Saturday, January 20, 2018

Influenza in Russell County, 1918-1919

The September 27, 1918 issue of the Lebanon News was filled with bad news. The deaths of three Russell County soldiers in France was reported. Whitley Thomas, an old Confederate soldier who, only a few years earlier lost a hand to dynamite while fishing, succumbed to a long time illness and old age. An infant only a few hours old died and was buried in Cleveland, Russell County.

In other news, a side of bacon was stolen from S. P. Elliott at Barnett. Carl Jessee and Eula Jackson eloped and got married in Bristol. A long list of War Savings Stamp buyers was printed, with E. R. Combs, E. S. Finney, and W. E. Campbell heading the list.

Normal, prosaic activities. One thing missing from the newspaper was any mention of the Spanish Influenza epidemic which began in the United States a few weeks earlier. Spreading rapidly across the United States, the epidemic first began appearing in Southwest Virginia in October. Unfortunately the four issues of the Lebanon News that were published in that month have all been lost, as well as the first two issues of November, 1918.

The November 15, 1918 issue of the News opened with the headline "THE GREAT WAR ENDS", printed in the largest font the paper owned. Good news, at last. However, further reading reveals signs of the epidemic: "MOTHER BURIED FRIDAY; DAUGHTER BURIED SUNDAY" was the headline for the the deaths of Hazel McCloud, 6 years old, and her unnamed mother. Elsewhere, 12 cases of the flu were reported at the home of J. A. Piles, 6 miles east of Lebanon. All were reported "getting along splendidly."

The editor wrote "Indications are at this writing that the disturbing and distressing epidemic will soon have run its course in this community. No new cases as far as I know have developed for the past several days, except in a very few cases, all are well on to recovery."

However, just a paragraph away he writes "Deaths occurring from the disease that have not heretofore been mentioned are as follows: Hobson Kiser, son of the widow J. F. Kiser, near Wilder, a young man in the prime of life; the baby girl of Rev. Tom Shook, of Carrie, and the little orphan girl of Mr. and Mrs. Carle Laforce, whose demise was mentioned in a previous issue of the News, and being the last and only member of the little family."

Just as the paper was going to press, the death of George Breeding, son of Mr. and Mrs. W. H. Breeding" was reported. Influenza and pneumonia was the cause of death.

The positive attitude continued in the following weeks' issue. "Most of the pupils [of the Lebanon State School] have returned to school. And we hope the influenza is a thing of the past." Thomas Buckles, age 23, and Carl Whitt, also 23, both died of the flu. Charlie Davis Alderson, serving in the coastal artillery, survived the flu and returned home to recuperate.

Honaker High School closed again due to the flu, but re-opened a week later.

The November 29th issue follows up on the previously reported death of George Breeding, noting the death of two of his sisters, Frances and Hazel. The editor reports "We still have quite a few cases of "flu" in different neighborhoods of the county." Yet another young man, Harry Kegley, age 19, died of flu and pneumonia.

Although the War had ended, deaths were still being reported. Thomas B. Meade, of Drill, and Fayett Sexton, of Carterton were killed in action in France. Two more soldiers, Luther Harris and John Ball, were reported missing in action in France.

By December 6th, the epidemic was raging throughout Russell County. Again trying to be positive, the News wrote "As yet no one is seriously ill and the malady appears to be in a lighter form than when it swept the county a few weeks ago causing the death of possibly 150 people." The regular December court was cancelled on account of the flu. A week later schools and churches in Castlewood were reopened and sufferers were reported on the road to good health.

The final edition of the News for 1918 reports "Influenza has about disappeared from Lebanon again - most everybody who had it are about well and only one new case has developed."

The epidemic continued into 1919. On January 10th the editor writes "The influenza cases in Lebanon are too numerous for personal mention. So far as the localist is able to learn, there is no one seriously ill." The First National Bank in Lebanon was hard hit, with Hiram Vermillion, Turner Gilmer, Giles Dickenson, and V. B. Gilmer all laid low with the flu. Miss Fern Owens, of Coulwood, died after a long illness with the flu.

In Carterton, 10 cases were reported at the home of J. J. Meade. All but Mr. Meade were said to be better. Additional cases occurred at the home of Merida Chafin. Dr. S. C. Couch, a local physician was "looking after cases" in Carterton.

The next week the cases in Carterton were also "too numerous to mention." In Castlewood William Skeene, aged 75 succumbed. Mrs. George Sexton also died, but her husband and six children survived. Mr. and Mrs. Jeff Monk, as well as their little infant were ill; the baby died while the parents survived. The Methodist Revered Alexander S. Ulm decided the disease was "divine chastise a rebellious, disobedient, hypocritical Christian nation."

Although schools and societies continued to meet - the Literary Society of the Lebanon High School delivered a program in the auditorium featuring patriotic songs and recitations - deaths piled up. Mrs. James Warner and her three month old child died, as well as her brother Jay Carpenter. Flem Austin, another old Confederate soldier, John Hurd, and a child of Thomas Hurd died. The "little son" of Mr. and Mrs. C. M. Ireson died in Lebanon. Small children of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Campbell and Mr. and Mrs. James Warner died.

The next week, that of January 24th, another child of the Campbell's died. Northeast of Lebanon five deaths occurred in the Breeding family. Reverend Ulm committed to preach at Bascom, but refused to preach at Mt. Olive on account of the sickness. Near Hazel, the entire Tolbert Musick family was ill. Several Kisers were also close to death. In Gravel Lick the localist stated "The flu is raging in this community, almost every family has it, some very bad and others lighter. Wint Mercer and one of his little boys succumbed to it." Mercer's eldest son passed away, making three in that family. The wife of Tolbert Musick died, leaving five children between the ages of 2 and 8.

By Valentine's Day 1919, the Copper Ridge localist said "About all the flu patients are recovering, no new patients in this immediate neighborhood." Although the death count was falling, some families were still hard hit. H. J. Clark reported the death of his mother, his three sisters, and his wife.

The Honaker Herald failed to publish its issue for the week of February 28th due to influenza; Honaker was suffering another round of the flu. Cases persisted near Lebanon and other locations in Russell County. Moccasin reported eight new cases.

By March and April the flu appears to have disappeared, with few, if any, mentions in the local paper. The dreaded disease had claimed the lives of hundreds of Russell Countians. On April 18, 1919 the News published the final list of Russell County soldiers killed during the Great War. Twenty-eight names were listed.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

World War I Letters of Russell County, December 20, 1918

The following letter appears in the December 20th issue of the Lebanon News:


Somewhere in France, Nov. 1.

Mr. B. J. Fuller, Jr.,
Honaker, Va.
Dear Father:

This lonely evening will drop you a short note as I am still in the hospital. Am O. K., and the big war is over and maby I will return some time in the future. I am well, feeling fine and my wound is healing.

The weather is pretty cool, but I have a good bed and plenty to eat, but I don't know when I will get to leave the hospital, so you can tell all the kids I will be back some day and not to worry. Tell Bob to just wait patiently and I will give him a job. Tell Lucy Hello.

Ice is freezing over here at night and it is very cold, crops were good there and plenty of apples and chestnuts.

I sure would like to take Xmas with you all but not this time, don't guess. As my old pen is bad will close and write more next time, and tell you more when I come home.

As ever,

S. C. Fuller"