Author’s note: Two influenza pandemics struck our world between January 2018 and ending in December 1920. It is believed that the pandemics killed between 3 and 5 percent of the world’s population. Today, it is believed that the pandemic began in January 1918 in Kansas and was spread to Europe by soldiers going to fight in World War I. The Influenza virus began returning in greater numbers to America through our major seaports by returning soldiers, and it spread rapidly from east to west. Because it was thought to have originated in Europe, it was given the name Spanish Flu, or Grippe for a shorter name. It devastated Scotland County in October and early November 1918.
In 1918 viruses were unknown and the flu was thought to have been caused by germs.
Research for this article began during my days as a student at St. Andrews University, when I was researching a term paper for a class taught by Dr. George Melton in the mid 1970s. The topic was the effect that World War I had upon Scotland County. Researching World War I in its closing days was impossible without reading and hearing about the influenza epidemic/pandemic of 1918 through interviews with World War I veterans, Scotland County residences who lived in World War I, old copies of The Laurinburg Exchange and death records of M.A. McDougald Furniture and Undertaking that are in the North Carolina Archives.
Some terms used in the stories may seem offensive to others, but they are written as recorded by others during that era.
Special to the Exchange
Dan McDougald rose early from bed and slowly moved into the kitchen to start the coffeepot. A cool, less humid air was now gently seeping into the house as the summer of 1918 became a faint memory. As the coffee began to percolate, he could hear the distant whistle of the 7:10 eastbound train coming in from Hamlet as it crossed Turnpike Road about a mile away. Some years earlier Dan had elected to build their house beside the railroad, conveniently located across the tracks from his father, Macom, and directly behind his brother, John.
The railroad also held fond memories of the days when he was able to ride in the steam engines with his father in the 1870s and later with John as they carried passengers and cargo along the east and west rail route in southern North Carolina. His father left the railroad to start the family business 37 years ago and John left the rails only 9 years ago when their father died.
For most of the past year the trains had been busy carrying soldiers and supplies down to the port of Wilmington for eventual shipment to Europe. The Big War was still waging and every community in America was working to insure a victory for the allies. Huge crowds came out to give wishes and gifts to the servicemen as they prepared to depart to the trenches of France and Germany to fight the Germans, more commonly known as the despicable “Huns.” The transportation of soldiers was now slowing and the shipment of supplies continued to increase, as it was appearing that the allies were finally winning and forcing the Huns to pull back.
A letter had recently appeared in the local newspaper from Emory Matthews, a local soldier serving in Europe. Emory was near the front lines and wrote a very real report describing the conditions in Europe, but his homesickness showed through as he recalled missing “the long bay back home.”
Dan sat on his front porch as he sipped his first drops of coffee. This train coming through Laurinburg carried a carload of Negroes who had either joined or been drafted into the army. Dan knew most of them would probably be used for loading and transporting the supplies, but a good number of the local Negroes had seen action on the front lines. One, Henry Jones, had just returned from Europe and his stories about his adventures always drew a large crowd. Henry had come by the store only a few days ago to buy his wife a new wash tub and spent most of an hour reflecting on his service in Europe.
Henry was a farmer by trade, and his knowledge of mules made him perfect to care for the ever important animals that were used to transport most of the war munitions. Henry had seen both sides of the war, the loading and shipping and the action on the front lines. From his stories there was no doubt that he preferred to stay away from the horrors of the front. Henry was enlightened by the recent news that an Army company of Negroes had just recently routed a portion of the German army, inflicting numerous casualties and capturing almost a hundred soldiers as prisoners.
Bidding his wife Sally good-bye, Dan walked the two blocks to the store, a three story brick building located on South Main Street beside the railroad. As he arrived John had already come and opened up to get some supplies for a family who had come into town from the country. Mondays through Saturdays were steadily busy in the store, which carried general merchandise and furniture on the first two floors and housed an undertaking parlor and embalming room on the third floor. The war had created some shortages in the merchandise that they could get, but for the most part everyone found the essentials to get themselves by.
“Did ya’ hear the latest from Europe? I heard that our forces advanced another few miles an’ took hundreds of German prisoners.”
“Yeah, at this rate the ol’ Huns should be folding up and going home. They don’t have a chance,” replied John.
“I ain’t quite that sure. It seems that the Spanish flu is hitting our troops mighty hard. In some places our men have died quicker from the “grippe” than from the war. I hope we don’t end up winning one war and losing another.”
“I’ve heard that it’s pretty bad. Some have brought of the sickness back to us from Europe. I read that they are starting to have a bad flu epidemic in the Boston, New York and Philadelphia areas. I hope they contain it before it gets any worse.”
