Coronavirus: Diary kept during Spanish flu pandemic gives Ohio descendants insights

Diary entries kept by a woman in northeastern Ohio during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and World War I is providing comfort to her descendants, who are dealing with the coronavirus.

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On Oct. 7, 1918, Lucy Vandervort Cox wrote there was “No school on account of ‘Spanish influenza,’” and noted the weather that Monday was “cloudy and a much cooler day" in Wilmington, Ohio, the Geauga County Maple Leaf reported.

The article in the Maple Leaf was written by Amy Patterson, a part-time reporter for the Maple Leaf who is the great-great-granddaughter of Cox, who died in 1964 when she was 84.

Patterson’s mother, Jennifer Weinbrecht, 63, preserved Cox’s diaries, which she wrote from 1899 until her death, NBC News reported. The diaries were passed down from Weinbrecht’s mother, JoAnne Womacks, the network reported.

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Weinbrecht began transcribing the diaries years ago to preserve her family’s history. The Vandervorts have lived in Clinton County since 1809 and lived in Hamilton County before that, when Cox’s great-grandfather, Jonah Vandervort, moved to Ohio.

“I look up names or words in my great-grandmother’s rather sparsely worded diaries and learn a wealth of information,” Weinbrecht told NBC News from her home in Novelty, Ohio. “Sometimes, it’s fun stuff – like when she said she finished her Mother Hubbard, and I Googled that and found it was a dress that could be worn without a tight corset for working on the farm,” she said.

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“While a global pandemic shuttering schools and businesses feels like new territory, many of our families still bear the scars of the 1918 influenza pandemic,” Patterson wrote in the Maple Leaf. “That year, a new strain of the flu spread rapidly around a world at war, ultimately infecting about 500 million people — one-third of the world’s population” at the time.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 50 million people worldwide died from the 1918 H1N1 flu pandemic, also known as the Spanish flu. In the United States, about 675,000 died from the pandemic.

According to the Ohio Department of Health, there have been 14,694 confirmed cases of COVID-10 and 656 deaths.

Many of Cox’s entries were grim. An Oct. 13 entry was typical.

“Leslie Dixon’s wife died and left 10 children,” Cox wrote. “Eight graves dug at Wilmington.”

Another entry that day notes that Cox "went to Collingham’s a while. George died about four o’clock in the morning. Ed Stephens buried. Mr. and Mrs. Myers and 10-year-old daughter all buried at once.”

Patterson wanted to read through her great-great-grandmother’s entries to see if she could draw some parallels to this year’s pandemic. With two sons, ages 9 and 11, she thought the entries might bring some hope and add some perspective.

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“It just felt like a really good time to evaluate how bad this is, compared to how bad our ancestors had it,” Patterson told NBC News. “My kids are struggling with not being connected to their friends at school. It’s that time of life, like, they’re learning how to be social, and having been forced to do that in person to doing it across the screen is not ideal, but I feel that we’re almost more connected than we were before.”

Weinbrecht, who owns a bookstore called Jane Austen Books with her two daughters, has been transcribing and digitizing the diaries for posterity. She said he is up to 1935, NBC News reported.

“They can’t stop. Even when (Grandma Cox) says, ‘Oh, I feel really bad,’ she just has to keep going,” Weinbrecht told NBC News.