Spanish Flu

Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C., during the influenza pandemic of 1918.


By Jim Buchanan

As the year 2020 glacially drags on, many comparisons are being made to the COVID-19 pandemic and the “Spanish flu” outbreak of 1918.

While the two bugs are different creatures, the comparisons are perhaps instructional, particularly in regard to worries about a second wave of COVID – even though the first wave still most certainly has legs.

Generally speaking, the Spanish flu had not two, but three waves.

Alarm bells regarding the Spanish flu began ringing around mid-1918 and went into high gear as autumn descended. The Jackson County Journal of Oct. 4, 1918 reported in a story headlined “The Epidemic of Grippe” that the state board of health had issued a statement on dealing with the flu pointing to the rapid spread of the disease, saying “the exceptionally contagious nature of the disease” meant public health measures were having little influence in dealing with it. “The only good fortune attending the present epidemic in North Carolina,” the statement purported, was that “it will probably exhaust its supply of susceptibles before its dangerous ally, pneumonia, arrives in force in December, January and February.”

Revisiting the rapidly spreading flu on Oct. 18, The Journal cautioned against quack cures – also a hallmark of our current epidemic. “It is foolish to ask the druggist to prescribe and may be dangerous to take the so-called ‘safe, sure and harmless’ remedies advertised by patent medicine manufacturers. If the patient is so situated that he can be attended only by someone who must also look after others in the family, it is advisable that such attendant wear a wrapper, apron or gown over the ordinary house clothes while in the sick room and slip this off when leaving to look after the others. Nurses and attendants will do well to guard against breathing in dangerous disease germs by wearing a simple fold of gauze or mask while near the patient.”

But by mid-December, officials were declaring the pandemic over. On Dec. 15 the Journal reported “Dr. Nichols, County Health Officer, states that the influenza has died down now until there is no danger of the disease spreading again.”

Worldwide, it’s estimated 50 million people perished from the flu, more than the number of casualties in World War I. Upward of 675,000 Americans are thought to have died.

“The History of Jackson County” relates that the Vital Statistics Record in 1918 in Jackson County, deaths occurring with no physician present included 20 persons who died from flu, 22 from pneumonia, 15 from tuberculosis and 30 from unknown causes. The book contained tales about average folks in the county, including the following:

“Hardly a community escaped, and many interesting stories about the flu epidemic have survived. One such story was of a young school teacher, Flodia Hooper, who set on foot for a weekend visit to her home in Tuckasegee. She was teaching on Big Ridge in Hamburg Township at that time. On her way she passed the Broom house in Canada Township and found them all to be ‘down with the flu.’ She went in, did what she could to make them comfortable, and promptly sent word by a passerby to her mother in Tuckasegee to come help take care of the people. They stayed in the house 10 days. During this period of time, the young lady sighted a young man riding a horse down the road next to the Broom house. He was quite drunk and singing in a loud voice while waving a jug of whiskey. The young teacher advanced upon the surprised horseman, telling him to be quiet, that the folks inside were sick and he was disturbing them. Then she took his jug away from him, declaring that the people inside needed the alcohol for medicinal purposes and that he did not.”

As to a second wave, the Journal’s good news of Dec. 1918 quickly faded. On Jan. 3, 1919, it carried an announcement saying the Sylva Grade School was to be closed for the remainder of the year due to the return of the epidemic.