving bored kids to engage in shenanigans, such as stealing a brass bell from the fairgrounds. Public health officials warned folks not to spit on the sidewalks. There was no food sold in restaurants, and churches and theaters were closed to the public.
On Oct. 17, the Hays Free Press issued a retraction:
“It wasn’t an ordinary grippe. Doctors in Ellis and Rush County are taxed to the limit of endurance. (The Spanish Flu is) one of the heaviest blows Ellis County has ever had to bear.”
The Topeka State Journal, Oct. 8, 1918, claimed that Ellis County had suffered the worst outbreak in the state during the prior week: 500 of the state’s 1,176 cases. It is likely that the Golden Belt Fair played a role in the county’s outbreak.
A casualty of the pandemic, Alma was in the wrong place at the wrong time. No blaze of glory, just victim of a resolute virus that spiked into her lungs and turned her body against itself.
The current pandemic is a numbers and charts game, standing at nearly 100,000 U.S. deaths. I envision the public outcry if 100,000 Americans died in terrorist attacks or wars during a two-month period. We would extol the virtues of the “heroes” who gave their lives for God and country. Instead, we now look at the lives lost as statistics, and argue amongst ourselves about the accuracy of all reported death counts.
Alma wasn’t just a number, not just one of 675,000 U.S. deaths stemming from the 1918 influenza pandemic. She once walked the banks of Big Creek and provided entertainment for our ancestors on a festive, cool October evening more than a century ago. Not only that, according to legend, she was an epic cusser.
I searched for Alma again recently. The overgrown shrub, now cut down, is no longer a signpost, making her grave more difficult to find. I eventually spotted the site, though, appropriately socially distanced from the other tombstones, tiny gray slab leaning slightly to the north. Waiting for her Memorial Day flowers. Waiting to be remembered.
Dawne Leiker is a virtual advisor in the Department of Informatics at Fort Hays State University.