Children of 1918-19 skipped rope to a little rhyme.



“I had a little bird,

Its name was Enza.

I opened the window.

And in-flu-enza”



But the Spanish influenza, Spanish flu, or la grippe, as it was called, was no joke. It was a worldwide catastrophe, and in a few short months, as World War I was ending in Europe, the influenza pandemic swept the globe, killing between 20 million and 40 million people, 675,000 in the United States.

Raleigh County, along with the rest of West Virginia, felt the full force of the contagion. A very minimum of 110 Raleigh countians died and hundreds more suffered but recovered, all within a seven-month period, September 1918 through March 1919.

Outbreaks flared throughout North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Brazil and the South Pacific. The mortality rate was extremely high in India. More American soldiers died of the flu than were killed in combat. About 43,000 men in uniform, at home and in Europe, perished of the disease.

It was the most deadly pandemic in recorded history. More people died of the flu in one year than were killed in four years of the Black Death (bubonic plague), 1347-1351. A fifth of the world’s population got the disease. Twenty-eight percent of Americans were infected. People in the prime of life, those age 20-40, were most vulnerable.

In 2006, 87 years later, world health authorities feared that another pandemic, “the Asian bird flu,” might strike with even more deadly effect than the Spanish influenza of 1918-19. Originating in the Far East, bird flu deaths were reported as far west as Turkey. But it soon faded away with only occasional flare-ups.

The Spanish flu victims died miserably. One doctor wrote that patients with seemingly ordinary influenza would rapidly “develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen” and later when cyanosis appeared in the patients, “it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate.” Another physician recalled that the patients “died struggling to clear their airways of blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed from the nose and mouth.”

Stories circulated about the quickness and viciousness of the disease. One told of four women playing bridge late into the night. Overnight, three of them died of the flu. Others reported people on their way to work dying within hours.

The Spanish flu swept Europe in the summer of 1918 and invaded Massachusetts in September. A first wave of the disease, however, had appeared in the spring of 1918 in Kansas and in military camps throughout the U.S., but went virtually unnoticed. It was the second wave, believed to have reached Boston from ships docking from Europe, that spread rapidly throughout the country that autumn.

The first cases also flared up in West Virginia in September, according to the West Virginia Health Department, which early issued general orders, closing theaters, churches and other places where crowds gather. Flu patients were strictly isolated. Spanish influenza first appeared in the Eastern Panhandle, the health department reported, and quickly spread southward through the entire state. Physicians and nurses were cautioned to wear gauze masks to prevention the inhalation of the germs. The wife of W.W. Hume, a Beckley physician, volunteered to help make the flu masks.

Throughout the course of the epidemic, deaths were reported in Beckley, Mabscott, Sullivan, Glen Daniel, Lester, Slab Fork, Lanark, Raleigh, Stotesbury, Shady Spring, Lillybrook, Cabell, McAlpin, Blue Jay, Eccles, Sprague, Riley, Ghent, Cranberry, Affinity, Skelton, Pemberton, Dorothy, Beaver, Sophia, Wright, Leckie, Wickham, Winding Gulf, Table Rock, Bacontown and Mount Tabor. Eccles was especially hard hit, and other county mining towns and rural communities were also affected.

Three special hospitals were set up in Charleston for flu victims. In Huntington, 324 new cases were counted in that city the last week in October. College students came home to try to escape the disease.

Exactly how many perished in Raleigh County cannot be determined accurately. Some flu deaths, but not all, were registered in Death Record No. 3, the official death register in the county clerk’s office, but the reporting of all deaths, although mandatory by state law, was not strictly enforced in those days. The hundreds who were stricken but recovered were not routinely reported.

Beckley’s weekly newspaper, The Raleigh Register, reported some deaths that did not appear in the official county register, and others that were reported in Death Register No. 3 were not reported in the newspaper. In its November 1918 issue, The Raleigh Register estimated 150 cases countywide at that time.

No segment of the population was spared. President Woodrow Wilson took to his bed in early 1919, and the previous December, Beckley Mayor Herbert Stansbury was confined to his home on South Kanawha Street.

Dr. Robert Earl Jarrell, a 30-year-old Glen Daniel physician, fell ill with the flu on Oct. 14 and died 11 days later. Nor were newspaper editors who reported on the disease immune. In neighboring Fayette County, W.L. Ramsey, editor of The Fayette Journal, died in mid-October. Mrs. M.F. Gunnoe, 39, of Church Street, Beckley, died Nov. 3, survived by her husband and eight children, two of whom also had the flu. Mrs. George Ranson, 25, of Shady Spring succumbed Oct. 29, survived by her husband and five small children.

In Stanaford, Mrs. Charles Beard, 20, died in child birth in October and her husband died of influenza-pneumonia, all within 48 hours. All three were buried in the same grave. Mrs. Inez Willy, 17, of Lillybrook and her infant baby succumbed to the flu on Oct. 25. Mrs. Leslie Blevins, 25, of McAlpin died on Nov. 30. Her husband and five children were also confined to their home by the disease.

Minnie Walker, whose husband, W.H. Walker, was “with the colors in France,” died at Leckie of the flu on Dec. 19 after giving birth to their first-born, who also died. Two brothers, Natalie Caminiti, 32, and Pietro Caminiti, 26, both of Mabscott, succumbed the same day, Nov. 20.

And in Johnstown (now the Johnstown Road section of Beckley), James Edward Rutherford, who was to have married Clarice Hatcher of Johnstown, died on the day of his wedding, Jan. 8.

In early December, a Beckley undertaker was taxed to the limit to keep up with the disposal of the flu dead. One employee had been called on to handle eight bodies in 24 hours. Father J.P.T. Holzmer, priest at St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church on South Oakwood Avenue, said on Nov. 28 that there had been one influenza death daily in his parish for the past nine days.

