These days when the COVID-19 virus is in the news and of course on our minds this pandemic is sometimes compared to something similar – the 1918 "Spanish" Flu, and in particular how it affected East Texas. And in his March, 2002 article in the local publication "County Line Magazine," Elvis Allen provided a combination of background as well as insight into the subject.
As 1918 began most people were concerned with other issues than a potential pandemic. There was of course the ongoing First World War, and in East Texas cotton farmers were concerned about falling prices. Also, residents in the Canton area and other communities were involved in the construction of the Dixie Highway, creating a potential route for trucks between Dallas and Tyler. But half way across the world the unseen enemy was gaining strength.
It began in February in a northern Spanish town but then in March the setting shifted as an army private stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas reported to the base hospital with symptoms of flu. He was soon followed by others. However as the numbers of cases rose, quarantine was almost impossible because of vital wartime movements. By May the disease had spread to civilians, but affliction numbers are sketchy since when a flu patient died of pneumonia that was the cause of death listed on the certificate. However, doctors did not always file these certificates with local authorities; in Texas a 1903 law required them to do so but it was rarely enforced.
In just a few months there were so many deaths around the country that public and private buildings were utilized to handle the number of extra bodies.
At Fort Bliss in El Paso there were notices posted that required soldiers on pass to avoid public buildings unless approved as disease free by local authorities. Also, health officials encouraged the use of face masks. In Tucson schools went into half day sessions with separate morning and afternoon sessions, and students sat at alternate desks to main “social distancing.” There was even a note of humor when the mayor responded to a suggestion that a face mask requirement be enforced by the police, even in church. "It won't hurt a policeman to go to church, once." He said.
There were the usual public instructions to maintain cleanliness such as by washing hands, but there was a problem in this general area In 1918 there were few drinking fountains and thirsty people on maybe a train or in a store would use a common cup or dipper used by everyone.
Another issue was the fewer number of healthcare workers, and as so many became ill or succumbed, the "whole world was grinding to a halt, there being too few to carry on the workload," as Mr. Allen wrote. One of these who succumbed was Dr. E.W. Gibbs of the Roddy community who died in October, 1918 at the age of 34.
Another issue was that since farmers sometimes held back on selling their cotton in hopes of a higher price that meant that many doctors went unpaid. In a time before individual health insurance soon some physicians would only treat someone on a cash basis.
As Mr. Allen wrote: "The news of these days has become a vivid history of us living almost one hundred years later [in 2002]." And memories were poignant especially in East Texas in individual cases. One young wife who was having her first child fell ill and when she "gave birth on her deathbed" neither she nor the child survived.
Henry Hill and Fay Russell who had been married less than a year both came down with the flu and occupied adjoining rooms where they could see each other through an open door. Mr. Allen quoted from their obituaries: "A few hours before the boatman came to row to the shores of the Eternal City, Henry sang that wonderful song 'Where he leads me I will follow' and a few hours after her husband had passed on, Fay, in that same glad triumph of Christian faith sang the same sweet song of trust…”
So it was a certainly a tragic time, but now it’s your turn to respond with your memories or stories. You probably didn’t live in 1918 but maybe you have heard stories or know of someone who did. Do you have personal stories of this time that you can share with the Review readers? Let us know - firstname.lastname@example.org.