For Albemarle County, the 1918 Pandemic Was Fast and Deadly

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Charles Wayland of the prominent Crozet orchardist family died of influenza while away at college.

The Spanish Flu hit Albemarle County like a freight train, killing 41-year-old Scottsville carpenter Bruce Hackett on Sept. 30, 1918, a Monday. Within days, 27 more citizens had died, some within 12 hours of their first symptoms. It didn’t spare the young and healthy in that awful week: the death toll included a baby, some pre-schoolers, a university student, a housewife, a couple of young farmers and several teenagers. 

On Friday, local authorities closed the schools.

That same day, President Woodrow Wilson expressed satisfaction that women’s suffrage had passed, but said not a word about the disease that was ravaging one American city after another. In fact, there’s no evidence that he ever said a word about it throughout its year-long history: not in its first wave (a mild one) earlier in the spring, nor the second wave that lasted from late September to early November, nor the third wave a month later. Nor did Virginia governor Westmoreland Davis ever acknowledge the deaths of Virginians from the deadly disease that preyed especially on young adults and left hundreds of orphans to be raised by the state.

By Saturday, the 200-bed University hospital was filled to capacity with influenza patients, and others had to be turned away.

Although ignored by federal and state governments, communities followed guidance from local boards of health.

Addeane Calleigh, now retired from the U.Va. School of Medicine faculty, serves as a visiting scholar there, with a focus on the social and cultural history of disasters. She also edited the journal Academic Medicine and has written extensively about the 1918 pandemic in the area, including a 2017 article in the Magazine of Albemarle County History, which provided the above timeline.

The silence was intentional, and almost world-wide, Calleigh said in an April interview. The world was at war and authorities believed that adding the deadly disease to the war news would be demoralizing. And quarantines would affect both domestic and wartime production.

Most major newspapers were complicit, for a couple of reasons. Mass fear was not good for advertisers, and in fact, according to John Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, citizens were restrained by the Sedition Act of 1918 from anything that might be seen as criticizing the government. It was up to authorities to define “criticism,” and people could be jailed, with sentences up to 20 years.

In small communities, anyway, people could not fail to notice what was going on around them. In Charlottesville, the Daily Progress noted the day’s fatalities on the front page, along with news from the war. And local government boards like the Albemarle County Board of Health and charities like the Red Cross issued guidelines to citizens.

Although the death toll in Charlottesville and Albemarle County was recorded at 227, Caelleigh said that it would have been nearly impossible to count the deaths in rural parts of the county, where families nursed their own sick. Like Bruce Hackett, Albemarle County’s first fatality, many were buried in family cemeteries, near loved ones both living and dead. It would be unusual for county residents to travel to a hospital, Caelleigh said, and hospitals often had little to offer.  Accounts mention aspirin for fever and oxygen masks for cyanosis, warmth, fluids and rest. Rural patients were nursed at home by their families, providing much the same care that trained nurses offered at U.Va. and Martha Jefferson Hospitals. 

Nurses attend a patient at Walter Reed Army Hospital.

Crozet historian Phil James recorded some memories from rural Albemarle and wrote about them in Secrets of the Blue Ridge and the Crozet Gazette. 

In Sugar Hollow, Emory Wyant recalled, a neighbor helped out when the whole Wyant family was sick. Wyant described a process familiar to present-day families ordering delivery. “Bernard Carr would come down with a basket full of food,” he said. Carr would set it on the porch. “He’d go away and Dad would get it and bring it in. After we’d get through eating, Dad set the basket back outside and he’d come back and get the basket.”

In downtown Charlottesville, a “children’s home” was established to care for orphans who’d lost both parents. In most cases, though, said Calleigh, family members took care of their orphaned relatives. A story from Blackwell Hollow, again from Phil James, was about Clyde McAllister’s uncle, who died from the flu, leaving a wife and four children, including a baby. The wife, destitute, returned to her family, and McAllister’s mother raised the baby. “…He became one of us,” McAllister said. “Instead of having 13 in the family we had 14.”

