After several requests, we’ve reposted this episode given the current climate. We want to encourage listeners to consider ways we can still support our neighbors and communities, even while still keeping our distance. It’s essential in times of trial to come together!
Originally released January 14, 2020
We are back from a short break with our first episode of season 2! Join us as we talk about the Flu Epidemic of 1918. This global pandemic had devastating effects, even in the mountains of Appalachia. Listen to clips from contacts Ethel Corn, Lawton Brooks, and Harriet Echols.
Interested in learning more? Check out the CDC’s webpage!
Foxfire: Ask you if you knew anything about the flu epidemic? I think it was in 1918, something like that?
EC: Well I don’t remember what year it was the first flu epidemic hit, but it was bad, for it was somethin’ the doctors didn’t know anything about. They called it influenza then. And it killed just about everybody. As far as I can tell you, it was several years before a doctors knew anything about it. They just didn’t know, there was a lot of people died from it. More of ‘em died than got over it. Not so awful much around here as it was ‘round in places. Nearly everybody that had it through this country, just to say, about ⅓ of them died. ‘Cause we didn’t have nothin’, only just plain, old country doctors. In fact, we didn’t have but three doctors in here. Doctor Neville, Doc Bellvire, and Doc Green. That was all the doctors there was. Two in Clayton and one in Dillard. Now I’ve told you as much as I know about it because it was a thing that just was not understood. You know, I was just a child at the time the flu epidemic hit.
Foxfire: So you don’t remember much?
EC: No, because there wasn’t much that the doctors even knowed about.
Foxfire: I wonder what they did. Did they use home remedies or?
EC: Yeah, they’d give medicine, but now I can’t tell you what kind of medicine they give for it.
Foxfire: Do you remember the great flu epidemic they had back in 1918?
Lawton: God yes. I’ll never forget that. I had that. That was the fastest flu you ever hear tell of hittin’ us. Me, and another one of my best friends went a’rabbit huntin’. Now my daddy, he went down with it. And my brother, he was down with it. Me and my mother wasn’t down–my stepmother, I mean. My mother died when I was 15 years old. Me and my stepmother, we hadn’t gotten it. And me and this boy, we was rabbit huntin’, and I walked two or three steps–and there was nothin’ the matter with me when I got up here. We walked two or three steps and in this knee and this’un right here–I swear, I thought he shot me. And I fell. And he come runnin’ out there and I said, “What in the world are you shootin’ me for?” He said, “I didn’t shoot you.” And I said, “Well there’s somethin’ happen to my knees. I believe you did.” I pulled my britches up to see. I wasn’t. Well, by that time then, I just knocked out. Well, it scared him and he carried me a piece, but he couldn’t carry me all the way. He laid down the gun and me, and run down there and got some of the folks over there to come get me. Took me on to the house; when I got to the house, my nose commenced bleedin’. Well, we had a telephone and that’s when the telephone first begin to come around. We had one in. And the doctor had one. Called him, he happened to be at the house. He said, “I’ll be there just in a minute.” Well, sure enough, he didn’t take time to ride his horse around. He just took the trail, come right across the hill, walkin’. When he come in, he said, “Alright, he’s got the flu.” Says he’s got that blastin’, hateful flu. And he commenced givin’ me medicine. And I didn’t know nothin’, my nose like to’ve bled me to death. They just had to change piller (pillow) one after another’un. Just kept gushin’ out. It’d just stop for a few minutes then here it’d come again. My temperature was so high.
And my daddy–he lost his voice. When he had it for 18 straight months. Now his voice left him one night–he was talkin’ just as good as I could. One night he went to bed. He got up the next morning, couldn’t speak above a whisper. And for 18 months, he didn’t speak above a whisper. And one morning he got up a’talkin’ as good as he ever did. For 18 straight months! And the doctor sent him to a different doctor to see what took his voice. Nobody could–they just never knew. Said there’s nothin’ the matter with John, he’s just as stout a man as ever you’ve seen. And–
Foxfire: And this was from the flu?
Lawton: All from that flu. And you know we didn’t know anything. It scared us when he got up one morning and talked. We was used to him a’whisperin’ all the time. And for 18 straight months, and he got up one mornin’ talkin’ as good as he ever did. And his voice never did leave him no more. Never did leave no more. He got to be 90 years and four months old. And it never did leave him no more. But it left him, that flu hit him some way or another and left him, and the doctors couldn’t find out what it was. He worked all the time. He wasn’t sick, he got over the flu as well as he ever was. But couldn’t talk. It just took his voice. And kept him that way for 18 straight months! And he got up one mornin’ and talked as good as he ever did.
And they was a’buryin’ them two at a time, three at a time–the graveyard, they stayed a’workin’ in the graveyard continually. Every day, there’s somebody a’diggin’ graves.
Foxfire: Somebody told us there were whole families wiped out?
LB: It did, it just wipe ‘em out. I was down over there, I went down and come back by the graveyard and there’s two fellows there I knowed and I stopped to talk to them diggin’ graves. And here come a man runnin’ up on a mule that says double it. Says his brother’s dead now and they said to just double it and bury ‘em both in the same grave.
And they’s just a dyin’–oh, I don’t know how many in a family would die. They died just like the hogs with cholera, when the disease come through. The doctor didn’ have no medicine or nothin’ for you to take. And if you just’d stand up, if you could live through it, you lived through it. Or you just died with it, that’s all. It killed my brother.
