• Killer epidemic of October 1918 hit Jacksonville hard

    By: MATT SOERGEL, The Florida Times-Union of Jacksonville

    Updated:
    JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - As the killing pandemic spread through Jacksonville in the dire month of October 1918, W.S. Henley, acting district manager of the Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Company, grew increasingly desperate.

    By Oct. 7, 64 out of his 191 telephone operators were sick, one in every three. By Oct. 9, 83 operators were missing. The next day, 95 were out. By then, for every operator able to make it to work, there was one unable to work, sick or perhaps dead.

    As more and more families fell victim to Spanish influenza, more and more phone calls were made, and Henley's beleaguered operators could not keep up. So he took out advertisements in the city's newspapers, pleading for the "patriotic cooperation of the entire telephone using public" to refrain from making unnecessary calls, while begging for experienced operators to come volunteer "during this trouble."

    He signed each ad the same way: "Yours respectfully, W.S. Henley, Acting District Manager" - likely leading many to wonder what had happened to the district manager he replaced.

    The suffering among those Southern Bell operators shows how widespread the Spanish flu pandemic was 100 years ago, when it killed an estimated 50 million across the globe, including 675,000 in America.

    As seen in newspapers of the time, it's clear Jacksonville suffered too: In October alone, the deadliest month, the city reported that well more than 400 residents died from Spanish flu, out of a population that was likely close to 90,000.

    It's a staggering amount: If translated to today's Jacksonville, that would be more than 4,000 victims in a month.

    The number could have been even higher: From the reporting in newspapers, it's not apparent that the total included the 155 reported dead that October at Camp Joseph E. Johnston. That was the Army base where Naval Air Station Jacksonville is now, where men trained for the war in Europe in crowded conditions ripe for the disease to fester and spread.

    Even in the middle of the epidemic, though, the Florida Times-Union, the morning paper, and the Florida Metropolis, the afternoon paper, devoted much of their space to the Allies' breakthroughs in the last weeks of World War I. And story after story pushed the sale of Liberty Bonds to help the war effort.

    The Spanish influenza outbreak received much less attention, and some of that seemed insistent on downplaying the danger, with stories regularly saying how the worst was over and how much better off Jacksonville was compared to other cities of its size.

    The scrappier Metropolis, though, did list many of the city's deaths in sparse but heartbreaking detail. Consider the toll in Oct. 15's edition, when it reported that 25 people had died the previous day - and that recent victims included "three young brothers by the name of Keene ... one a boy of 7 years, and a colored man and wife named Wingard, (who) died within several hours of each other Sunday."

    Most days, it listed the names of those reported dead, from infants to the elderly, with many victims in their teens, 20s and 30s. The dead were grouped by race: In this segregated city, even that daily death toll was broken down by white and black.

    The newspapers noted that Jacksonville wasn't alone in its struggles: The pandemic had gone coast to coast. So there was room for the brief, tragic story of 46-year-old Joseph Morr of Richmond, Va., who, after his wife died of the flu, put a revolver to his forehead and fired, falling dead over her body.

    'Menace to others'

    It didn't seem that big a threat at first.

    Sept. 19's newspapers did take note of 1,000 cases of "mild influenza" found at a naval training station in Michigan. But they approvingly noted, nine days later, that just 13 cases had been reported at Jacksonville's local base, Camp Johnston: "Influenza is under perfect control here ... there is no cause for alarm as to the spreading of the disease."

    As September turned to October, though, cracks appeared in that reassuring tone.

    In Oct. 1's Times-Union, city health director Dr. William W. McDonnell reported that just two people had died from flu in Jacksonville during the previous two weeks. Still, given the news from elsewhere, it would behoove citizens to take caution anyway.

    Avoid crowds, he advised - patriotic rallies, theaters, churches and crowded street cars. Stay away from people who are sneezing or coughing.

    And if you fall sick? "Go to bed and stay there - you are a menace to others if you are about."

    The next day's papers told of the flu spreading in military camps, while in Washington, D.C., 3,000 teachers and children were down with the flu.

    Meanwhile from Lake City came the sad story of Mrs. D.W. Black, whose husband, a railroad conductor, went ahead with his usual run on the Coast Line because she had seemed to be recovering from the flu. Not so: "Upon his return in the afternoon (he) found her gone."

    On Oct. 4, McDonnell and other doctors agreed in the Metropolis that the peak of the disease had been reached in Jacksonville. There was no need to panic or close public buildings.