The economic impact was widespread in business throughout Raleigh County and the state. Slab Fork Coal Co. reported in November that its production had been reduced by the epidemic, and the illness among miners in the county cut coal tonnage throughout the New River and Winding Gulf fields, according to The Raleigh Register.

By early October, Beckley churches, schools and theaters had closed, only to reopen again as the disease abated temporarily, then closed again with an insurgence of new flu cases. Late that month, court was postponed until January. “It appearing to the court that influenza is prevalent in the county, that many people died therefrom, and it further appearing from doctors’ statements that it would most likely be dangerous to hold the regular October term of the court, it is therefore ordered that all the jury trials be continued until the regular term of court in January, and that all petit jurors now drawn to attend the criminal court between now and Nov. 11 be notified not to attend ...”

The Beckley health board in October advised city residents to remain indoors as much as possible and to avoid public gatherings. Glen White banned public meetings and told residents not to congregate on the town streets.

In November, an emergency hospital was established in the basement of Beckley’s First Baptist Church on Neville Street. About a dozen influenza patients were being treated there at the time, all having been brought in from surrounding communities.

And not without some grumbling from townspeople. “There is considerate opposition to the hospital,” The Raleigh Register reported, “not so much because it is an influenza hospital but because it is claimed that the precautions taken to prevent the spreading of the epidemic are inadequate. Attendants do not wear masks and do not change clothing when leaving the place. And when a patient is brought in, kinsmen and friends trudge after the stretcher-bearers into the hospital and then scatter about the city in a manner to spread the germs of the disease everywhere.”

Opposition, however, was short-lived. In early December, a story in the newspaper praised the Baptist hospital, declaring that “despite much confusion, a wonderful work of mercy has been performed by the good people in charge of this institution, and much of the opposition to their activities disappeared when strict measures against spread of the contagion from there were enforced ...”

The epidemic waxed and waned, tapering off in some communities only to flare anew a week or so later, then fade away again, and later strike with renewed vigor. Businesses, churches, and schools closed, then reopened, only to close again. In mid-October, Dr. Robert Wriston, the city health officer, reported that despite precautions, flu cases in Beckley had trebled the past week with 20 new cases and that 20 to 40 cases were then raging, up from 12 the previous week. And by late that month, Dr. J.A. Campbell, the county health officer, said that in all parts of Raleigh County where the quarantine was not rigidly enforced the disease was still spreading rapidly in rural sections and some mining communities.

By mid-November, the epidemic had abated in some sections of the county. Dr. J.L. Lineweaver, pastor, announced that Beckley Presbyterian Church would hold services Nov. 17. The Winding Gulf School, churches and theater were to reopen on Nov. 18, and Beckley grade schools were to reopen Nov. 25. Glen White School had resumed classes Nov. 11 with full attendance, but Dr. A.G. Bowles, the coal company physician there, urged precautions to prevent recurrence of the disease.

The optimism was premature. The Raleigh Register reported on Nov. 28: “The influenza situation in this section is very bad, perhaps worse than at any time since the first outbreak of the epidemic. Physicians state that the city of Beckley itself is under control, but in Mabscott, Wickam and Sprague it is raging with greater fury than ever before ...” The Raleigh County Bar Association again decided to dispense with the jury at the December term of circuit court because of the continued presence of the disease.

By December, public gatherings had again been restricted in Beckley, Churches, schools, theaters, pool rooms and soda fountains closed and the health board was considering quarantining the city against bringing patients from outlying points, but this would not apply to cases being brought to the Baptist emergency hospital.

Earl E. Bibb, chairman of home services of the Raleigh County Red Cross, announced on Dec. 11 the flu hospital was open to all, regardless of color. “We have five trained nurses, hot water, steam heat, clean and sanitary wards for men and women.” In early January, he too was ill with the flu, but recovered.

When the epidemic slacked off momentarily, the hospital discharged its last patient on Dec. 16. Bedding was burned and floors scrubbed, but the next morning it reopened when four new patients were brought in from out of town. Four more, from Beckley, were admitted that afternoon.

The city was declared practically free of flu on Dec. 19, but the board of health closing order remained in effect “as long as the plague still prevails in surrounding communities. End of the epidemic has not been reached.”

Indeed, if it were a quarantine it was a strange one. “Contrary to the idea that seems to be widely prevalent there has been no general quarantine of the city of Beckley,” The Raleigh Register reported. “People in good health are permitted to come and go as they please, and there will be no interference with (Christmas ) holiday shopping in the city, except that people will not be permitted to crowd into any one store in great numbers ...”

Still, Christmas season business apparently suffered. E.M. Payne department store ran an ad in the Jan. 16 newspaper stating that “the dreadful epidemic of Spanish influenza has kept the ladies so close at home it is overstocked with a large assortment of ladies suits at 1/2 price off.”

Beckley schools, closed and then reopened only to close again, were scheduled to resume classes on Jan. 13 if there were no resurgence of the disease. The city’s churches and Sunday schools, after being shut many weeks, reopened on Jan. 12, and the Lyric Theater on the following Monday showed a Douglas Fairbanks movie. Glen White reported itself flu-free and the school and churches there were expected to resume normal activities shortly.

But, as the saying goes, it’s not over until it’s over. Raleigh countians and those in other West Virginia counties continued to die of the plague throughout the winter of 1919.

The last recorded influenza death in Raleigh County, that of Mrs. Chester Stanley of Mount Tabor, occurred March 29. She was 51 years old.

— Jim Wood is a former editor of The Raleigh Register.

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