by Mary Cathrin May
Prologue. In 1918 the United States entered its second year of fighting in WWI. American civilians did their part by working with agencies like the Red Cross, and sold Liberty Bonds to help pay for the war effort. Meanwhile, dozens of local men – the “Tallahassee boys” — were in military training camps all across America while others already were on the front lines in Europe. Back at home, families and friends welcomed their letters and followed the progress of the war.
(State of Florida Archives)
In Camp. In late December 1917, Tallahassee received news of the deaths of two local boys, Army Private Alexander Scarborough (age 25) and Private First Class Ira O. Gerrell (age 23), but neither had been killed on the battlefield. Instead, both were in training at Camp Wheeler, Georgia, when they died from diseases: Scarborough from meningitis and Gerrell from influenza. Tallahassee was a small town of about 5,000, so residents were stunned at the news but may not have been surprised at the cause of the deaths.
Throughout that fall sanitary conditions in the overcrowded training camps had badly deteriorated. The War Department was reporting that hundreds of soldiers at the camps had fallen ill with “flu-like” symptoms, which doctors first diagnosed as a form of influenza. By the spring of 1918, the deadly disease was tearing through the camps, sickening hundreds more, and causing further deaths. Observers described the condition of the stricken men as the illness progressed: In the early stages their cheeks became dotted with “mahogany spots;” many bled from the nose and mouth; gradually their lungs filled with fluids that in the worst cases led to suffocation. At the end, deprived of oxygen, the men’s faces turned a “dark shade of blue or purple” which made it difficult to “distinguish the colored men from the white.”
As influenza flared, American soldiers being sent to Europe carried with them the tiny microbes that proved to be as “lethal as their guns.” The germs quickly infected the militaries and civilians of the warring nations. The U. S. and its Allies tried to suppress news of the outbreak, but cases in neutral Spain were picked up by reporters who quickly dubbed the disease “Spanish flu.” Soon, Spanish flu was engulfing the globe.
For a short while it appeared the epidemic had run its course, but in the summer a second and more powerful wave swept across the United States, striking military installations and spreading into the civilian population. Hardest hit was Camp Devens near Boston, Massachusetts, where a large number of men from the Leon County area were preparing to ship overseas. In September, Devens reported over 6,000 sick soldiers while cases in Boston numbered up to 10,000, with 43 deaths per day. October was the deadliest month nationwide, and while 142,000 new draftees were scheduled to leave for camp the War Department halted all entrainments.
Epidemic in Tallahassee. By that time cases were cropping up in Tallahassee and Leon County, and the newspaper began reporting the names of well-known residents who had fallen ill. Former mayor Dexter M. Lowery was sick, as were TPD Chief Joe Moody, Leon Voter Registrar Flavius C. Coles and his family, and George Betton Ames, the son of City Tax Assessor W. O. Ames. County commissioner Dr. Charles M. Ausley became ill after treating five family members of fellow commissioner Mumford Russell. The entire family of B. R. Shuford, owner of Shuford’s Bakery, was sick, as was Miss Mary Robertson, daughter of K. P. Robertson and a teacher at Leon High School. Jack Davis came home sick from Pensacola and was being cared for by his mother, Mrs. Fred H. Davis. Fred H. Lewis, on leave from Officer’s Training School at Camp Hancock, Augusta, Georgia, fell ill and also was under the care of his mother.
Influenza struck at Florida State College for Women (FSCW) and at the Colored Normal School (FAMC), both of which were placed under quarantine. George Footman, a Confederate veteran in Capitola, reported that six of his nine family members were “in bed with the flu at the same time.” Leon Representative John A. Scruggs said there were a few cases in Miccosukee, but none considered dangerous.
As the situation in town worsened the Leon Home Guard cancelled all drills for October. On orders from the national and state health boards, Tallahassee Mayor J. R. McDaniel closed down public and private places, including theaters, schools and churches, and some stores and restaurants. Fred T. Myers, chairman of the local chapter of the Red Cross, sent out an “emergency call” for women who had “enough practical training to nurse flu victims” to contribute at least one hour a week to the war effort. The volunteers first met at the Red Cross office in the Elk’s Club, a large mansion-like building on Monroe Street, where they sewed gauze “flu masks” for use in homes of the ill, and made “pneumonia jackets” and surgical supplies to ship to physicians and nurses at the camps. For a time Myers’ had to close the office at the Elk’s Club, but the women continued their work at the Parkview Sanitarium, a private hospital at Park and Gadsden run by Miss Marie Waites.
