The century-old letter could have been penned today. LaVerne Roquette was writing her boyfriend, Russell Rathbun, about a new and “awful” virus.
“All the towns and cities for miles around are all closed — everything but the meat markets, grocery, and dry good stores,” wrote 23-year-old LaVerne on Oct. 10, 1918, at the peak of the deadly influenza pandemic that had just gripped her. “At some places people have to wear gauze masks when they appear on the streets … the government has closed all schools, churches, theatres.”
Holly Hannah Lewis found her grandmother LaVerne’s letter amid 84 courtship correspondences with her grandfather Russell in a shoe box tucked in a brass trunk her mother once used as a coffee table. She had never seen the letters until her mother, Rosemary Hannah, died in 2018 at 97.
Shuttered in her Minneapolis home during the bitter winter of 2019 and sequestered during the coronavirus shutdown, Lewis, 73, shaped the letters into a 125-page book for family members.
“It has been captivating to journey back into the last century,” Lewis said, noting that her grandmother’s descriptions of the 1918 flu pandemic are “so parallel to our own experience.”
LaVerne and Russell met at the Roof Garden of the Hotel Radisson in Minneapolis, where young people gathered to dance in the spring of 1917 just as the United States entered the First World War.
Russell, born in Missouri in 1889, moved north to attend the University of Minnesota. Only 5 feet 3 with blue eyes and dark hair, he earned the nickname “Bunny” as a Gophers track and cross-country star and was known as a megaphone-toting football cheerleader.
When the U.S. joined World War I, Russell was 27 and working as a banker in Detroit Lakes, Minn. He quickly made his way to the Twin Cities to sign up for the war. Maybe his gung-ho attitude was genetic — his family’s roots wound back to the American Revolution.
“He really wanted to enlist as an officer,” Lewis said. “But he was too short.”
So Russell hung from a pullup bar for hours to stretch out and “came in just over the wire” when he enlisted at Fort Snelling, Lewis said. He quickly climbed in rank from captain to major in the U.S. Army’s 88th Infantry Division.
LaVerne was born in 1895 on a North Dakota ranch near Dickinson, where her father ran a department store. By 1917, she was studying art at the University of Minnesota when she met Russell. They dated for a week or so, dancing every night, before he shipped off to France with the American Expeditionary Forces.
“She was a beautiful girl, was about five feet two, slim but athletic,” Russell wrote years later. “She did a great many things well — swim, golf, sail a boat, and ride any horse like a vaquero.”
Written from 1917 to 1920, the 84 letters Lewis unearthed include three chronicling the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic that claimed 675,000 American lives. The death toll would be equivalent to more than 2 million American deaths today, far worse than the current COVID-19 projections.
LaVerne wrote “Bunnie” on a splendid autumn day in October 1918: “Somehow this pretty day has been wasted. Have just had to sit inside and look out, all day long.” Later that month she wrote that the flu “has been raging like wildfire in the United States. It didn’t miss Dickinson by any means. I wasn’t left out of the swim either.” She had contracted the flu.
With Prohibition still more than a year away, LaVerne told Russell that government officials were endorsing whiskey “to kill the influenza germ,” and so she had turned to her father’s wine chest when she became sick. The treatment, she wrote, gave an excuse to “quite a few of the boys” to celebrate at a band dance that was sparsely attended “on account of the sickness.”
“I drank quite a large glass full of whisky,” she wrote. “In a very short time I talked very loud and giggled to myself …. I soon fell into a deep sleep and never even moved until almost noon the next day.” After a week in bed, she recovered.
The war ended three weeks later. LaVerne and Russell married in January 1920 and lived in Detroit Lakes until Minnesota Gov. J.A.O. Preus appointed Russell the state’s superintendent for banks in 1922. Their daughter, Lewis’ mother, Rosemary, soon followed.
But “the story has a sad ending,” Lewis said. LaVerne was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1923 and endured nine bedridden years before dying in 1932 at the age of 36.
Mayo Clinic doctors surmised the flu “had weakened her spinal cord and that had allowed the MS to take hold,” Lewis said. “I have never found anything to prove or disprove this theory.”
Russell remarried five years later and enjoyed a long career as a banker and investment broker. He served as a brigadier general for the Minnesota State Guard during World War II when National Guard troops were deployed, and remained a devoted Gophers fan. He died in 1987 at the age of 98.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.