For nearly seven months, the world has been consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s overshadowed most everything else that has occurred in the meantime. There’s hardly an endeavor that’s not been affected or had to adapt to a contagion that shows little sign of letting up. The COVID-19 infection and death tolls are tracked by the hour, if not more quickly. Hardly a day goes by without some major story or development about the virus going viral itself.
No one under the age of 100 in this country has had to deal with a virus this widespread and this lethal before. What was it like in Greenwood the last time this happened, during the Spanish flu? I took a dive back into the Commonwealth archives to try to find out.
I discovered some differences but more similarities than I expected between then and now.
Not surprisingly, there was a whole lot less space devoted to the 1918 pandemic than the 2020 one. The internet and the 24-hour news cycle not only have created the means to quickly accumulate and disseminate information about health crises but also have produced a funnel that has to be constantly filled with more reporting.
References to the “Spanish influenza” in the Commonwealth began appearing in October 1918, which was actually the second of three waves. That month alone, an estimated 195,000 Americans died from the virus, accounting for more than a fourth of the total fatality count in this country from the disease during the less than two years it was around.
In Greenwood, health authorities were assuring a skittish public that it wasn’t all that bad. Dr. F.M. Sandifer, the Leflore County health officer, issued a report to the newspaper to dispel rumors that the city was under quarantine and that the number of infections was exploding. As of mid-October, Sandifer reported, there had been only a couple dozen cases of the flu and three deaths.
“Greenwood is the most fortunate place in the state,” he said. “The disease here is not so malignant as in other places and has been checked before it became pandemic.”
Sandifer attributed that to steps city and county officials had taken early on to curb transmission of the virus. Schools were closed for weeks, gatherings were barred indoors, and entertainment venues, including picture shows, were closed. That included the forced cancellation of a Ringling Brothers circus planned for that month. Violators of the bans faced fines of up to $500 and up to 30 days in jail.
Despite those restrictions, it appears from the headlines that the public was much more worried about what was taking place overseas on the World War I battlefields than it was with the pandemic. A big war bond parade on Nov. 9, 1918, was called off because of the virus. Residents of one of the county’s supervisory beats, however, were informed they would still be expected to pony up. “Arrangements have been made for the publication of a list containing the names of every man and woman in Beat Three,” they were not-so-subtly warned. “As soon as you make your contribution, your name will be taken off the list.”
The society columns, in which the comings and goings of some of the townspeople were regularly chronicled, identified several of those who had contracted the virus. By January 1919, though, all reference to “Spanish” flu disappeared, although it’s unclear whether that was because the strain was actually gone from Greenwood earlier than in other parts of the country or because the newspaper had taken to heart the objections of the Spanish king, who himself contracted the virus, that it did not originate there.
There was still plenty of reporting in 1919 of people catching influenza in Greenwood, some of whom succumbed to it at a young age. The year opened with the sad story of Mrs. Clarence Golden, mother of five children, ages 14 months to 12 years, dying. It closed with a young couple, Mr. and Mrs. W. Ford Shute, grieving for the two sons, ages 4 and 6, they lost within five hours of each other.
Just as today there are plenty of suggestions, some better than others, on how to ward off the coronavirus, there was no shortage of remedies being touted back then. The newspaper was filled with ads, thinly disguised as news items, for preventatives such as Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic or liver-stimulating Calotabs. The editor and publisher, J.L. Gillespie, dutifully passed on other suggestions, including some that could have stood more scientific vetting.
He advised his readers to keep room temperatures between 65 and 72 degrees because “much of our ‘flu’ is traceable to the attempt to save coal.” And he told them to drink lots of lemonade, preferably heated up.
“The Spanish influenza does not like lemons,” he pronounced.