Foxfire: How long did the whole thing last?
LB: Well, let’s see. I don’t know exactly how long it lasted, but it didn’t last too long. It was about this time of year, I think, when it was. And we had it so bad. You’d feel good as you did right now and that thing hit you so durn quick, you’d think somebody knocked you in the head. You don’t know, it just hit *snaps*. Just like that, it hit you. That’s the way it done everybody, just hit ‘em *snaps*.
Foxfire: Did you ever hear anything about where it came from? What brought it over here or what…?
LB: They claim it come from across from some–let’s see, where was it?
LB: Yeah, Asia, Asia-atic I believe they called it. Asiatic or somethin’ like that was the name of it, they called it. That was what they named it anyway. But now, let me tell you somethin’ girl. That’s the roughest flu that’s ever been here. And I’ve had the flu since and I’ve seen people with flu since, but I never seen no flu like that. And I hope I never see anymore like it, because I tell you, if when you took it, you weren’t extra stout, you’s just a dead person. That’s all there was too it.
Foxfire: Well, do you think that was because, you know, the people had never had it before?
LB: I have an idea. Well, what and they didn’t have no medicine to stop that miserable pain. It was awful. It’d hit you in the legs and you’d think somebody about cut your leg off. Oh, you was achin’ so bad you just couldn’t stand it. Most people killed ever I knowed of. Just a’diggin’ graves, one right after another, one right after another. It really did slay the people.
Foxfire: Do you know how widespread it was?
LB: No I sure don’t. I don’t know how widespread it was, but it was pretty widespread that flu was, because it killed lots and lots of folks. Course now it wouldn’t be so bad because they got hospitals they take you to. Back then, they didn’t have no place to take you. If you lived in an old open house, you just had to stay in that old house–there wasn’t nothin’ you could do, no place for you to go. You just stayed there. If you could get a doctor, why you got him. If you couldn’t get him, you couldn’t.
Foxfire: During this flu, people helped each other a lot, didn’t they?
LB: Oh yeah, they’d go in and help each other. And some of them were scared to go in and they’d tie, some of them would put all kinds of things around their head and their nose, you know, to wear to keep ‘em from takin’ it. But that didn’t help you a bit. There was one old boy that was stayin’ at our house–boardin’ there. And he went through it all and never did take it. Stayed there and cooked and waited on us. And he waited on us and there’s two more families right there next to us and he waited on them, and us too. And he go around whistlin’ all the time. If it happened to him, we’d’ve died because we couldn’t hand each other a drink. And we was too crazy anyway, we wouldn’t know anything about it. You was crazy with it. You didn’t know what was goin’ on.
Harriet Echols Transcript
Foxfire: A couple of the other girls are looking, are finding all kinds of stories about the old flu epidemic back in 1918? Do you remember that?
HE: We was in that, yes, we was. We were sick and, you know, there where we lived, my first baby was just a little feller. We was there in 1917 and he was born in October of ‘18. And we had moved to a different place–you know over at your aunt’s land. You know, you move on to get near your work. And we had rented another farm and my husband was working at the shingle mill. And that flu epidemic hit, and I’m telling you, there was so many sick people, there wasn’t enough people well. Even our undertaker–the funeral, that took care of the funeral home–died. There was two together and they both got sick and Mr. Leisener died and Mr. Dunwaith finally got well, but he was for months. And that–you talk about sick.
Foxfire: Did anybody in your family get it?
HE: Yes, we all had it. My little baby laid there for days. And the doctors couldn’t get to us. The weather was bad and there was just so many sick people, and during the war, you see. And the doctors was all in service, and we just had one doctor there, to tell you. And he went day and night until he liked to die. And there wasn’t enough people to dig graves and bury the dead. The negroes come in and helped and there was so many of them that died. And sometimes there’d be six and eight funerals in one day.
Foxfire: We were talkin’ to Lawton down in Clayton and he said sometimes they’d be diggin’ a grave, and he said one place they were diggin’ a grave and while they were diggin’ it, the man drove up and told them to make it a double. The guy’s brother just died or somethin’.
HE: Yeah, well that’s the way it was. And people were just sick so long with it. And then they didn’t have shots to give you like they do now. And they just had to work and do with what they had to do. And I know there was so many people sick. The night my baby was born and the doctor came, he said, “Well, if I’m not needed right now,” said, “I’ve got to rest a little while.” And so my husband’s mother was there and his aunt. My mother was sick and she couldn’t come to help us out, so he looked after me and everything and said, “Oh no, it’ll be on towards morning, maybe tomorrow, ‘fore I’m needed.” I thought, “Oh my God, how can I stand to wait ‘til tomorrow?” But he went to bed and the baby was born somethin’ after twelve o’clock, about one, one-thirty, somethin’ like that. But anyway, he said he had been to the convict camp and he said, “There was just so many people sick, I’ve not had a night’s sleep in–since it started, now.” Said, “Really, it’s just day and night.” So he laid down. He got several hours rest. And then he got up and after the baby was born and everything, everybody went home. Ms. Echols fixed her and my husband’s breakfast, then she went home.
And you know, people was so sick, and they didn’t have medicine. And where that flu went into pneumonia, that’s where so many people died.