[Review] The Spanish Flu Epidemic and its Influence on History by Jaime Breitnauer

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On the second Monday of March 1918, the world changed forever. What seemed like a harmless cold morphed into a global pandemic that would wipe out as many as a hundred-million people – ten times as many as the Great War. German troops faltered lending the allies the winning advantage, India turned its sights to independence while South Africa turned to God. In Western Samoa a quarter of the population died; in some parts of Alaska, whole villages were wiped out. Civil unrest sparked by influenza shaped nations and heralded a new era of public health where people were no longer blamed for contracting disease. Using real case histories, we take a journey through the world in 1918, and look at the impact of Spanish flu on populations from America, to France, to the Arctic, and the scientific legacy this deadly virus has left behind.

Given the current global situation with the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve been hearing a lot of comparisons between it and the Spanish Flu of 1918. Now, I knew that the Spanish Flu had decimated countries but other than that, I didn’t know all that much about it. When I found this book on sale in the kindle store, I thought I would pick it up and give it a read, to satisfy the curious itch that I’ve been having about this short, but deadly period in world history.

This book, written by Jaime Breitnauer, focuses on individual stories of those from across the world who were affected by the Spanish Flu. These are the stories of people from all levels of society – soldiers from the front lines of war torn France, children who lost their parents due to the illness, parents who knew that they would lose everything once they had the virus and ended up resorting to desperate message….the list goes on. It becomes very clear, very quickly, when reading this book that it didn’t matter whether you were pauper or royalty – the virus could and would strike. It affected everyone. Many of the stories are particularly heartbreaking – a father who became unwell knew that he was the only one able to work and provide for his family, so he kept on working until he was so bad that he was sent home. He knew that he had the Spanish Flu, and as he dragged himself home he decided that there was only one way out. His aim was to kill both of his daughters and then himself – whilst he managed to kill one of the girls, the other escaped. He then turned the knife he had used on his daughter upon himself. These were the actions of a very desperate man, who would rather kill himself and his family than have them suffer and starve because he caught the Spanish Flu and lost his job. When I read that little story I paused for a second and felt tears in my eyes – I couldn’t even begin to contemplate what was going through this man’s mind at the time.

We also see the impacts of the Spanish Flu on future generations. We see how Hitler’s rise to power could well have been accentuated by how the flu had affected the German population. We see how the author of A Clockwork Orange, as a child, lost his mother to the flu, and how the experience of being in the same room as her dead body for days influenced his later writing. We also see how public health procedures were stepped up in an effort to stop such a pandemic from ever happening again, up to the creation of the WHO and beyond. Of course throughout the work we also see the mistakes that were made both during the pandemic and after – in particular, the failure of certain governments to act quickly enough to halt the spread of the disease. This is something that many countries around the world are currently experiencing.

Whilst this book doesn’t aim to zero in on just where the Spanish Flu originated from, it certainly does give a short and concise overview of this huge event in history. It is exceptionally well written to the point I would call it a page turner – it gives the facts without sounding overly academic or pretentious – and let me tell you, it’s made me want to learn more about the Spanish Flu pandemic. More – I’m not sure I would say it’s negative – it has made me think a lot more about our current predicament, the mistakes that have been made and continue to be made. The second wave of the Spanish Flu was far more virulent and it honestly has me wondering whether we will end up experiencing the same with the current Covid-19 crisis.

A great read and highly recommended.

4/5

Ripper Book Reviews – Double Bill!

Jack the Ripper is a name that everyone knows – he’s become a legend, a man who stalked the streets of Whitechapel murdering prostitutes. Except no one knows who he was, only what he did. There’s this huge mystery surrounding him that for over a century has had historians and the public alike scratching their heads and wondering just who he was. The Ripper has been an interest of mine for a while but until now I haven’t really sat down and read anything on him other than a little on the canonical five murders, so when the lovely Pen & Sword offered two Ripper books to review, I jumped at the chance. So today’s post is two very brief reviews of these books, both of which I devoured within just a few days.

The Hidden Lives of Jack the Ripper’s Victims – Robert Hume

This book took me about a day and a half to read – I just couldn’t put it down! Just as it says on the cover, this piece of work delves into the lives of Jack the Rippers victims and explains that, contrary to popular belief, they were more than just prostitutes who sold their bodies on the streets of Whitechapel.

Hume tells us the real stores of these women, their history and how they ended up in the poorest area of London. Each story is incredibly sad in it’s own way – each of these women had jobs, homes and families only to find themselves at the bottom of the ladder thanks to perhaps a simple mistake. One example being Annie Chapman. Despite being born out of wedlock (her father married her mother after she was born), Annie grew up in a respectable area and eventually married a respectable man in regular employment. Things started getting difficult when a little one was born. Then her husband was fired from his job, likely due to Annie stealing something from his employer. Heavy drinking then ensued and, when her husband left her, she ended up in the East End. There, with little money of her own, she became desperate and like many other women, resorted to prostitution to make ends meet.

The lives of these women are shockingly similar and reading their stories honestly filled me with sadness. They apparently never knew each other but were linked in so many ways – their lives, their falling from grace, and their horrific deaths at the hand of Jack the Ripper.

I highly recommend this book if you have any interest in women’s history, particularly around the Victorian era, and true crime. It is incredibly well written and Hume presents his subject with candour.

5/5

Who was Jack the Ripper? All the Subjects Revealed – Members of H Division Crime Club

This book, written by members of the H Division Crime Club, is basically a collection of essays around the main Ripper suspects and delves into the psychological profiling of the sort of man who could have committed such atrocities. Whilst this is certainly an interesting way of looking at the suspects, and probably the only way that a book of this type could be written, it does come across as if they expect the reader to have at least some basic knowledge of the time and the event.

Each chapter/essay focuses on a different suspect and argues as to why this individual is the most likely to be the infamous Ripper. Each chapter is well written and presents evidence behind the theories exceptionally well – only to then be totally discredited by someone in the next chapter. Of course, in a book like this there will be totally conflicting arguments and, at the end of the day, no solid conclusion as to who Jack the Ripper really was.

This was an interesting read but I do think you need at least some knowledge of the events (beyond the legends and films etc that have sprung up around the Ripper case) to be able to take it all in. Parts of it are a difficult read – the final chapter is written by a forensic psychologist and goes into some psychological profiling quite deeply.

A fascinating read but not one that everyone will enjoy. And ultimately this book just goes to prove that the identity of Jack the Ripper will forever remain unknown.

3/5