Katherine Anne Porter & the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, Part I: The Spanish Flu

“I think of my personal history as before the plague and since the plague.” 
– Katherine Anne Porter to Alfred Crosby, 13 June 1975

An unknown illness, shortage of hospital beds, fever induced hallucinations, and growing fear about a contagious and deadly plague. All of these frightening realities take place against the backdrop of young love and the First World War in Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”  tells the story of trauma and survival during the 1918 Influenza pandemic. A masterfully written short novel woven with poetic and, at times, surreal prose, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” is also a personal story for Porter, recalling her experience contracting the illness in Colorado in October 1918. With striking similarities to the current pandemic, it is a beautiful, complex, and intimate glimpse into the experience of making it through the other side of a pandemic and the First World War.

Portrait of Katherine Anne Porter taken in early spring, Texas, 1918. Katherine Anne Porter papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

In the years leading up to the 1918 influenza pandemic, Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) had already faced a tumultuous life. Born in Texas, she was largely self taught and moved often with her family following the deaths of her mother and grandmother in 1892 and 1901 respectively. She was married and divorced three times, briefly worked as a movie extra in Chicago, taught children in a Dallas hospital, and wrote for several newspapers. Although she had begun writing, she had yet to publish her work in earnest.

Her health was also fragile, having been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1915. She was hospitalized in sanatoria in Texas, before moving, in May 1918, to Colorado. It was a region of the country tuberculosis patients flocked to for the amiable dry climate, hot springs, and high elevation, with Colorado growing into an immensely popular destination for recovery. Porter joined friend and newspaper woman Kitty Barry Crawford, who co-founder of the Fort Worth Critic in 1914, and traveled to Colorado Springs. There, Porter began working for the Rocky Mountain News, a Denver daily newspaper, in September 1918. 

Kitty Barry Crawford and Katherine Anne Porter at J. B. McKnight Hospital, Carlsbad, Texas, 1916. Katherine Anne Porter papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

Time in Denver With Spanish Flu

The first influenza-related death in Denver, Colorado, occured on September 27, 1918, when a young student died of pneumonia, although it is possible the viral disease was spreading through the community well before then (Influenza Encyclopedia).  As reports of influenza cases increased across the country, not much was known about the nature of the disease and how quickly or far-reaching it could spread. The public was encouraged to follow standard health precautions, such as covering coughs/sneezes, staying in bed when sick, and avoiding crowded spaces. They were also given vague advice to keep a balanced and healthy lifestyle, drink milk, and get fresh air (“Uncle Sam’s Advice”).

“Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu.” The Denver Star, 19 October 1918, p. 6. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

At first the “Spanish Flu”, a name that derived not from it’s origins but the fact that Spain was the first country to report on the disease regularly in the press due to a lack of wartime censorship, appeared to be very similar to the typical seasonal influenza in America. To complicate matters, the country lacked sophisticated testing to quickly and effectively diagnose patients suffering from one or the other. By early October, cases in Denver grew at alarming rates. Coverage in newspapers could be sporadic at times, depending on the geographic location. News of the pandemic could also be overwhelmed by coverage of the First World War. In the October 19, 1918 edition of the Denver Star, an interview with Surgeon General Rupert Blue of the U.S. Public Health Service informed readers of the following regarding the influenza pandemic:

  • Origins: “Although the current epidemic is called ‘Spanish Influenza,’ there is no reason to believe it originated in Spain” (“Uncle Sam’s Advice”)
  • Spread: “No matter what kind of particular germ causes the epidemic, it is now believed the influenza is always spread from person to person, the germs being carried with the air along with very small droplets of mucus, expelled by coughing or sneezing, forceful talking, and the like by one who already has the germs of the disease. They may also be carried about in the air in the form of dust coming from dried mucus, from coughing and sneezing, or from careless people who spit on the floor and on the sidewalk. As in most other catching diseases, a person who has only a mild attack of the disease himself may give a very severe attack to others” (“Uncle Sam’s Advice”)
  • Medicine: “Only such medicine should be given as prescribed by a doctor. It is foolish to ask the druggist to prescribe and may be dangerous to take the so-called ‘safe, sure and harmless’ remedies advised by by patent medicine manufacturers” (“Uncle Sam’s Advice”)
  • Personal Protection: “If the patient is so situated that he can be attended only by someone who must also look after others in the family, it is advisable that such attendant wear a wrapper, apron or gown over their ordinary house clothes while in the sick room and slip this off them leaving to look after the others” (“Uncle Sam’s Advice”)
  • Masks: “Nurses and attendants will do well to guard against breathing in dangerous disease germs while wearing a simple fold of gauze or mask while near the patient” (“Uncle Sam’s Advice”)
  • Crowded Spaces: “People should consider the health danger and make every effort to reduce the home overcrowding to a minimum. The value of fresh air through open windows cannot be overemphasized. When crowding is unavoidable, as in street cars, care should be taken to keep the face turned as not to inhale directly the air breathed out by another person” (“Uncle Sam’s Advice”)

Porter was 28 years old when she contracted influenza in 1918. Not much documentation exists for this period of Porter’s life, but we do know that, by late October, she had contracted the disease and was suffering terribly with a severe case. It was also the peak of the influenza pandemic in Denver, resulting in a shortage of supplies and abundance of fear in the community. According to Kitty Barry Crawford, Porter “was seriously ill, at times delirious, with flu” and was having trouble securing a bed in a hospital (Unrue 32). She was also on the verge of being thrown out of the house where she lived, as the owner was worried “other lodgers would leave if they knew K.A. had the flu” (Unrue 32).  Concerned for Porter’s health, Crawford reached out to Dr. Holden, who was the director of Agnes Memorial Sanitorium in Denver where Crawford was a tuberculosis patient. The doctor not only secured Porter space in the hospital, but also threatened to have Porter’s landlady “arrested for cruel and inhumane treatment” (Unrue 33).