One of Crozet’s most prominent families suffered a heartbreaking loss. Charles Adam Wayland, son of orchardist Adam Lee Wayland, died at 19 while away at Virginia Tech and was buried in Crozet’s Rockgate cemetery. His father and six of his four sisters and four brothers lived well into their nineties.

Being far away from military camps and urban centers didn’t guarantee protection, although travel caused by transporting troops certainly sped the flu. Barry said in an interview that even the last bubonic plague of the 17th century traveled across the Atlantic from London, with devastating effects for Virginia and Massachusetts, especially in indigenous people with zero immunity. 

Despite their isolation, the mountain families living high above the villages didn’t escape illness and death. In the 1970s, park rangers interviewed a number of families who had been displaced by the Shenandoah National Park in 1930. Most of the elders wanted to talk about the two major events of their lives: the Spanish Flu and their forcible removal from their homeland more than a decade later. For the most part, their lives had been consistently frugal, and many had barely noticed the depression, but they clearly remembered what happened in the hollows and ridge tops when the flu raged. Home remedies were the same as they used for any sickness: teas of sarsaparilla, hoarhound and boneset, and moonshine made from corn or rye. One woman said the old timers carried a slice of onion or a wad of chewing tobacco in their mouths to kill the virus. Others, like people all over the world during the Spanish Flu, hung bags of asafetida (a horrible smelling plant gum) around their necks. 

While rural people turned to folk remedies, many of their more sophisticated counterparts turned to quackery, said University of Virginia history professor Christian W. McMillen, who wrote Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction. “Charlatans and fake cures were coming out of the woodwork, and patent medicine was having a heyday.” 

In Charlottesville, Calleigh wrote, Timberlake Pharmacy advertised a product called “Kill-A-Kold,” and Fitzhugh Brothers had the “Rexall Grippe Remedy” as well as “Foley’s Honey and Tar.” Enterprising salesmen not associated with a pharmacy peddled so many snake oil potions that Richmond’s city health officer issued a public warning against them. Even in the hospitals, desperate doctors used so much aspirin that historians think some of the deaths came from aspirin overdose.

Country doctors chose horses to get them safely home on rural roads.

Up in the park, family members said Dr. W. J. Smith used a horse even though he had a car, partly because the mountain roads were so bad, but partly because he was so exhausted during the epidemic that he depended on his horse to find its way home while he slept. Another mountain doctor, J. G. Brown, believed in preventive medicine and recommended sauerkraut and cabbage to build up immunity. And people could tell when a neighbor died because they’d see someone walking with a stick. The stick, bound for the coffin maker, was as tall as the person who died, with a notch for the width of the shoulders.

Author John Barry wrote about the origins of the flu, widely believed to have jumped to humans from sick pigs in Kansas, then spreading quickly, partly because of the war. Since he wrote his book in 2004, he’s intrigued by another theory: “The first wave of the flu in the spring of 1918 was pretty mild, but it did confer immunity,” he said. It probably looked like normal influenza. “It did not spread worldwide. When I went back and looked at statistics for the second wave (the one that was so deadly here), there were many fewer cases in China than anywhere else, so the first wave might have started there.” Although it wasn’t clear at the time that the two influenzas were related, scientists later reading the DNA sequence of the two waves proved the two were related, but the virus had mutated to become more severe. 

By any account the first wave escaped notice here, and the second wave was deadly but short-lived. In November, local schools opened up again and a third wave swept through the area in December and January, 1919. In Charlottesville and Albemarle County, the last death was recorded on January 30. Worldwide, though, the third wave was deadly and raged on until the summer of 1919. 

Based on death certificates, almost 16,000 Virginians had died, but these were issued only to those attended by a doctor, so Caelleigh believes the real total was much higher. With the end of the war and the beginning of the depression, and without an overall picture of the worldwide toll of the pandemic, it faded quickly from public memory, Calleigh said. It was only later, with serious influenza epidemics in the 1950s and 1970s, and a return visit from the H1N1 virus in 2009, that journalists and historians began to piece together a cohesive picture of the horrible year-long, world-wide nightmare that killed 50 million people. 

Find the complete article by Phil James at www.crozetgazette.com/2015/03/06/1918-war-and-influenza-battling-on-the-home-front. 

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