Note: The information from this article was compiled from all available death certificates and from local newspapers. A chart listing all the known victims of the Spanish flu from Ashe County follows the article.
The spread of a previously unknown illness is always fraught with fear and uncertainty. Because new diseases are inherently mysterious, they create heightened sense of panic and anxiety. Luckily, nothing is ever truly unique. Even though global pandemics are rare, they are not unknown, even to residents of Ashe County. In fact, only 100 years ago a mysterious respiratory disease swept through western North Carolina, closing schools, churches and courthouses, terrifying residents with the fear of the unknown. By looking back to this history of this eerily similar time, modern day residents of Ashe County can gain a greater appreciation of their own present.
In 1918 Ashe County was the talk of North Carolina. A large band of deserters, refusing to enlist to fight in World War One, had taken refuge in Ashe County and North Carolina Governor Thomas Walter Bickett had come to the Ashe County Courthouse to implore for their service. Bickett’s highly publicized speech was a media sensation and newspapers across North Carolina covered the story of the Ashe County deserters throughout the summer of 1918. Many of these articles took great delight in depicting Ashe County as a backwards corner of North Carolina, too detached from America and the rest of the world to send soldiers for military service. Many residents of Ashe County felt humiliated by these stories, and wrote editorials to local newspapers arguing that Ashe County should not be judged by the actions of these reluctant soldiers. People in Ashe County were no doubt looking forward to a day when the news media’s attention would turn elsewhere. Little did they know that newspapers would soon be consumed by a public health crisis that was just beginning over 1,000 miles away.
In April of 1918, three people died in Haskell, Kansas, suffering from a severe illness. Although it is unclear where these three had contracted the disease, it is likely that it had spread from nearby military camps. Military enlistees, like those hiding out in the woods of Ashe County, were being gathered together in enormous congregations all across the country. These camps were full of men who had recently traveled to Europe, bringing with them foreign diseases. In March 1918, one of these diseases, a severe respiratory infection, had appeared in 100 soldiers stationed at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas. Within a week, the rate of the infection had multiplied exponentially and soon 500 soldiers were suffering from this new illness.
Spanish Influenza, as the new sickness would soon be called, used the army as a pathway for rapid transmission. By September, it had travelled to Camp Devens, just outside of Boston. By the end of the month, 14,000 cases were reported at Camp Devens, with 757 deaths resulting. Soon, the Spanish Flu had made the leap from the densely populated military camp to the equally populated cities of the mid-Atlantic. New York City was soon so overwhelmed with the disease that all new cases were required by law to be isolated.
By October, Spanish Influenza was rampaging all across America. In North Carolina, it was quickly making its presence known, first in urban areas. On October 1st, High Point had reported 100 cases and the city decided to close all places of assembly for a week to fight the spread of the infection. On October 8th, 8,000 cases were reported throughout North Carolina. Soon the state health officer, Dr. W.S. Rankin issued an order to all residents of North Carolina stating that “on the appearance of grippe or Spanish Influenza in any city, town, village, or thickly settled rural section, schools, moving picture shows, fairs, circuses, and other public gatherings, including church services and Sunday schools be prohibited.”
In Ashe County, it must have initially seemed that Spanish Influenza was largely an urban problem. Throughout September and the first week of October, few cases of Spanish Flu were present in the county. However, it soon became more prevalent. On October 8th, two Ashe County residents, Clinton Lee McNeil and Oscar Greer, died of the Spanish Flu: they were the first in the county to succumb to the disease. The next day, the disease claimed the life of 16 year old James Edgar Richardson. Over the course of the next two weeks, Richardson’s two siblings, 9 year old Ruth and 4 year old Dora would also die of the illness. These three deaths were the most experienced by any single family in Ashe.
By the end of October, Spanish Influenza was ravaging the United States. Urban areas were especially susceptible to the effects of the disease. On October 20th, Winston Salem reported 1,298 cases in a single day. During the same period, the entirety of Caldwell County was placed under quarantine after 100 cases were reported at a local mill.
In Ashe County, the disease was also rapidly spreading. Although Ashe County’s reported cases remained less shocking than those of densely populated areas, the last two weeks of October were the most fatal period for the county, with 9 deaths occurring over a 14 day period.
Throughout November the virus continued to spread throughout the United States, though with a slightly diminished rate from the late October peak. Despite the continued presence of infections, In November, only two deaths from the virus occurred in Ashe County. However, the flu returned to Ashe with a vengeance in the month of December. Interestingly, this was during the same time that the diseases’ rate of infection was gradually slowing over the rest of the nation. What caused the sudden spike in cases in Ashe is unclear, but over the course of the month, ten Ashe County residents died from the flu, including a father, Everett Bare, and his infant daughter, Josephine.
In January the Spanish Flu continued to rage across much of America, killing hundreds in cities like San Francisco and New York. However, for Ashe County, the worst was over. Infections continued to appear, but only 3 more residents would die from the disease; the final local fatality was Mary Ellen Testerman of Jefferson who died on January 30th, 1919.
Unlike many other diseases, including most strains of influenza, the Spanish flu primarily preyed on the young. The disease caused healthy immune systems to overreact, killing the patient in the process. Consequently, those who otherwise were the most healthy were often at greatest risk from the disease. In Ashe County, most of the victims were young. Eight were below the age of ten and only 3 were over the age of 50. Overall the average age for local victims was 26.
Much of Ashe County experienced the Spanish Influenza. It has been estimated that the fatality rate for those infected with the 1918 Spanish Flu was 2.5%. Given the recorded deaths for Ashe County, it can be estimated that around 1,200 people, around 6% of the total population, contracted the disease during the winter of 1918. However, because of its agrarian nature and widely distributed population, Ashe was able to escape the worst of the pandemic. In the United States, the disease killed approximately 695,000 people. Although this is a staggeringly high number, the overall population of the country at the time was over 103 million. Therefore, the percentage of the total population who fell victim to the pandemic was .0067. By comparison, Ashe County, with a population at the time of approximately 21,000 suffered 30 casualties, a percentage of .0014, just over 4.5 times less than the national ratio. In this one case, rural isolation proved to have its benefits.
During the winter of 1918, fear consumed America as churches, schools, and local governments all shut down and whole cities and counties were quarantined. Despite its relative isolation and distance from urban centers, Ashe County was not immune to the spread of infectious disease and dozens of local residents suffered untimely deaths as a result. However, Ashe County and the United States were able to persevere. No doubt disease and fear will be a constant presence as long as humanity persists, but often, in times of uncertainty, it is helpful to look for guidance in our own local history.
Known Deaths from the 1918 Flu Pandemic in Ashe County:
|Place of Death
|Date of Death
|Clinton Lee McNeil
|James Edgar Richardson
|Mary Jane Jones
|Dora Alice Richardson
|George Franklin Yates
|Rutha Jane Richardson
|John Henry Key
|Maggie Cora Graybeal
|Myrtle Caldona Price
|Ruth Marie Kemp
|Lee Doyle Roark
|Everett Longs Bare
|Jessie Sheridan Harlen Pope
|Cora Dell Lovelace
|Jan 06, 1919
|Artie A. Pennington
|Jan 26, 1919
|Mary Ellen Testerman
|Jan 30, 1919