The 1918 influenza was a destructive, remarkably infectious disease with a high mortality rate in otherwise healthy individuals (1918 Pandemic). The disease would eventually claim 675,000 lives in the US, and at least 50 million worldwide (1918 Pandemic). There was no vaccine available, and antiviral medication, antibiotics, and other advanced medical equipment were not yet developed in 1918. Furthermore, since the pandemic began during the First World War, the war effort abroad left doctors and nurses in short supply at home. It quickly progressed into a major public health crisis, with a grim outlook for those who contracted the disease.

As Porter’s condition deteriorated, her sister Gay Porter Hollaway traveled to Colorado. Porter was considered to be on the brink of death. Staff at the Rocky Mountain News had set her obituary in type and ready to print. Porter’s father, Harrison Boone Porter, corresponded with Gay on October 23, 1918, about plans for her burial, if such arrangements became necessary:

Your letter of the 19th, received yesterday eve, and it makes me inexpressibly sad. If the worst comes and we must give her [Katherine Anne Porter] up, you are on the ground and must take command of the situation… We would want her to be brought here if that should be possible. The next best plan would be to go direct to Brownwood as I would like for her to be buried as near her mother as possible. If we brought her here it would be almost imperative to bury here… If Katherine is conscious tell her Papa sends his undying love to his stricken child.

(Porter, Harrison Boone)

Harrison Boone Porter to Gay Porter Hollaway, 23 October 1918. Katherine Anne Porter papers, Special Collections and University Archives

While in the hospital, Porter endured a 105 degree fever for 9 days. Her health continued declining to the point hospital doctors considered her gravely ill and at death’s door. In a 1975 interview for the television program “Day at Night”, Porter describes: 

I was just dying and people were dying all around me, everywhere. And they prepared for my funeral and all that sort of thing. And gave me up, and they left me with the curtains drawn around me because it was a plague and hundreds of other people were dying all the time, and they’d given me all the attention they could. So then two interns in the hospital decided to come back and take a look at me and see if I was dead yet. And I wasn’t, the heart was moving slowly, and they gave me a shot of what they called camphor oil, and it went through the veins and struck that heart, and it’s been going ever since. Nobody was more surprised than I was.

(“Day at Night”)

Shortly after receiving the shot, Porter began to recover. Some accounts suggest it wasn’t camphor oil, but an experimental dose of strychnine that aided in her recovery. Whether it was due to the last resort injection she received or the natural course of the illness, Porter made a slow and painful recovery. When she left the hospital “she was crippled from phlebitis in her left leg, her right arm had been broken in a fall, and she was bald” (Unrue, Katherine Anne Porter: Life of an Artist 63). The experience left a lasting impression on Porter, both physically and mentally. When her jet black hair grew back, it was threaded with white streaks, causing Porter to dye it for a period of time after the pandemic. Health issues also continued to follow her through much of her life.

Porter was back at work writing for the Rocky Mountain News and articles written by her began appearing in February 1919. In Fall 1919, she moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village and began actively pursuing a writing career. She continued to write, traveled to Mexico, and published the first of her canonical short stories, “Maria Concepcion,” in 1922.

Katherine Anne Porter, New York City, 1919. Katherine Anne Porter papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

Stayed tuned for Katherine Anne Porter and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, Part II: Pale Horse, Pale Rider, to explore how Katherine Anne Porter drew from her time in Colorado to write her critically acclaimed short novel on the influenza pandemic.

To learn more about Katherine Anne Porter, visit the Katherine Anne Porter research guide, which includes links to digitized materials from the archive.

Amber Kohl, is the Curator of Literature and Rare Books in Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland. Special Collections and University Archives is home to the Katherine Anne Porter papers.

Works Cited

  • “Influenza Encyclopedia.” Denver, Colorado and the 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic | The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918: A Digital Encyclopedia, www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-denver.html.
  • “Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu.” The Denver Star, 19 October 1918, p. 6. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84025887/1918-10-19/ed-1/seq-6/.
  • Unrue, Darlene Harbour. Katherine Anne Porter Remembered. University of Alabama Press, 2010.
  • “1918 Pandemic (H1N1 Virus).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 March 2019, www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html.
  • Porter, Harrison Boone to Gay Porter Hollaway, 23 October 1918. Series 1, Box: 66, Folder: 29.0. Katherine  Anne Porter papers. Special Collections and University Archives. University of Maryland Libraries.
  • “Day at Night: Katherine Anne Porter.” Day at Night, CUNY TV, 25 June 1973. https://youtu.be/k6SUfHOn3W0Unrue, Darlene Harbour. Katherine Anne Porter: the Life of an Artist. University Press of Mississippi, 2006.

3 thoughts on “Katherine Anne Porter & the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, Part I: The Spanish Flu

  1. Pingback: Katherine Anne Porter & the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, Part II, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” | Special Collections & University Archives

  2. Pingback: DiscoverNet | Famous People Who Survived The 1918 Flu Pandemic

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