    Yet observant readers might have felt some alarm anyway: Bracketing that article was one claiming the situation at Camp Johnston was "well in hand" at Camp Johnston, even though 181 new cases of the flu were observed in the previous day. And below that was a note explaining that many newspaper deliveries just weren't being made, because "there are a number of the Metropolis carrier boys ill with Spanish influenza."

    Two days later, Duval County schools were ordered closed. Before the month was over, church services were cancelled and indoor public meetings were outlawed. The Ringling Brothers Circus never got underway, and dance halls and pool rooms shut down. Camp Johnston was put under quarantine. Stores and banks were ordered to cut back on their hours.

    Furchgott's department store, by request of the Department of Heath, cancelled its 50th anniversary sale, though it promised to hold all sale items until the troubles ended.

    The health department even asked those grieving for flu victims to hold private funeral services, to keep crowds and the risk of infection down.

    More than half the city's streetcar operators fell ill. Milk deliveries were cut way back. Just about every business, from ice makers to shipyards, was hurt. Sister Mary Ann's Orphanage needed help, badly: "Nearly every inmate of the home was a victim, though fortunately there were no fatalities."

    Brief stories noted the deaths of Mack Tucker, councilman and deputy sheriff, along with prominent doctors, business leaders, military officers and leading members of society.

    Grocer G.D. Perkins took out an ad boasting that "the Spanish 'Flu' Hasn't Got Us!" Next to that, the ad of W.T. Edwards, "An American Grocer" at Eighth and Evergreen, said he was just thankful he had recovered: "Not as lucky as our competitors, I've been down with the 'FLU,' but now back on the job."

    Easy fixes must have been tempting in the face of so much suffering. Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic and Cheney's Expectorant promised to be of help to the ill. And taking a yeast cake a day "will keep influenza away," the Times-Union said.

    In the face of the epidemic, people helped others. Red Cross volunteers made thousands of masks to wear when out in public, and urgent pleas went out for more volunteer nurses. Soup kitchens sprung up to feed the sick. Southern Bell's acting district manager W.S. Henley even got a few volunteer operators to handle some of those many calls.

    Meanwhile, Gladys Baker of the Metropolis wrote a paean to the "ministering angels" of Jacksonville - its women - who stepped forward to nurse the sick and keep food supplies going in a city that was falling apart. "Jacksonville," she wrote, "is indeed proud of her womanhood, who out of the throes of agony, have proved themselves magnificently sublime!"

    'Helpless little mite'

    The newspapers back then didn't spend much time on the details of the heartbreak that must have accompanied so much death. But the intrepid Baker did spin a heartbreaking tale from the Children's Home Society, of a dad left with four children after his wife died while he too was ill.

    How, he pleaded, could he take care of them himself, in these tragic straits? And what would become of his youngest, a "helpless little mite?" She did not yet have a tooth in her head, though, he said, she did have her late mother's eyes, "like big, brown pansies - sorter wilted-like."

    By Oct. 11, about 20,000 cases of flu had been reported in the city, health officials estimated. That day Camp Johnston reported 1,032 sick among the 17,000 men there. Forty-two at the camp had died since Sept. 20, including 11 on Oct. 10 alone.

    By Oct. 15, the city reported 180 flu deaths since the deadly month began. Two days later, the toll climbed to 256. On the 23rd, it was 361.

    Among the most recent victims was a Pullman checker named Louis Symans, 33. He was followed five hours later by his son Francis, 4.

    As the month went on, the daily toll went steadily downward, and health officials said again that the worst was over. By the 24th, the quarantine at Camp Johnston was lifted and rural schools in the area announced plans to reopen.

    By the 29th, Jacksonville's death toll was 423 for the month.

    A story that day noted that drugstore soda fountains were having trouble finding young men to work; after being closed so long, the employees had gone on to get new jobs. And there were orders that no glasses could be reused at fountains that didn't have sterilizers - so "customers reveled in the sport of drinking from the bottle."

    The state, tracing the pandemic's progress, said the disease showed up first in northern Florida before sweeping south and west. It killed 1,031 Floridians between Oct. 5 and the 27th, officials reported. Jacksonville, with 398 dead during that time, far outpaced Tampa's 225 fatalities.

    The flu would take more victims in the weeks and even months to come. But by the end of October, the worst was indeed over.

    So on Nov. 5, Furchgott's, as promised, continued with its 50th anniversary sale, which had been postponed "on account of the epidemic of influenza." With conditions safe again, the department store promised many "sensational" deals for the thrifty shoppers of greater Jacksonville.

    "Repeat the glad tidings to your family and friends," its advertisement said. "Get them all enthused."

    ___

    Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com

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