“It’d hurt us pretty bad. We’ve had shortages in many items, and now it’s time for cotton pickin’. We’ve got a pretty good crop here in Scotland County and every able-bodied person is needed to pick it. Anything that would delay cotton pickin’ time would be devastating on us.”
Jim Carmichael entered the store and interrupted them as he was looking for some overalls. Dan turned to help him.
“Jim, we’ve got a pretty good selection. Prices are up a wee bit this fall because of the war. They were 75 cents a pair last year but are a dollar this year.”
Jim replied, “I can see that, but I’ve got to have a new pair. We’ve begun picking one of the best cotton crops we’ve had in years. If the war ends an’ we have the expected cotton surplus, the prices will drop back down. It’s a mixed blessing. When my cotton crop is good the prices are down and when it’s bad the prices are high.”
“It seems that you can never win either way! Say, have you heard anything from your brother, Doug, in Europe?” inquired Dan.
“We heard from him back in August, of course the letter was written in June. At that time he had just gotten over the flu. According to him several of the men in his company got it and twelve of them died.”
“It’s got to be a bad situation. John and I were just discussing that there were reports that the flu had been brought back to America. It seems to be prevailing in some of the major seaports from the men coming back from Europe. Haven’t yet heard if any has been found down in Wilmington or Charleston.”
Jim leaned on the counter and stared out the window toward Main Street as if his mind shifted to a distant object.
“Dan, I hate to tell you, but the flu is in Wilmington. It seems that several people have gotten sick, but no one could guess what it was at first. We usually think of the “grippe” as a wintertime disease. I think that the doctors believe that about five people have died from it already.”
After getting his overalls, Jim and Dan moved out the front door and visually examined the crowd walking and riding by as if cautiously looking for someone who may have the flu.
“I hope that it can be contained. With the war and everything else we don’t need any more suffering than we already have.”
“I may be the devil’s advocate, replied Jim, “but I feel we haven’t seen the worse of it. The only good news seems to be that we’re winning the war in Europe but only starting to fight the “grippe.”
The flu comes
October brought a return to a brief “Indian Summer” and then the weather became more seasonable. Dr. Bell walked over to the store to tell Dan and John about one of his patients.
“John, Malloy Gilchrist just passed away at their home up off Snead’s Grove Road. I believe that he had the flu. Seems he was healthy up until three days ago, then quickly took a turn for the worse. It sounds just like the symptoms that we’ve been told to look out for; his breath was cut short, he coughed bluish sputum, and he suffocated. His wife wants you to pick him up.”
“Doc, is it safe for us to do that? I think everyone is kind of afraid to be around the flu.”
“Can’t tell you for sure about that. I’d use a cloth mask if you want to be safe. It will keep you from breathing the flu germs.”
John and Dan left the store and drove the hearse over to the Gilchrist home. Malloy was a young, 34-year-old Negro man with a wife and five young children. Both he and Novella worked for the white Gilchrist family, and his children – the oldest son, Ray at 14 – were always helping their parents with chores. John and Dan were well familiar with the Gilchrists, considering them a very responsible Negro family. Malloy’s death will be hard on the family, and with the cotton harvest coming on, Novella will have to leave Ray at home to care for his siblings while she works the long hours in the fields. Fortunately, the white Gilchrist family will help oversee their well being.
“Mister McDougald, I ain’t got much money, but I want you to he’p us. Can you get Malloy embalmed? I wanna funeral this Sunday. That’ll give some family time to get here.”
“Novella, John will be glad to do that for you. We should be able to bring him back here to the house the first thing tomorrow morning. Your land owners will take care of the expenses, which is usual for them.”
“Thank you, Mister McDougald. I’ll always be grateful. I’ll let Mister Gilchrist know about it.”
Malloy’s body was placed in the wicker body basket and taken back to the store. Dan and John carried him through the side door and then on the elevator. John pulled on the rope and a couple of minutes later he had reached the third floor. John prepared Malloy, dressed him in a shroud, and placed him in a simple casket. The next day the casketed body was brought down on the elevator and placed in the hearse for delivery to the family. Tomorrow will begin a five-day sittin’ up at the Gilchrist house.
As John reached the first floor, Dan was ready with more news.
“John, the Cleve Smith family was just in and he is dead at home. Dr. James also sent word that Jan Clark has also died in East Laurinburg. All of them had the flu.”
John and another employee, Trush Smith – a Negro worker, left the store in the hearse to deliver Malloy’s body to the home and to visit both families while Dan stayed behind just in case the situation became any worse.
More local deaths
The first week of October brought news of six deaths to the M.A. McDougald store, five of them died by the flu. Scotland County began to experience anxiety that the dreaded disease had now invaded its boundaries. The community had hoped that the worst as over, but in reality a record number of people were falling ill. The disease soon replaced the Germans as the No. 1 enemy.
