A lot of older folks recall their parents and grandparents telling stories about the deadly “grippe” that many Mitchell County families suffered 100 years ago. One grandson remembers being told: “They said that some took sick and died in two or three days. It was pretty bad.” Little did they know that they were a part of one of the worst pandemics ever to infect the nation as well as the rest of the world. Gripe came from the French words La Grippe: the flu.
When the Spanish flu first appeared in early March 1918, it had all the hallmarks of a seasonal flu, albeit a highly contagious and virulent strain. Appearing first in America at Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas. The disease was misdiagnosed as typhoid fever in September 1918 in Wilmington. North Carolina, then it spread quickly across the state. By October, the Asheville Citizen-Times reports up to 218 cases confirmed, school closings in the area, community events including church meetings and a dance cancelled, a reduction in street-car schedules, the Red Cross opening an emergency hospital at Park Avenue School and distributing food from the Masonic Temple, and “colored doctors report probably more than 400” cases in the “colored” community.
The Blue Death or Spanish Lady was an unknown strain of flu, the symptoms of which manifested quickly. Initially, the victim suffered a fever for three days then their skin turned blue as their lungs swelled with fluid. Their respiratory system would shut down as their tissues lacked enough oxygen. Although this new influenza proved to be no respecter of persons, it hit poor and crowded communities hard as well as military training camps. One report says, “At the railroad station that served Camp Greene near Charlotte, coffins were stacked from floor to ceiling, taking home the bodies of young soldiers who never saw the war.” In the Weaverville Vance Cemetery there is a special section for children who were taken.
The North Carolina Board of Health counted 13,644 influenza deaths among the state’s 2,559,123 residents. The nation’s toll was about 675,000. It struck every country in the world, sparing only the islands of St. Helena and Mauritius Island in the Indian Ocean. The global toll was at least 20 million and possibly twice that.
While the 1918 global pandemic lasted for two years, the vast majority of deaths were packed into three especially cruel months in the fall of 1918. Historians now believe that the fatal severity of the Spanish flu’s “second wave” was caused by the rapid movement of soldiers around the globe returning from WWI.
In 1889 another pandemic had struck the US called the Russian Flu but was not nearly as devastating. It was a worldwide disease that killed over a million people. Its spread in America was attributed to the availability of railroad travel. Lives lost numbered nearly 13,000.
There have been some 20 killer epidemics recorded in our history, but little is known specifically about impacts in Mitchell County. For example, we have very few data and documents related specifically to Mitchell County beyond the single sentence above from the November 8, 1918 Jackson County Journal. There are, however, a multitude of 1918/19 death certificates in the county on which cause of death was recorded as Spanish flue, influenza, or grippe.
We need to keep in mind also, the worst epidemic that this country has ever recorded. Around 1500 AD there were between 20 and 90 million people living in North America; 200 years later, after the European incursion, some studies say only about 2 million people survived the several diseases brought here by the invaders.
If anyone has specific family information or stories regarding any of the outbreaks and are willing to share, please contact the Mitchell County Historical Society.