THE "SPANISH" EPIDEMIC IN UMBERTIDE
AND IN THE HIGH TIBER VALLEY
curated by Fabio Mariotti
We publish, with the kind permission of the author, the historian from tifernate Alvaro Tacchini, the article on the Spanish epidemic that struck Umbertide at the end of 1918, an article that is part of a series of articles dedicated to Valtiberina Umbra and Tuscany.
For this reason we believe that, in order to better understand what happened and place it in a wider and substantially homogeneous historical, social and civil context, it would be advisable to also read the other articles that refer to the entire valley and of which we report the titles : “Spanish” flu: when and how it spread; October 1918: an attempt was made to minimize; Prophylaxis and popular nutrition; Public hygiene; The "Spanish" in Città di Castello and in the Nestoro valley; the "Spanish" in the Sangiustino area; Sansepolcro: the "Spanish" among the prisoners of Aboca; Pieve Santo Stefano: gratitude towards a military doctor. The "Spanish" among the military ".
At the end of the page you will find the link to access all the articles published on the storiatifernate.it site of Alvaro Tacchini, whom we thank for his courtesy and availability.
by Alvaro Tacchini
The 2020 Coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) recalls the dramatic memory of what happened in 1918-1919, also worldwide, for the so-called "Spanish flu" (H1N1). The following articles reconstruct its history in our valley. It was a shocking event, which locally caused the death of more than a thousand people in the last quarter of 1918 alone. At that time it was a very poor society, with severe hygienic deficiencies and with a modest level of health care, culturally and socially. less ready to face such a serious emergency. Moreover, a society exhausted by four years of war.
Attention! In re-proposing these texts - already published in 2008 - we do not want to darken even more the mood of a public opinion already worried about what is happening. On the contrary! This historical knowledge can help us to better appreciate how much our society has evolved in the last hundred years from the point of view of democracy, social conditions (especially in the food and hygiene fields), health care, basic culture, fabric institutional and associative. One more reason to fight the Coronavirus challenge together, in harmony with the political, administrative and scientific authorities.
The complete texts of the articles, accompanied by the notes, are in my volume "The Upper Tiber Valley and the Great War".
The epidemic in Umbertide
The municipal authorities of Umbertide reported the appearance of the flu to the prefect on 19 September. Since then they have regularly informed him about the progress of the epidemic. Moreover, the prefect himself had given strict provisions to monitor its diffusion in a careful and methodical way.
The bulletins sent by the Umbertian municipality are a valuable source of information. In September 8 disinfections were carried out in the homes of 10 people who died of an infectious or "contagious" disease, as the traffic police often wrote in their reports to whom, together with the municipal brush, the health officer entrusted the task. The affected area was the countryside north of Umbertide, between Montecastelli - above all, with 5 deaths -, Montemigiano, Romeggio and Verna.
That the situation aroused concern is confirmed by the decision, from the end of the month, to have the bodies transported to the cemetery by the shortest route, with religious services only in the church of Santa Maria. But the epidemic suddenly spread to the point that it was necessary to prohibit "the agglomeration in the church for funeral services" and to have the bodies transported directly to the mortuary chapel of the cemetery.
In fact, the telegram sent to the prefect on 4 October painted a dramatic picture. After having indicated the number of people affected by the beginning of the epidemic at about 600, he updated the situation as follows: "Case reports in the last 24 hours are 30 locations in Montecastelli, 20 Niccone, 30 Rasina, 20 Molino Vitelli, 20 Calzolaro, 15 Ranchi Nestoro, another 50 cases in different areas - Three deaths in the last 24 hours, one of which was a prisoner of war was hospitalized in a civil hospital - Situation in Montecastelli worsening, making it impossible for only a doctor to disengage service - Please arrange for another provisional sanitary dispatch of disinfectants ”. The municipal authorities did not hide the gravity of the moment ("here very serious infection, high mortality") when they urgently requested the transfer of about twenty beds from the military hospital to the civil one, which had already exhausted them.
