The 1918 Flu Epidemic in High Shoals
Many theories have been put forth concerning the origination of the 1918 flu pandemic. One is that the initial mutation of the animal-to-animal or animal-to-human flu virus into one that could be transmitted from human to human happened in Kansas, when the virus was carried back to an army camp by a soldier returning from furlough. It was then said to have spread through U.S. soldiers to Europe and around the world to become a pandemic.
Others theorize that the mutation cannot be determined to have begun in any one place, since it could have occurred simultaneously wherever a person coming down with the human flu came in contact with an animal with the flu, allowing the two strains to merge and mutate.
Historians now tell us those flu cases presenting unusual symptoms and resulting in more than the expected number of deaths occurred early in 1918. A Kansas doctor’s warning of ““Influenza of a severe type” was mentioned in the U.S. Public Health Service’s weekly journal Public Health Reports, but the general public did not have access to these journals. Thus early cases in the community would not have been seen as forerunners of an epidemic spawned by a new type flu virus.
Today’s swift communication among health agencies, and news spreading rapidly through newspapers, telephones, computers, and radio and television transmissions would provide the general public with almost instant notification of infectious disease occurrences, either pending or in progress. However, such efficiency was not the case in 1918.
Neither would physicians of that period have been able to readily identify this as a new strain of flu, now named H1N1, until many cases had been seen. Symptoms are said to have varied widely, some mimicking the symptoms of other diseases. Most victims of this strain actually died of pneumonia when they became unable to breath after their lungs, filled with the debris resulting from their body’s attempt to fight off the infection, could no longer process oxygen and send it through the body. And, oddly, this strain of flu most often struck the young and strong. Since pneumonia was already the second leading cause of death, some early flu cases could possibly have been diagnosed as pneumonia, and if death resulted, pneumonia would have been listed as the cause of death.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate the deaths during the winter of 1918-1919 into those occurring in each individual village in the lower end of Rutherford County since all were combined and recorded by townships. The High Shoals Township records included Caroleen, Cliffside, Henrietta, Avondale (which was being built during 1918), and those rural areas surrounding these villages.
During February and March of 1918, three deaths from pneumonia were reported in the High Shoals Township. Pulmonary tuberculosis was not uncommon among residents during the first decade of the 1900s, and four deaths from tuberculosis were reported during that same period.
During May and June, five more deaths were attributed to pneumonia, four to the combination of measles with pneumonia, and one to whooping cough with pneumonia. Two deaths were due to tuberculosis. When Eva Cole Womick died on May 15, her death certificate listed the cause of death as pneumonia, but notes the possibility that she had tuberculosis. It is very possible her death was one of the early deaths due to influenza.
During July, August, and September, there were three typhoid fever deaths, but none reportedly due to pneumonia or influenza
Forty year old Della Kansas Scruggs Pritchard, the wife of Larkin Pritchard and the daughter of Elbert and Peggy Scruggs, was the first resident of High Shoals Township whose cause of death was officially listed as influenza. When she died on October 11, 1918, she left at least eight children behind.
The flu, whether striking for the first time or returning, invaded all the villages in October, striking with a vengeance. Many High Shoals residents were infected. Even those who survived were deathly ill; at least 50 did not survive. Rutherford County records list 51 deaths in the High Shoals Township during October of 1918 that were attributable to the combination of influenza and pneumonia. At least 12 of them occurred in one day…on October 28.
Clarence Griffin, in his book, The History of Old Tryon and Rutherford Counties, notes that quarantines were put in place, schools were closed, and the mills curtailed or closed due to the lack of employees able to work.
In several instances, tragedy struck a family more than once. Frank and Eva Dobbins Freeman lost two of their children. Russell, age 20, died on October 14, and Robert, age 13, died eight days later, on October 22.
The parents of Della Kansas Scruggs Pritchard, the first reported influenza victim, lost another of their children when their 39-year-old married son, C.C. Scruggs, died on October 28. His death was attributed to pneumonia complicating typhoid.
E. L. and Sis Earls Ledbetter lost three of their sons. Henry, their 30-year-old married son, died on October 19. Bulow, age 33, died the following day, on October 20, and 19-year-old Rice died on October 28.
David and Sallie Greene Moore’s 28-year-old son Hubert died on October 28. Their 27-year-old daughter, Myrtle May Moore Hughes, wife of Ben R. Hughes, died on November 6.
Logan and Vina Frazier Flynn’s 20-year-old daughter, Cara Lestonia Flynn died on October 16, and their six year old son, Doctor Ralph Flynn, died three days later, on October 19. Logan’s father, 82- year-old William Logan Flynn, died on October 16, the same day on which his granddaughter Cara died.
Five year old Walter Dotson, son of John and Sara Flynn Dotson, died on October 27. His older sister, Mary Lou, died on October 28.
Fourteen-year-old Margie Amos, daughter of Frank and Corine Coffrey Amos, died on November 11. Her sister Magleen, almost two years old, died on November 20, little more than a week later. There were likely other such multiple deaths in families, and one can imagine the terror of waiting helplessly for the next one to happen.
While memories of the devastating effect the flu had on the villages have likely been passed on to children and grandchildren by those who lived through it, we are aware of only two who were present when it occurred and who had memories of that time to share with us. Lula Goode Humphries, while still a child, lost her mother, Lillie Bell Lancaster Goode, to one of the later waves of the flu in March of 1920. Mrs. Humphries recalled being told that her mother was gone, and then being taken in to see her for the last time, even though any contact with those who were ill was discouraged. Prior to her death, Mary Quinn Womick Prewitt shared some of her memories of this time.
The sense of family and the caring neighbors that existed among the residents of the villages were reflected in their reaction to this invisible invader. Mary Quinn told us, from her own first-hand memories of that time, how those who were not infected tried to help care for those who were. She had to take on more responsibility for the housekeeping in her own home while her parents went out to help those who were sick. She said when whole families were affected, they were unable to care for each other. Aside from their caring neighbors, there was no one to cut the wood to heat their houses, to cook their meals or bring them water, to bathe them, to change their bedclothes, or to see that they got their medicine.
It was a very cold, snowy period that required extra wood for fuel to heat their houses. Mary Quinn recalled her father, Quinn Lee Womick, going out each day to help cut wood for those who were sick and unable to cut it for themselves. Her Aunt Lillie Womick Griffin and her stepmother, Mary Durant, who was a Cliffside Mills nurse, were among the many who went about helping care for the sick while wearing little cloth masks they hoped would ward off their being infected themselves. Each person who came in contact with and helped his or her sick neighbor chanced becoming ill also. They all showed great courage by continuing to do so.
The pace of the virus had slowed in November with only 11 flu/pneumonia deaths, but did not end. There were three Influenza deaths in December. At least 21 more victims, scattered among the villages, died before the summer of 1919.
Even if we disregard any influenza victims who died in Rutherfordton or in Cleveland County while hospitalized, as well as those diagnosed with pneumonia in combination with other illnesses, influenza with pneumonia killed at least 90 High Shoals residents during this period, and a number of other deaths occurred during the winter of 1919-1920.
The survivors were deathly ill for about 10 days before their fever broke and they began to recover, and they were left weak and unsteady for much longer. It would be impossible to determine how many actual cases of influenza there were in the High Shoals area, since we have access only to the records of those who died, not those who were infected and survived.