FLU EPIDEMIC: Exactly 100 years ago this week, deaths started occurring in Pulaski County from the great Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918
“At the height of World War I, history’s most lethal influenza virus erupted in an army camp in Kansas, moved east with American troops, then exploded – killing as many as 100 million people worldwide. It killed more people in 24 months than AIDS killed in 24 years, more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. But this was not the Middle Ages, and 1918 marked the first collision of science and epidemic disease.”
John M. Barry
New York Times best-selling author and author of the book, “The Great Influenza”
By MIKE WILLIAMS
One hundred years ago this very week, deaths began occurring in Pulaski County from the flu and pneumonia caused by the flu. The county had been caught up in the worldwide Spanish flu epidemic and it took a heavy toll.
“There were so many deaths in this town, you couldn’t bury the victims fast enough,” said Todd Bruce of Seagle Funeral Home. “I’ve read this town supposedly suffered the most deaths per capita of any other town in the country.”
Seagle was one of two funeral homes in the county at the time of the 1918 epidemic, according to Bruce. Stevens was the other. Bruce said the Stevens staff came down with the flu, but “didn’t die thank God.” That left Tom Seagle as the only embalmer in the town.
Seagle and Bruce have maintained newspaper clippings of obituaries and other information all these years since the epidemic struck the county.
Bruce said a makeshift hospital was set up for the flu victims upstairs in the Elks Club in Pulaski. Only a handful of doctors were available in the town of 5,000 at the time – some of those came down with the flu, and others were busy making house calls to those already sick. According to reports, some 2,000 of the town’s residents came down with the flu.
Due to the shortage of doctors, E.W. Calfee, Mayor of Pulaski at the time, sent word to the State Board of Health for help. A couple of retired physicians locally also answered the call.
The town’s first black physician, Dr. Percy Corbin, also played a critical role in the local battle against the flu epidemic.
Corbin’s practice initially was limited only to black residents. But as Pulaski historian Conway Smith wrote, “It was not a question of black and white, but which doctor could get there first.”
Smith wrote that Corbin “went wherever he was called, and his unique success in treating the disease drew the admiration of his white colleagues.”
According to an account written several years ago by Beth Macy of the Roanoke Times, people in Pulaski were still talking about Dr. Corbin’s unique “cure” for the flu many years later.
Macy wrote, “Some people recall Corbin entering a house and immediately dampening the fire. Knowing that heat incubates germs, he opened the windows to air the place out.”
“Others remember him painting a sticky substance on the back of their throats. Still others say Sulphur was the key.”
“It was a cough syrup he made out of moonshine and rock candy,” Macy quoted Willis Conner as saying.
Corbin even treated the sick across Little Walker Mountain in Little Creek – a place you could only get to by horse or foot.
Macy’s article quotes Corbin’s daughter, Jacqueline Pleasants, who wasn’t sure what was in her father’s cure. But years later, the first time she tasted Robitussin, she told herself, “That’s Daddy’s medicine.”
Despite everyone’s best efforts many still died. Bruce said he understood over 300 people perished across the county from the flu, although no exact number exists. In his book, “The Land That Is Pulaski County,” Smith writes that 125 people died in the county including 92 in the town.
According to Bruce, Tom Seagle and his brothers operating the funeral home at the time told of how they would come to the Elks Club to pick up a deceased flu victim.
“There were times that someone would tap him on the shoulder and say, ‘Wait a minute. There’s another one taking his last breath,’” Bruce said.
“Whole families died,” Bruce said.
He told of talking to a Newbern Heights resident, Halsey Bishop, some 20 or so years ago. Bishop was born in 1918, and told of how his parents both contracted the flu that year and died. “He never knew his parents,” Bruce said. “Their probably was more who experienced the same thing.”
So many deaths were occurring so fast, and with Seagle being the only embalmer in the town who was not sick, another call went out for help. Bruce said an embalmer from Bluefield answered the call and came to assist with embalming. Unfortunately, before the epidemic subsided here, the visiting embalmer also got sick and passed away, Bruce noted.
He added that John Crouse, the local grave digger at the time, was constantly busy digging graves, with graveside funerals happening around the clock – even at night.
“Most people stayed in their homes, so all funerals were at the graveside,” Bruce said, noting that many of the victims weren’t embalmed.
Finally in late October 1918 the epidemic subsided. Businesses started to reopen and schools reopened the first week of November
By late October the makeshift hospital at the Elks Club was closed down and the building cleaned and returned to the club for its use.
Nationwide more than a quarter of all Americans became ill with the flu – known for years as the “Spanish Flu,” despite many observers’ claims that it is unlikely the H1N1 influenza in 1918 originated and spread from Spain.
Of those who fell ill in America, some 675,000 people died.