Local health officials urged residents to take precautionary measures to prevent the disease from spreading, but for some in town it was already too late. Throughout October the Daily Democrat reported on the passing of neighbors and lamented that funerals seemed like an “almost everyday occurrence.” On October 10, Jack Davis died at his mother’s home on College Avenue. In one day, October 12, the paper announced the deaths of Mrs. Pauline Atkinson, daughter of W. E. Gray; Will Byrd, businessman and son of Tom B. Byrd, who died in Jacksonville; and Mrs. Mary Hamilton Meginniss, mother of Judge Benjamin A. Meginniss. George Betton Ames died on October 14, and funerals for Ames and Mrs. Meginniss took place on the same day, October 15. Judge Meginniss, who had resigned to work for the Y. M. C. A. in New York, returned to Tallahassee for his mother’s funeral.
Over the next two weeks, the paper posted obituaries on October 18 for C. J. Durivage, a member of the Randall-Durivage Motor Company and steward of the Leon Hotel; October 21 for Mrs. Fred Davis who became ill while caring for her son Jack; October 28 for John Burkhardt, well-known “market man” in Tallahassee; and for Mr. Pararo, brother of postal employee Luther Pararo and a foreman for Seaboard Railroad at Lloyd. According to the Daily Democrat, “only one Negro died” but the paper did not identify the victim by name.
Amid the many deaths, Leon County also lost one of its last remaining Confederate soldiers, Mr. Edward Gray, father of Deputy Sheriff Jackson Gray. Mr. Gray, who had served in Co. C, Fifth Florida Regiment, passed away on October 3 but apparently his death was from “natural causes.”
Deaths in the Ranks. While Tallahassee mourned its friends and neighbors, the flu continued to spread through the military camps and families began receiving word of their soldiers who had succumbed to the disease. On September 28 Private First Class Wilson Mimms died at Camp Jackson, South Carolina. On October 10 two deaths were reported: Seaman Second Class Willie S. Joyner, on inactive duty and working at the nitrate plant in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Private Benjamin F. Payne, in Co. D, 546th Engineer Service Battalion (Colored), based in LeHavre, France.
For the rest of the month hardly a day passed that folks in Tallahassee did not learn of another death: October 11, African-American Private Connie C. Smith, Co. D, 550th Engineer Service Battalion at Camp Humphreys, Virginia; October 14, Private Robert Lee Harvey of Bloxham, in the Ordinance Guard at Raritan Arsenal, New Jersey; October 18, First Lieutenant John Gross Boone, Army Chaplain at Camp Mills, New York; October 21, Army Private William Towns Appleyard, son of Colonel T. J. Appleyard, in a tank corps at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and October 25, Water Tender 1st Class Daniel W. Syfret, Jr., on duty as a naval recruiter in Gainesville, Georgia.
At the end of October Florida State Treasurer John C. Luning and his wife were notified by telegram that their son, Bernard, in a camp in upstate New York, was seriously ill with influenza. They rushed to be with him and were relieved when he survived and was able to come home. By that time the disease known as Spanish flu had taken the lives of 195,000 Americans nationwide, but appeared at last to be subsiding.
While a few new cases were reported in Tallahassee, on October 29 the recovering Dr. Ausley stated that in his opinion the “flu as an epidemic” had come to an end in Leon County. However, he warned the threat remained and cautioned residents to keep up their preventive measures for a while longer. Churches resumed services, FSCW and FAMC closed their infirmaries, and on November 4 the town’s children returned to school.
Large Victories. Through it all, the local people never forgot their country was fighting the Germans in Europe. Nor did they relax their efforts to sell U. S. Liberty Bonds to help pay for the war. The county’s quota was set at $322,700, but townsfolk hoped to surpass that amount. In October former mayor John W. Henderson, chairman of the bond drive, proudly announced that Leon had gone “over the top” – the county had raised almost $365,000.
At the time of the announcement the U. S. and its Allies, spread out along the Meuse-Argonne Line in northern France, were engaged in their last major drive against the enemy. Only three weeks later, on November 11, the Germans surrendered and signed an armistice. Breathing a collective sigh of relief, folks in the Capital City congregated downtown to celebrate the peace and their good fortune – they had survived the Spanish flu; at last WWI was over; and soon the Tallahassee Boys would be coming home!
AFTERMATH. The influenza threat in Tallahassee and Leon County did not end in November; new cases and deaths were reported well into 1919. The fall session of the Circuit Court was postponed until sometime early in the new year, and in January Dr. Ausley once again closed schools and theaters for a week. However, the general attitude among physicians and the public was that the worst had passed and life in the Capital City gradually returned to a regular routine.
Matt Lutz, personal papers and records.
Tallahassee Daily Democrat, November 1918 – February 1919.
Christopher Klein, “Why October 1918 was America’s Deadliest Month Ever—It wasn’t because of World War I,” (https://www.history.com/news/spanish-flu-deaths-october-1918).
Florida Veterans of the First World War,1917-1919, Florida Department of Military Affairs, p. 83-94, (https://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00047705/00002/3j).
“History of the 1918 Flu Epidemic,” (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918- commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.html).
“Spanish flu” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_flu).
“The US Military and Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919,” Public Health Report, (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2862337/).