Archives for April 2020

Russellville During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Cartoon of a man next to sailors with caption: "Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases as dangerous as poison gas shells.Like most libraries, the Ross Pendergraft Library is committed to keeping the memory of a community preserved and accessible to all.  In the middle of our current crisis, we decided to take a trip back in time to the 1918 influenza pandemic in Russellville, Arkansas, as reported by the local newspaper, known then as the Courier Democrat (Weekly).

Using the microfilmed newspaper collection on the first floor, we scanned through issues of the local newspaper during the height of the 1918 pandemic to find out how our local area and its residents fared under similar circumstances.

The Epidemic In Russellville

Text of a headline reading, "Schools Closed by Spanish Flu"

Then as now, schools closed and public gatherings were prohibited during the height of epidemic in October of 1918.  Arkansas Tech, then known as the Second District Agricultural School, also closed. By October 10th, 1918, the influenza was reported in every county with “hundreds” of cases being reported in Russellville.

By October 17th, the newspaper reported that, “Nothing like the present epidemic of influenza has ever before been experienced in Russellville.”  At least 17 funerals were performed on a single Friday due to the “Spanish influenza.”

Obituary notices list entire families, along with numerous children, who are simply named “Baby” along with the family surname.

Text: a list of obituraries for children which are identified as "Baby Cullum, Baby Sullivan, Baby Brixey, Baby Jones."

Another reflection of these astonishing and cruel times, African-Americans in our community who died during the pandemic were segregated to separate obituary sections:Text: "Colored People" and followed by a description of an obituary for an African American man named Albert Jackson who was buried along with his familyBy October 24th, even the newspaper reporting on the influenza pandemic began to feel the impact, and the lone reporter working on that issue noted, “With only ‘our-self’ left on the job, we feel that no apology is necessary for the small paper we are publishing this week.”

This date seems to be when deaths reached its apex in Russellville.  Twenty-seven deaths were reported in one week, with most burials taking place at Oakland Cemetery.

The “Spanish” Flu

Text: "Many deaths from Spanish Influenza. Epidemic still raging in town and country, though perhaps in milder form. 27 deaths during past week. In 1918, the virus was called the “Spanish Influenza” because Spain was one of the first countries to openly report on it, due to the fact that it was not under the same media censorship as other countries fighting World War I.  It was reported in the Courier-Democrat on October 17, 1918, that the Spanish authorities repudiated the myth that it originated in Spain and instead sent a dire warning: “If the people of this country do not take care, the epidemic will become so widespread throughout the United States that soon we shall hear the disease called the ‘American’ influenza.”  Despite this, the local newspaper refers to the disease consistently as the “Spanish influenza.”

Daily Life for Individuals

In other sections of the paper, a listing of daily notices and updates were the town’s primary way of spreading news at the local family level.  These little dispatches from each community provided a quick round-up of who felt better, who was still sick, who had a birth, or who was fixing up their farm.   From “Prairie Grove, Russellville” is the simple sentence, “Everyone is still sick.”  On Colony Mountain in Lamar, the correspondent reported, “There are a few cases, but none serious.”

Text: "There is so much talk of the flu a fellow is afraid to stick his head out for fear some one will sneeze in his face."

From East Point, Russellville, a report about the rigid enforcement of the vaccination law is met by an early anti-vaccination comment: “If this is the free country we have all been fighting for, the people should have a say-so about such as that.”

Precautions and “Cures”

Text: "Spanish Influenza rapidly spreading. Persons weak and run-down easy victims--fortify yourself against it by taking tanlac."The newspaper urged the same cautions one would take to avoid the cold, including advice like, “Avoid crowds, especially indoor gatherings where ventilation is poor.”

Before stricter regulation of pharmaceuticals, many ‘tonics’ were touted as cures and promised to relieve cold and flu symptoms.  One tonic  called “Tanlac,” was featured in an advertisement disguised as a legitimate news article, providing facts about the virus before urging readers to take Tanlac, which claimed to give you “… the fighting strength to ward off the influenza germ.”   Another advertised medicine to treat influenza included “Calotab”—a laxative which promised to leave your system, “purified and refreshed.”

The Lifting of Quarantine

By October 31st of 1918, the county health officer, J.R. Linzy, lifted the quarantine for Pope county and announced it was safe for schools to resume by Monday, November 4th.  Churches could open by Saturday, November 2nd, though the health official cautioned, “We request that no one attend any of the above places when there are cases of influenza in your home.”   Many deaths were still occurring, however, with the obituary section reporting twenty deaths for that week, with space limited to just names and dates.

"Tomorrow is the first--and there is no quarantine against bill collectors. Greet them cheerfully.

On November 14th, Liberty Hill’s correspondent reported, “The flu has just about gone.  School has opened and the children are glad.”  Most of the local news at this time report a mix of flu recoveries and deaths, but they also include the usual announcements about births, visitors, crop harvests, and Sunday school meetings.  Many people are hosting parties at this time, and life seems to begin to return to normal.

Text: "No charge for delivery anywhere in the city. Everything to everybody will be cash at store or on deliver. My prices are too close to go to extra expense of bookkeeper and collector."

As we endure another week of social distancing and social isolation, it can be comforting to have the perspective of the past—to learn from our common circumstances and to be hopeful of a future end to this pandemic.  For another glimpse back at the 1918 pandemic, you can find similar primary sources online from our New York Times Digital Archive, with full-text, digitized coverage from 1853-2013, or the American Periodical Series, a premier collection of American periodicals published between 1740 and 1940.

Stay safe and stay connected to us—virtually—via chat, text, phone, social media (InstagramFacebook, or Twitter), or email.  We’ll be happy to answer research questions, help you find reference resources, or share our favorite and wildest claims from 1918 health tonics.

Text: "The writer is about run down, trying to wait on the sick folks here, so you needn't expect much news from us."