On Oct. 9, Dan received notice of Mrs. McLeod passing in Maxton and Mrs. Dockery up on McGirt’s Bridge Road. John loaded the Model-T pickup and left for both homes, taking the embalming equipment with him and caskets – partly out of tradition, partly out of efficiency, and partly out of caution. He still preferred the mule and buggy on the rough country roads, but time was now an important factor. After preparing the deceased for both families, dressing them, and placing them in a casket – he returned to the store for a much-needed rest.
Two days later, on Oct. 11, notices came in of one death above Snead’s Grove, another on Snead’s Grove Road just out of town, and a shocker with the unexpected passing of Joe Warwick who lived at five points. Joe was a healthy and spry person, only 32 years old, and a pillar in his community! Joe’s wife Jeanie was left with a son who was less than two years old and she was also pregnant.
“Jeanie has got to be a strong lady, ‘cause she has lost a great husband.” commented John.
The flu epidemic was only starting.
John and Dan quickly learned that the epidemic was proving too much for them to handle with their limited staff. Somehow families and friends would have to help get the people buried. Their predictions proved to be correct, as seventeen additional families called upon their funeral services in the following week. Meanwhile, the public schools, church services, and any public gatherings in the community were cancelled in order to prohibit the congregating of large groups of people and the possible spread of the disease.
Everyone wore cloth masks as a preventative measure. The funeral services were all changed to graveside services in order to prevent the spread of the disease. The local newspaper also posted warning to all of the Negroes to stay at home in the country and not congregate in town on Saturdays, as was tradition because they could further spread the disease.
By Oct. 18, John, Dan, Trush and anyone else they could get to help were overwhelmed with the number of flu deaths.
“Dan, I’m going home. I haven’t changed clothes or bathed in a week and it’s high time I saw my family.”
“Go ahead John, but it may be just for that very reason that the “grippe” has hasn’t gotten you,” mused Dan at one of the few moments of humor.
John joined his family briefly but the next day – Oct. 19 – brought eight more calls for their funeral services, all from the flu.
Arriving at the McKenzie homeplace to prepare Mr. McKenzie, John learned that their minister had just been by a few days before delivering medicine to anyone and everyone stricken.
“Rev. Currie had been going around to every family in the countryside dispensing some whisky and honey in an effort to slow the spread of the disease,” explained Mrs. McKenzie. “We are thankful for his efforts, but sometimes even the best intentions are not enough.”
Rev. Currie estimated that he has served out over 30 gallons of homemade whisky and 10 gallons of honey. “I don’t believe in partaking of this stuff, but when I can help save a life – it’s well worth it. Hopefully, it is helping.”
“Well, Reverend, it seems that everyone is coming out with a special medicine that claims to be the cure. Just look at the ads in the paper. Even snake oil is making a comeback. The truth be known, nothing seems to be slowing the spread of the “grippe.” With the weather turning cooler, it may get worse before it gets better. One thing that seems to be helping is getting people to stay outdoors. The fresh air seems to be good for them.”
“Quite possibly, John, since we are not able to hold church services, I want to make myself available to help in any way possible. Perhaps you have some suggestions?”
“I’ve noticed that with school being canceled, all of the kids are out picking the cotton. They seem to be avoiding the ‘grippe.’ If anything good can come of it; the bumper crop of cotton is being harvested, and the fresh air appears to be keeping them well. I’ve even noticed in the newspaper that the fresh air treatments we are using in the South are saving lives. Up North where they put their patients in hospitals the death rate is almost three times worse.”
“You know, John, there may be something to that. Fresh air could be our greatest balm. We need to thank God that it hasn’t gotten too cold, yet.”
So many affected
As October came to a close nearly 200 people had lost their lives in the Scotland County area – the exact number will never be known since vital records were not filed in all cases. All but a few fell victims to the flu. John and Dan managed to prepare or deliver caskets to seventy-four of them.
At Dan’s estimation, another 50 or so purchased caskets from the store and did their own funerals, some others simply had to make their own caskets. From a high of serving five to eight families a day in mid-October, it became evident that the worse had passed. Still they were called on twice each on Oct. 30-31 to serve the families of flu victims.
November progressed with a gradual decrease in flu cases. Still over 20 people in the county lost their lives to the disease in the first 10 days of that month, but it was time to move on. News came from Europe that the war was over and we were the victors. News from the home front was that the war with the “grippe” was almost over, but well over 200 people were the losers.”
“It was really hard for the people to get excited about the victory in Europe,” reflected John McDougald, “The flu epidemic changed so much of our way of life, families lost so much, and many lives will never be the same. I believe that many will be okay. Most have strong family ties that will help them recover.”
Beacham McDougald is a Laurinburg resident and Scotland County historian.