“The First One That Died Sure Unnerved Me”

What a mordantly funny letter from the 1918 pandemic says about 2020.

A snapshot of Lutiant La Voye overlayed on vintage hospital beds.
Lutiant. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via National Archive and Jan Hakan Dahlstrom/Stone via Getty Images Plus.

A year ago, before all of this, I stumbled upon a woman’s letter about her brief experience nursing soldiers through the 1918 flu. It struck me then as a vibrant example of a puckish young woman’s disinclination to take anything too seriously, up to and including a world-altering pandemic. Lutiant Van Wert’s letter was the sixth item in an online exhibit at the National Archives about the 1918 pandemic I was absent-mindedly browsing, and what stood out to me then was how resolute and irreverent it was. I cherished it not for its subject but for its wit. While the letter does describe death, it abounds in the sorts of bubbly, unexpected pleasures a 19-year-old fresh out of school would naturally take in her newfound independence. (On a meet cute with a soldier: “He is not what one would call ‘handsome’ but he is certainly good-looking.”)

What I appreciated about Lutiant (who in records is surnamed La Voye or Lavoye, in addition to Van Wert) was the wide tonal range of her observations: She describes the closures of theaters and dancing halls in Washington and the novelty of hearing airplanes overhead, but there’s also an in-depth discussion of a sweater she wants her friend to send her once she’s out of quarantine. Even her most alarming anecdotes betray a youthful urge to take large tragedies in stride—or at least to appear to. She gives an account of two German spies who were found to have been deliberately infecting American soldiers with the flu and executed. “It is such a horrible thing, it is hard to believe, and yet such things happen almost every day in Washington,” Lutiant writes, with affected worldliness.

I knew nothing about the 1918 flu in May 2019. My ignorance was, according to the National Archives, symptomatic of a larger case of American amnesia: “It is an oddity of history that the influenza epidemic of 1918 has been overlooked in the teaching of American history,” the introduction observed disapprovingly. Historians and epidemiologists were aghast at why no one seemed to remember a virus that killed millions of people and had much of the country shut down or roaming the streets in masks. But here’s the sorry truth: Back then, I couldn’t muster much curiosity about the epidemic either. I surf the archives just for fun, and it seemed unlikely that a flu that happened more than a century ago could have had any meaningful bearing on my life. What compelled me wasn’t the flu but Lutiant—who turned out to be a Chippewa graduate of the Haskell Institute in Kansas, a very good stenographer, and a hell of a writer.

Lutiant’s letter to her pal Louise, who was still a student at the school, opens with a naughty bang: “So everybody has the ‘Flu’ at Haskell? I wish to goodness Miss Keck and Mrs. McK. would get it and die with it. Really, it would be such a good riddance, and not much lost either!” It was a startling joke to make about a deadly disease—uncomfortable, bold, queasily hilarious in a very teenage way. But then the letter swerves into some deeply unfunny stakes:

As many as 90 people die every day here with the “Flu”. Soldiers too, are dying by the dozens. So far, Felicity, C. Zane, and I are the only ones of the Indian girls who have not had it. We certainly consider ourselves lucky too, believe me. We were there at the Camp ten days among some of the very worse cases and yet we did not contract it. We had intended staying much longer than we did, but the work was entirely too hard for us, and anyway the soldiers were all getting better so we came home to rest up a bit.

This passage is nested with contradictions that ask the reader not to judge Lutiant too harshly: the casual and subtly defensive “anyway,” the pride at not getting infected, the nested admission that this work was so hard she only lasted 10 days.

To be blunt, I thought she was making (understandable) excuses. But revisiting this letter almost exactly a year after I first encountered it, much has changed. The once-forgotten 1918 flu is a Twitter hashtag, we’re sheltering in place in a pandemic, and I now see the way Lutiant engages with mortality and living among disease in a different light. Americans are once again, 102 years later, wearing masks, quarantining, and groping for some balance between quotidian concerns and the ongoing emergency. We’re making jokes, making bread, joking about aliens. Lutiant’s irreverence doesn’t scan as frivolous anymore. It’s a survival mechanism. And her wild changes in tone match the way our own emotions vacillate today: We’re trying to manage our everyday lives while occupying a larger story whose horror and scope are too much to take in all at once.

Reading her letter now, what I see is a person wrestling not just with the insufficiency of describing what she saw but also the hopelessness of pinning down her feelings about it. Four of the officers Lutiant cared for died—she calls watching this “pitiful” and tries to explain what it was like.

I was right in the wards alone with them each time, and Oh! The first one that died sure unnerved me—I had to go to the nurses’ quarters and cry it out. The other three were not so bad. Really, Louise, Orderlies carried the dead soldiers out on stretchers at the rate of two every three hours for the first two days were there.