The impact of the "Spanish" was underlined by the bare figures. In the first fifteen days of October in the municipality of Umbertide 49 people died, compared to 6 in the same period in the previous year. In the 12 information bulletins sent to the prefect from 5 to 30 October - but some are missing - we read of 580 new cases of flu, with 53 deaths. The 55 disinfections carried out during that month give us the names of 57 residents in the municipality who died of contagious disease. While there is no official death census, these figures paint a very significant picture during the peak of the epidemic. And the reports of the disinfections barely hint at the tragedy experienced by many families: in Niccone, Silvio Medici lost his wife and daughter; Pietro Boldrini the mother and a son; Domenico Montanucci, from Montemigiano, was killed by his wife, a son and a grandson of just 15 months; David Bacuccoli, from Migianella, and Vittorio Gnagnetti, from Umbertide, each saw two of their daughters die in a few days.
The authorities took every possible precaution. The prefect postponed the commemoration of the dead to December, and ordered that the religious services of All Saints and any other solemn feast be limited to the celebration of flat masses. And, perhaps even in order not to depress the morale of the population, he established that the ringing of bells for holidays or funerals was reduced "to the number of tolls purely essential to the desired signaling".
Sanitary conditions began to improve in November. There were then 40 deaths overall, compared to 17 in November 1917. The reports of the disinfections allow us to quantify at least 21 certain deaths for "Spanish". At the end of the month the Municipality was finally able to write to the prefect that the flu was "significantly decreasing", sending for the first time a bulletin with the words "deaths none".
In December, the daily number of new cases dropped to 7-8. A total of 46 people died, compared to 17 in December of the previous year; at least 10 died from contagious disease.
Meanwhile bad news arrived from the mountain hamlet of Preggio which, in the words of the municipal authorities, was isolated and "without health care". The infection was brought to Preggio by a little girl, already infected in Umbertide, a guest of the Mavarelli family for the Christmas holidays. Quinto Vignoli wrote to the mayor: “[…] the epidemic has also begun to rage in our town and surroundings. In the chapel of the Preggio cemetery there are two dead. One in that of S. Bartolomeo de 'Fossi and one in that of Racchiusole that cannot be buried because they lack the death certificate, as there is no doctor who draws them up. You will easily understand how much a doctor is needed up here in such circumstances (we also have no pharmacy, and having no roads we can say that we are outside the human consortium). As long as our health was good we did not get bored: but now we are claiming for our sagrosanto right. The coming of a doctor twice a week at this moment of such epidemic rage is negligible, especially since the doctor's arrival did not take place before 12 noon to leave at 2.00 pm Little for the town, but nothing for the countryside ”.
At the urgent request of the mayor, the military doctor Augusto Massi was finally sent. He entered service on December 17: from the end of November to that date Preggio had had at least 17 deaths. Massi reassured the mayor about the benign nature of the epidemic in that place, but invited him to keep the schools closed, because the disease - he wrote - "spreads everywhere". From his arrival until March 6, 1919, the doctor reported 747 new cases of flu, which cost the lives of at least 9 people. The surrounding area was most affected. Massi moved on horseback and it took him three hours to reach the most inaccessible areas.
In the rest of the Umbertidese municipality, despite a resurgence towards the end of the year, from January 1919 the "Spanish" gradually dying out and mortality returned to normal levels: in that month there were 26 deaths, just 2 more than in the year previous. There were 8 (outside of Preggio) those due to the disease. It allegedly made another 9 victims between February and 7 June 1919, when the prefecture sent the long-awaited communication to the mayor: "Since the influenza epidemic in the Province has almost ceased, the SV will be able to suspend the sending of bulletins which it relate ".
The set of documentation collected allows us to quantify at no less than 142 the people killed by the "Spanish" in the Umbertidese area since September 1918.
The photos of the documents are taken directly from the site.
The other photos are by Fabio Mariotti from the historical photographic archive of the Municipality of Umbertide.
By clicking on the link you can enter directly on the part of my site that tells the story of the "Spanish" in our territory.