It's been nearly a hundred years since the Spanish flu pandemic devastated so many families in Raleigh and beyond. In 1960, N&O writer Lucy Daniels gave readers a look back at that terrible winter.
Half a million Americans died that fall and winter of 1918-19 before the influenza epidemic ran its course. Thousands died in North Carolina ...
The flu's toll was nearly four times the number of U. S. servicemen who died in all of World War I. And nearly 50,000 of our military deaths in that war were attributed to the flu. Many young men died before they glimpsed action -- either still in this country or on transport ships headed for Europe....
The siege of 1918-19 came in three distinct waves -- the first in the spring and summer of 1918; the second in the fall of 1918; and the third in the winter and spring of 1919 Of these, the first and third were relatively mild and the second inconceivably deadly...
Cases in 1918 seemed to fall in three main groups. There was a mild form from which the patient soon felt better but then developed pneumonia and often died. Another type, which was moderately severe with mild pulmonary complications, was rarely fatal. And the third type was sudden and so severe, with death so soon (within 36 to 48 hours) that the lung infection scarcely had time to get a start. All three types had at least on thing in common -- no effective treatment available.
Apprehension and dread gave way to panic and confusion. Some towns adopted plague-like precautions. In Raleigh, for instance, there was a ban against public assembly. Not only were the schools and movie houses closed, but for the first time in the city's history the churches were shut down. All from early October till late November.
This was common procedure throughout North Carolina and in some places even stronger measures were enforced. Rocky Mount closed its mills. In Jackson a maximum of 10 persons was allowed in any store at one time. Winston-Salem closed its barber shops and required all funerals to be private. The tobacco markets were closed and county fairs cancelled. School children, who for some reason suffered less than other age groups, were set to work picking the cotton so badly needed in the war. This was considered a healthy occupation because it was done outdoors.
But despite these precautions, influenza spread at a wild and terrifying rate. And people began to employ safety measures of their own. In addition to the sterilization of dishes and other precautions advocated by the Public Health Department, many took to wearing gauze masks everywhere -- often so dirty that they in themselves were menaces. Others wore little bags of asafetida around their necks to ward off infection. This may have been some benefit, because its odor was so foul that other people shunned the wearer.
There was no positive prevention, nor any effective drugs for the sick. Nothing but aspirin, quinine, sedatives and mild laxatives. Nearly every patent medicine proclaimed itself at least a tonic or partial cure. In September Congress appropriated a million dollars for use in the national emergency, and after that the U. S. Health Department was besieged by letters from quacks offering them a "sure cure for a reasonable sum."
But in reality there was nothing. Dr. Hubert Haywood, who worked in Raleigh throughout the epidemic, recalls that the disease "hit us like a ton of bricks.... It was the most heartbreaking experience of my career. We were so helpless."
"The truly unsung heroes of the day," Dr. Haywood adds, "were those who volunteered as nurses and orderlies to tend the sick." In Wilmington where the influenza got a devastating start before its savage rampage north-westward through North Carolina, all the nurses were stricken -- some fatally. In Raleigh, where over 200 volunteered, two young women were remembered as tragic examples of heroism. Miss Lucy Page, a trained nurse of about 30, and Elizah Riddick, 24, who worked tirelessly as a volunteer at State College before she was stricken. Both were strong, vital young women, hardly the type to die.
Elizah Riddick's death came only one week after that of her brother "Rout."
Rex Hospital, as well as other Raleigh facilities, was jammed to overflowing and had to turn even critical cases away. In some homes whole families were stricken, with no one to nurse or cook or even attend to the demands of death when it occurred. At State College, dormitories and the YMCA building were converted to hospital wards for both college students and some of the more serious cases from the Army's tank training recruits at Camp Polk.
Out at that camp, which had been literally thrown up on the old fair grounds, boys from all over the United States were dying on canvas cots set up in the cattle sheds. Some of the military, who could afford it, took rooms at the hotels in town and called in local doctors. But soon the hotels, too, had no more vacancies.
And so Raleigh, like most other cities, set up public emergency hospitals. ... At first some people refused to go to these hospitals, and two days after they were opened the city commissioners passed an ordinance requiring all influenza cases untreatable at home to be moved to the hospitals.
Besides these makeshift hospitals, soup kitchens were set up in various places throughout the city....
Raleigh was typical of cities throughout North Carolina and the nation.... In nearly every community in the country it was impossible to step outside without seeing coffins, hearses, funeral processions. Railroad stations were piled high with flag-draped boxes waiting transportation home.
There was a shortage of coffins everywhere, and ministers, as well as embalmers and grave diggers, were often unable to keep up with their work. -- The News & Observer 2/7/1960
Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress