I have had pandemic on my mind since last April. I can assure you that I am not a prophet or clairvoyant. The reason is quite personal: my grandmother died in the Great Spanish Influenza pandemic in October 1918.
My father had told me his mother died when he was only 5 years old; she was in her 30s. But he never told me how she died and I never asked. But last April I begin doing ancestry research and discovered the cause of her death. Having learned how she died, I continued to wonder about the circumstances in her family and her community in 1918.
Actually, I have been mourning the loss of a relationship I might have had with my grandmother. And imagine my surprise when I found out during that search that her birthplace and home were in Westfield, NC – the place I lived for 23 years without ever knowing I was sitting right on top of my roots! Another story for another day.
When my grandmother, Cora Belle Cobbler Law, died on October 17, 1918 she had been under the care of a doctor in the “Emergency Hospital” in Mount Airy, NC for ten days. The cause of death: lobar pneumonia, secondary to the Spanish Influenza. She had married at age 16; when she died, she left behind six children: Lillie (a special-needs child) aged 17 years; Velna, 15; Ellen, 13; Mary, 8; John Wesley (my dad), 5 years old; and Stella, only 1 year old. I can only imagine the devastation in the lives of her young family.
Additionally, I discovered that an older sister Dora (age 40) had died, likely from the flu as well, on the same day as my grandmother. Their nephew, the 22-year-old son of older sister Frances, had died from Spanish flu just a few days before. He was married and lived nearby in Winston-Salem.
As if this story could not get any sadder, more research informed me that just six weeks later Frances’s two daughters were also flu victims: Viola (15 years old) on December 8, 1918 and Lena (almost 17) on December 11. Unbelievably, Frances herself, only 46 years old, died in the early morning hours on the same day as Lena! Think of it: Frances’s husband lost a son, two daughters and his wife in a span of only six weeks.
I had assumed that the reason for so many deaths was that there were no drugs to treat infections that might be secondary to the flu. Or that the communications of the day were insufficient to alert communities to the dangers. However, according to a recent article by local historian, Kate Rauhauser-Smith, in the Mount Airy News (March 8, 2018, Surry County suffered through flu pandemic.), the leaders of that city were well aware:
“The editor of the Mount Airy News railed at the lack of official action on Oct.17. ‘Since starting here two weeks ago it has gradually spread until it is now estimated that it is in as many as 100 homes and that as many as 300 people have had it. The schools closed themselves when half the pupils stayed at home. The moving picture show shut down of its own accord. Many citizens urged that the churches and other public assembly places be closed, but the leading citizens of the town, many of them, did not approve of the action and nothing official has been done to stop the spread of the disease.’ They still weren’t sure what caused the flu but they knew it transmitted from person to person easily.”
The vicious 1918 flu continued through the spring and early summer of 1919 before subsiding. Infecting twenty-two million Americans; killing 675,000. [Worldwide, estimated 500 million infected, 20-50 million dead.]
We don’t yet know what the final tally will be for the Covid-19 pandemic.
So I say to you, don’t subject yourself to being remembered, and mourned, by an unknown grandchild of a future generation. Don’t be part of a family decimated by spread of disease. Even now in 2020, it is unsettling to realize how sad I feel about the deaths of family members I never knew. And I definitely do NOT want to grieve any deaths of family and friends that I do know today. If history is repeated, it might be the end of summer, or even the year, before we can safely resume normal activities.
Take this seriously. Please wash your hands, stay home, be patient, be safe.
This story was published in the Winston-Salem Journal on Saturday, April 4, 2020.
See it here