WINSTON/MARION – “Schools and churches closed…Do your part by keeping the children at home.”
That quote surely seems relevant today. Both churches and schools have been canceled due to COVID-19. However, the above quote came from a newspaper article in Hamilton from Oct. 16, 1918. It was relevant then, too, as what was known as Spanish influenza gripped the world, including here on our home turf, same as COVID-19 has.
Spanish influenza, a type of H1N1 virus, did not begin in Spain. The origin of this flu is still argued among scholars today. Some believe it started in Kansas. Indeed, some of the first documented cases were at Fort Riley in that state. The flu spread around the world quickly in 1918, most likely due to World War I.
According to the Journal of Translational Medicine, the story goes that the recently constructed Camp Funston at Fort Riley had 60,000 trainees in the U.S. Army getting ready to deploy to France. The horses and mules left piles of manure, which were burned on a daily basis. On March 9, a dust storm went through the area, mixing the dust and ash. Within two days, a cook, Albert Gitchell, experienced flu symptoms. Within hours, 107 patients were exhibiting the same symptoms. By the end of that week, there were 522 cases.
It was called “Spanish” due to Spain being the place the story broke out in newspaper reports. Since Spain was neutral during WWI, pandemic stories were given more attention there.
Worldwide, Spanish influenza killed at least 20 million people. Some believe the number is as high as 100 million.
Dr. H.J. Sankey, a well-known country doctor in Walker County, put out a statement about the influenza as it was first reported in Walker County at the beginning of October, 1918.
“There are…probably 50 to 100 cases in the County of Walker, and it is everyone’s duty to help control the spread of this disease by keeping away from those who are sick unless you are necessary as nurse or doctor.”
Sankey went on to say his office was required to make daily reports to the state department of health.
Winston County had just been hit with a measles epidemic in the early part of 1918 when the Spanish flu started. During the worst month of the outbreak in the United States, October, 27 persons were buried in Winston County who died during the month. Out of the 27, five died as a result of World War I. Of course, it is quite accurate to say not all of the 27 persons buried that month died of Spanish flu. There were 22 deaths in Winston County during October, 1918 which were recorded on death certificates on file in Montgomery. The number of deaths during October for prior and later years shows the spike of deaths occurring from the flu strain: 7 in 1915, 9 in 1916, 9 in 1917, 22 in 1918, 8 in 1919 and 6 in 1920.
Workers at one of the local newspapers in the county at the time, The Winston Herald, even had a problem with the flu.
“On account of the whole Herald force – reserve and all – being afflicted with the ‘flu’ we only print a half-sheet this week,” it was stated in the Oct. 11, 1918, issue.
“The schools were opened up again the first of the week and promptly closed by the health authorities on account of the epidemic,” the Nov. 1, issue said. “It is thought they will open up next week for a permanent run.”
Dr. J.C. Taylor, of Haleyville, was one of the people diagnosed with Spanish influenza. He was well enough at the end of Oct., 1918, to be out of danger.
One statement in the Haleyville Journal issue of Oct. 17, stated, “On account of the prevalence of influenza in the city, service at the churches and also Sunday schools were suspended last Sunday (Oct. 13). An ordinance passed by the city commission forbidding the assembling of crowds in any meeting place was adopted at a called meeting of that body.”
A brief in the same issue states, “William Dozier, who has been attending the A.P.I. (Alabama Polytechnic Institute), at Auburn, returned home Wednesday to remain until the influenza epidemic subsides.” Another one said, “Miss Mattie Dozier, who has been attending school at Montevallo, returned home Sunday, the school having suspended for two weeks.”
Haleyville High School had been closed for some time, but was scheduled to reopen Nov. 4. “All the time that has been lost will be made up on holidays, Saturdays and by lengthening the school hours,” Principal L.L. James said.
The W.A. Thomas family of Cullman was one of the hardest hit families in the area, having four in the family to die from the flu during the fall of 1918, with three deaths during November.
To show the contrast on the number of deaths, for example, nearly 4,600 people died in Philadelphia during one week in October. By mid-November, nearly all cases of the flu were gone in the city. In Alabama, citizens were out voting on Nov. 5. While theories abound as to why and how the flu disappeared so quickly, no one has been able to give a definitive explanation.
One report from Walker County stated the county had, “suffered considerably”, but the mortality rate was light compared with other counties in Alabama and the United States. The report went on to say, “It is thought that prompt action on the part of the board of mayor and aldermen and county board of health in having all schools, churches, etc. closed and public gatherings forbidden helped wonderfully in handling the influenza situation in the county.”
As today, many were panicked in 1918. Fearing a shortage of coffins in Sheffield, a large number of coffins were ordered. Some of the public saw 75 or 80 coffins, assumed they were bodies and began a rumor that many people had passed away in one day in Sheffield.
As there will be in today’s time, there were some who sought to gain from the pandemic, namely those who sold or made tonics and the like. For example, one advertisement says, “For an attack of bronchial trouble…I find Chamberlain’s Cough Remedy the only thing that gives me relief. After using it for a few days all signs of bronchial trouble disappears.”
During the worst part of the pandemic, the U.S. Public Health Service issued statements by Surgeon General Rupert Blue.
“The disease…resembles a very contagious kind of ‘cold,’ accompanied by fever, pains in the head, eyes, ears, back or other parts of the body and a feeling of severe sickness. In most of the cases, the symptoms disappear after three or four days, the patient then rapidly recovering. Some of the patients, however, develop pneumonia, or inflammation of the ear, or meningitis, and many of these complicated cases die…It is very important that every person who becomes sick with influenza should go home at once and go to bed. This will help keep away dangerous complications and will, at the same time, keep the patient from scattering the disease far and wide…
“One should keep out of crowds and stuffy places as much as possible, keep homes, offices and workshops well-aired, spend some time out of doors each day, walk to work if at all practicable – in short, make every possible effort to breathe as much pure air as possible.”
Blue also sent out a public statement a few months later describing those who had the influenza previously were more susceptible to tuberculosis.
“The present generation has been spoiled by having had expert medical and nursing care readily available,” Blue said. “It was not so in the days of our grandmothers, when every good housewife was expected to know a good deal about the care of the sick.”
He added the room the patient is in, “should be cleared of all unnecessary furniture, bric-a-brac and rugs. A wash basin, pitcher and slop bowl, soap and towel should be at hand.”
“We cannot urge upon you too strongly the necessity for remaining at absolute rest, preferably in bed, until strength has been fully recovered,” the Alabama Anti-Tuberculosis League said in a statement. “Do not attempt to go to work or to exercise as soon as fever subsides and you begin to feel comfortable. This is the most critical period of the entire disease.”
As in past epidemics and pandemics, COVID-19 will be gone at some point in the future. We can take comfort in the words printed in the Haleyville Journal Nov. 7, 1918:
“The epidemic of Spanish influenza, which has prevailed at the government nitrate plant at Muscle Shoals, has passed into history, and officials there declare that normal conditions prevail again.”
Another quote says, “November bobbed up serenely with bright sunshine, splendid harvests and ‘flu’ farewells. Jack Frost’s recent visit left some beautiful autumnal colors on the trees in and around Haleyville.”
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.