To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
-“Success” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
My great-grandmother, Lavina Towner Emigh, died on December 13, 1918 during the influenza pandemic that ripped through our country. My grandmother was 4 years old at the time and used to tell us stories about her. I wish I had listened. The arrogance of my youth whispered nothing like that could happen to me.
Yet, here we are.
In 1918 and 1919, the Spanish influenza killed 550,000 people in the United States and 20 to 40 million worldwide (Montana Historical Society). When news outlets call the COVID 19 pandemic “unprecedented”, I have to think our ancestors are laughing at our hubris. There have been pandemics in the world before this one. And, there are unique parallels of the emotions and feelings captured in the archives of survivors’ first-hand accounts of the day.
A Charlotte Ledger article entitled “Charlotte’s Other Big Pandemic” exposed the myth of our current reality as ‘unprecedented’ in a recent article. Author Tony Mecia introduced us to Lauren Austin and her groundbreaking doctoral thesis, “Afraid to Breathe: Understanding North Carolina’s Experience of the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic at the State, Local and Individual Levels.” The thesis features voices sharing eerily recognizable accounts. And, we have the chance to learn some lessons from the past:
The words of Professor William Cain, professor of mathematics and engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill still ring true. This excerpt was a letter written to his sister in October, 1918:
“I can only infer from your letter that one of you has caught ‘The Flu’, though I wrote you to tell me definitely, for B. Jr. has been in great danger. I do not like her exposing herself continuously. As I write you, Drs. MacNider and Mauquess both caught it in spite of masks on, Mauquess having a relapse after 10 days from going out when he thought he was well” (Austin 223).
His letter continues with a stern warning:
“If any of you get symptoms, don’t do as I did (work on), but go to bed and stay there. I did lie down for four hours every evening and took no walks” (Austin 223).
In Wisconsin, circulars were distributed to residents in October 1918 to urge them to stay in bed:
“Every case of influenza should go to bed at once under the care of a physician. If you get a cold, go to a well-ventilated room. Do not kiss anyone. Patient should stay in bed at least 3 days after fever has disappeared…The great danger is pneumonia. The patient must not cough or sneeze except when a mask or handkerchief is held before the face. The after-effects of influenza are worse than the disease. Strictly observe the state and city rules and regulations for the control of influenza” (Wausaw Record Herald).
The woman’s committee of the Council of Defense in Wisconsin was asked to help by visiting the sick:
“They were told to warn all members of afflicted households to wash their hands frequently and not to use eating and drinking utensils in common. All dishes should be thoroughly cleaned, all rooms kept clean and well ventilated and handkerchiefs, towels and linens used about the sick boiled or destroyed” (Capital Times).
They also had restrictions similar to our Stay-At-Home orders:
“Also not to spread or contract the disease from their neighbors by unnecessary calls or neighborly visits, nor by allowing children from various households to mingle on the streets or the premises. The police have been ordered to keep a close lookout for all children found playing on streets or on premises other than at their own homes” (Wausau Record Herald).
The loneliness of Stay-At-Home orders was illustrated an interview with a Montana survivor of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic:
“People would come along, and young men, nineteen, twenty years old…And they’d stop and say hello to us. My mother was very friendly. She loved to see those people. She was kind of lonesome there, you know, just us kids and her. So when anybody passed by, she always stayed with them. And, you know, maybe a week later, they’d say so-and-so died, and they had been past our place. So many people had that flu, and young people, and they died” (Montana Historical Society).
Yet, through despair, survivors remember helping each other. Edna Register Boone lived through the 1918 pandemic in Alabama:
“I was 10 years old and my family was the only family in the little town that did not contract the flu. Therefore, my parents became automatic nurses. They nursed every family in town. It was my job as a 10 year old to take food to people, to families, all of them stricken. Mama would put a gauze bandage around my face and she kept sterilized fruit jars on the stove at all times. She would fill the jars with soup or whatever there was, and I would take those jars to the home of an afflicted family, knock on the door and leave the food at the door for someone to come pick it up. It was not a pretty picture…No one was able to go shopping. No one was able to cook. They could bake a few potatoes, even if it was in the fireplace. I knew I had to participate. I knew that my family was being protected. I knew I had to do my part” (Alabama Public Health).
My daughter Colleen is 10 years old and my son is 14. Contrary to Ms. Boone’s experience, they are living pretty well- albeit missing their family and friends. I cannot imagine having my daughter or son deliver food to the sick at this time. However, we are helping local charities from a safe distance.
Apart from staying at home, most survivors were asked for their advice on how to survive a pandemic, if it ever happened again. Garfield Johnson of Alabama gave some good advice:
“Well, you know, most folks don’t try to have a garden. I say it’s better to have it and not need it than it is to need it and not have it. Me and Harriet got three deep freezers and we’ve got them partly full. We give to the young ones – share it one thing and another (Alabama Public Health).”
The Saratogian, Saratoga Springs, N. Y. Sat. 14 Dec 1918
Mrs. [Lavina] Starr Emigh, aged thirty-two years, died at her home in Locust Grove [Town of Greenfield, NY] at 12:30 o’clock yesterday [13 Dec] afternoon following a short illness of influenza. She is survived by her husband and 8 small children; Zilpha, Burtis, Vina, Beatrice, Elsie, Lena, Dorothy and Alice; 1 sister, Mrs. Howard Emigh of Milton; 3 brothers, Thomas and Jerome, who are in the United States service; Clarence of Burgoyne; and several nephews and nieces.
Funeral services will be held Sunday afternoon at 2 o’clock at the late woman’s residence. The Rev. R. D. Andrews of Greenfield Center will officiate and burial will be at Greenfield Center.
Five of the young woman’s surviving children are also seriously ill with influenza.
Special thanks to The Charlotte Ledger, The Saratogian, Lauren Austin, oral histories shared by the Montana Historical Society, Alabama Public Health and the archives of the Capital Times and Wausaw Record Herald of Wisconsin.