Devastation of 1918 flu revealed through letters

Municipal chorus
The St. Paul Municipal Chorus, posed in front of State Capitol, ca. 1918.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Letters chronicling a failed attempt to stage patriotic singalongs late in World War I provide a window into the devastation of the 1918 Spanish Influenza outbreak in Minnesota.

Late in 1918, America was locked in battle, fighting what would be the final bloody months of World War I. On the homefront, men and women were doing their best to rally patriotism -- and one of the key ways to do that, apparently, was through group singing.

Leopold Bruenner was a musician and composer who served as Minnesota's state director of Liberty Choruses. His work was an arm of the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety, which was most concerned with ferreting out enemies on home soil. The federal government added a new task: Patriotic singing.

From his perch in St. Paul, Bruenner wrote letters to each burg and hamlet in Minnesota, requesting volunteers to lead public singalongs at churches, movie theaters, opera houses or before any public gathering.

"For those of us who do no actual fighting, there can be no more important task than to keep up the morale of the people at home. This is accomplished most effectively by the organization of Liberty choruses throughout the state."

Leopold Bruenner
September 21, 1918

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A Singing Nation is a Winning Nation

Bruenner printed 30,000 song sheets, and instructed chorus directors to "use at first only the better known songs," such as The Star Spangled Banner, America, Battle Hymn of the Republic, Columbia the Gem of the Ocean, Home Sweet Home and Keep the Home Fires Burning.

Leopold Bruenner
Leopold Bruenner, shown in this undated photo, was a musician and composer who served as Minnesota's state director of Liberty Choruses.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Ruth Bauer Anderson is a reference librarian at the Minnesota Historical Society, who discovered Bruenner's Liberty Chorus letters slumbering in the war records files.

"He also promoted that the people should just all sing in unison, whether they had good voices or not," noted Anderson.

Anderson sifts through the files and pulls out a particularly triumphant letter written on Dec. 9, 1918, after Armistice has ended the war.

"I love this line," said Anderson. "A singing nation is a winning nation and a happy nation!"

Hundreds of Bruenner's letters, neatly typed in triplicate, show a man earnestly and energetically devoted to mounting patriotic singalongs throughout Minnesota.

"Persistence will win the day, and the people cannot help but become interested after they have attended one or two community sings and find it rather nice to get in close touch with their next door neighbor. It is also a great help in Americanization work, and a better brand of patriotism will be the inevitable result."

Leopold Bruenner
Janury 20, 1919

A Spreading Epidemic

The pillars of the communities wrote back to Bruenner, giving firsthand accounts of the deadly flu epidemic sweeping through their towns.

Dear Sir,

I received your letter instructing me as Director of Faribault County to appoint township directors for the purpose of organizing Community Choruses. I have talked with several different ones in regard to this matter, and they seem to be of the same opinion -- that under the existing circumstances, namely, Spanish Influenza, that it would be hard to get people together.

We have so many cases here and it is rapidly spreading to other towns nearby. The people are trying to avoid gathering and while the schools have not been closed thus far, there has been some talk of doing so....

Mrs. C.S. Bugbee, Wells, Minn.
October 12-18, 1918

Dear Sir:

It will be impossible to hold community singing in West Concord at the present time, as we have 32 cases of the Spanish Influenza and all public places are closed.

Very truly yours,

R.C. Jones, West Concord, Minn.
October 14, 1918

Most letter writers seem genuinely anguished they can't fulfill the patriotic duties Bruenner requests of them.

A letter writer from Cleveland, Minn. explains schools have been closed for 10 weeks due to the flu. A gentleman in Stillwater reports that everyone who could break loose from their regular obligations is already working around the clock at a munitions plant, leaving no time for singing.

Fires raged in northern Minnesota. And as winter arrived, Minnesota's gravel roads became impassable.

Leopold Bruenner is undeterred.

To Mr. R.C. Jones, West Concord, Minn.

Dear Sir,

Please do not let the Influenza outbreak interfere with your appointment of township directors in Dodge County. Kindly get in touch with the various township directors of the Commission of Public Safety to get suitable persons to direct this important work.

Yours Truly,
Leopold Bruenner,
State Director, Liberty Choruses and Community Singing.
October 19, 1918

Deemed Unwise

Some communities do manage to hold a few public sing-alongs. Mankato's Cornelia Mansfield seems to have been the most prolific organizer.

Found Bruenner's letters
Ruth Bauer Anderson is a reference librarian at the Minnesota Historical Society. She discovered Bruenner's Liberty Chorus letters in the society's war records files.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

But for the most part, Bruenner seems tone-deaf to what's going on around him. He's a true believer in the transformative power of a community making music together.

"He was bound and determined to prevail against all odds," said the Historical Society's Anderson. "I sort of see him sitting at his big desk going, 'We can't let this stop us, we will continue, we will persevere!'"

The Grim Reaper was equally undeterred. Anderson opens a deep file drawer in the History Center's microfilm room containing spools of death certificates.

In 1918, Minnesota recorded 8,000 more deaths than usual. It would take until 1960 to reach the same number of deaths in Minnesota.

The death count during the flu epidemic looked liked this:

  • 1917: 25,606

  • 1918: 33,204

  • 1919: 26,367

In early 1919, the flu continued to rage. Liberty Chorus directors apologized to Bruenner for their lack of progress. Some wrote that they had been laid low by the flu themselves. One Waterville man wrote he had lost one of his children to the epidemic.

Slowly and reluctantly, Breunner gets the picture.

To the Directors of Liberty Choruses and Community Singing:

We find that the influenza epidemic throughout the state is still quite severe in many localities; in others it has subsided somewhat. We have deemed it unwise to attempt anything definite in the way of a statewide community sing on account of it.

Leopold Bruenner
January 11, 1919

Bruenner offered certificates to Liberty Choruses and directors who can show results, and he offered more song sheets to those who can keep singing.

By the end of February, 1919, the Liberty Choruses were disbanded.

"They are able to have a number of sings on George Washington's birthday, and then it just petered out," said Anderson.

Leopold Bruenner never realized his dream of the Liberty Choruses. The flu subsided in 1919, but the time for patriotic sings was over.

Bruenner returned to his life as a musician and composer. He died in St. Paul in 1963 of heart failure at the age of 94.