So… we’re all locked down, to various degrees, in a worldwide effort to help stop the spread of the novel COVID-19 Coronavirus. And everyone knows that this 2020 pandemic is the worst thing since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
From Wikipedia: The Spanish flu was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic. Lasting from January 1918 to December 1920, it infected 500 million (estimated) people—about a quarter of the world’s population at the time…resulting in 50 million (estimated) deaths.
Many of us who research our family histories know which of our ancestors died during that time, and what effects it had on their families.
Ethel Lee Robbins Lawrence (1887–1918)
My maternal great-grandmother, Ethel Lee Robbins Lawrence, died at the age of 31, leaving my 14-year-old grandmother, Villa, to raise her three younger brothers and two-year-old baby sister almost single-handedly.
According to Villa (who died in 1986 at the age of 82), her father was “a drunkard and a rent jumper”. He worked seven days a week at a “drain tile” factory (they made clay sewer pipes) for low wages, and at night would go to sweep out the local saloon, where he was well-liked and well-supplied with liquor.
I can’t remember my Dad ever paying a doctor bill or rent. We lived in almost every house in that little town. When the rent piled up we got notice to move. Now I marvel that we always had another house to move to.
By contrast, her mother was “a very happy and religious person” who “whistled and sang church hymns all the time at her work of cooking, sewing, washing, scrubbing, and ironing.”
‘Get an education’ was the guide of my life. Mother said, ‘I want you to have an education so you won’t have to work as hard as I did.’ She had to hoe, sucker, and worm tobacco in the field from the time she could remember.
The Spanish flu targeted young adults
Villa, on the Spanish flu:
Mother was seven months pregnant for the seventh time. The flu was taking all pregnant women, so she knew she was doomed. While Mother was sick, I was begging for a fountain pen from the catalog. They were new and I was always wanting something. She told me I wouldn’t need it. That she was going to die, and she wanted me to quit school, keep house, and keep the family together.
Ethel did die, leaving her 14-year-old daughter to take care of her three younger brothers and two-year-old baby sister. But Villa did also continue her education and, with the help of her mother’s sister, was able to care for the children and see that they, too, went to school. Villa became a teacher, and, later, a nurse. Forced to grow up fast, she rose to the challenge, and not only survived, but thrived. She deserves a story of her own!
A cemetery surprise
Meanwhile, Arabia Cemetery, in Mecca, Indiana, is tucked between a country road on one side, and separated from a cow pasture by a wire fence on the other side. This is not a place with groomed lawns, neat rows, pathways, or offices. There is barely room to park your car, but the parking and graves are on a little bluff, separated from the road just enough to be quite peaceful.
When I found Ethel’s grave, I was surprised – and oddly touched — to see that her gravestone was a hand-made sculpture of a tree trunk…. made out of clay sewer pipes.
What I’ve learned of cemetery symbology tells me that a tree trunk represents being cut down in the prime of life. Did Horace know that? Was it just the cheapest thing he could manage on her behalf – free (?) clay sewer pipes from his workplace? Or, was it a very deliberate, loving, and creative tribute? A combination, I imagine.
Spanish flu resources
As for how other families fared, here are some resources:
Podcast by genealogist Amy Johnson Crow: What Life Was Like During the Spanish Flu of 1918
Article: A Tale of Two Cities: The Catastrophic 1918 Flu Pandemic Can Guide City Policymakers Today – tells the story of how differently St. Louis and Philadelphia handled the Spanish flu, in terms of social distancing, and their vastly different outcomes.
Article: Ten Myths About the 1918 Flu Pandemic from Smithsonian magazine.
Finally, to help YOU (and me) — here and now — here is a link to the Org4life Survive & Thrive Resource Roundup (which I am frequently updating during my own isolation).
Do you have ancestors who died in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic?
Please share in the comments below!
Copyright 2020 by Hazel Thornton, Organized for Life.
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