The oddly affecting “Oh!” followed by her dubious “the other three were not so bad” produces some cognitive whiplash in the reader—one that she herself may have felt. I understand that now in a way I couldn’t last year, and it’s made me think differently about that opening sentence—the one about wishing her teachers were dead. Lutiant is jackknifing through the pandemic in a way that’s by turns funny and dissociative and largely consistent with responses people seem to be having now.

Rereading the letter amid COVID-19 made me want to look Lutiant up. A friend had alerted me to the fact that Lutiant’s insouciance got her in trouble. The Haskell Institute screened students’ mail. They read the joke, and the superintendent regretted that “the time spend at Haskell did not develop a greater spirit of gratitude in her.” Lutiant wrote an apology letter. From Ojibwe historian Brenda Child’s memoir, My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks: Ojibwe Family Life and Labor on the Reservation, I learned that Lutiant’s mother died in 1905, when she was 5 or 6. She eventually became the ward of her uncle, who placed her at a Catholic school in Minnesota and later sent her to the Haskell Institute. After eighth grade she’d looked forward to “becoming an efficient stenographer to live on [her] own and to be independent.”

Lutiant graduated in June 1918, shortly after the first spate of the flu. She worked as a clerk in Rocky Ford, Colorado, before volunteering to nurse ailing soldiers. This was brave: Unlike COVID-19, the flu had a high death rate among healthy adults 15 to 34 years of age.

But there’s more: Lutiant turned out to have had a far more personal connection to the flu than I’d realized. Lutiant graduated from the Haskell Institute in June, four months before she wrote this letter. In March, the school had experienced an outbreak so severe that a surgeon from the United States Public Health Service came to investigate. (One disputed theory holds that the virus originated in Kansas, not far from the Haskell Institute.) At the time of the surgeon’s visit, four of Lutiant’s classmates had died.

The Indian Leader published the school physician’s account of what the months before Lutiant volunteered to work with the worst cases looked like. “On March 17, without any thought of sickness being near, pupils began to come to the hospital. The second day 39 came. During the week so many were sick that school and industrial departments practically had to stop their work; there was a total in the hospital wards of 207 who were sick enough to require day and night attention.” This is what Lutiant lived through. “At the present time the epidemic appears to be spent,” the physician said, making the kind of error we have now, in our own time, witnessed dozens of officials make. Lutiant saw all this, and she volunteered to nurse sick people despite or because of it.

The letter I thought was so spirited, so funny, so full of jokes and larks really is that, but it’s also, in hindsight, filled with coping mechanisms. A joke she makes about taking advantage of the lockdown to visit her soldier isn’t far from one that might be made today: “There is a bill in the Senate today authorizing all the war-workers to be released from work for the duration of the epidemic. It has not passed the house yet, but I can’t help but hope it does. If it does, Lutiant can find plenty of things at home to busy herself with, or she might accidentally take a trip to Potomac Park. Ha! Ha!”

A year ago I’d gladly cut Lutiant some slack for quitting as a volunteer nurse after 10 days. The letter, I see now, tells a deeper story. The reason she wants to go to Potomac Park isn’t (just) her lieutenant: It’s that the people there are in desperate need, and she’s not done trying to help. She’s brave, she understands her limitations, and she’s ready to try again.

Repeated calls come from the Red Cross for nurses to do district work right here in D.C. I volunteered again, but as yet I have not been called and am waiting. Really, they are certainly “hard up” for nurses—even me can volunteer as a nurse in a camp or in Washington. There are about 800 soldiers stationed at Potomac Park right [here] in D.C. just a short distance from the Interior building where I work, and this morning’s paper said that the deaths at this park was increasing, so if fortune favors me, I may find myself there before the week is ended.

If fortune favors me. Lutiant wrote that in October of 1918, when the second, much deadlier outbreak was fully under way. Lutiant is 102 years behind us. In other ways, I’ve come to realize, she’s ahead. The outbreak at the Haskell Institute that Lutiant lived through was in March. That corresponds with when the coronavirus outbreak in our own time got fully underway. Lutiant must have read, that spring, what the surgeon who visited the Haskell Institute said was likely to happen: “I think that there will be a prompt decline in the number of cases hereafter, following the continuation of the warm weather and the result of the recent rain.” Just as those of us following the news might have seen Jared Kushner announce, on Wednesday, that “we’re on the other side of the medical aspect of this. The federal government rose to the challenge, and this is a great success story.”

We’ve just entered May, and she’s writing from October. She knows things we don’t yet: that in her time, the optimists got it wrong. That things got worse again. She knows the work was hard enough that she quit. And she’s ready to go back anyway.

You can read Lutiant’s letter in full below: