The Big Lie: 102 Years Ago, Leaders Downplayed The Devastation Of The Spanish Flu

Above photo: Red Cross nurses deliver food to a Charlotte home where a young mother had just died. National Archives.

In the autumn of 1918, Charlotte was fortunate, almost blessed, all but unique among peer cities, when the great influenza epidemic killed 13,000 in North Carolina.

Swift action here kept infection and death rates mercifully low, authorities announced repeatedly.

For 102 years, that lie has gone unchallenged.

But now, spurred by curiosity amid a new pandemic, an examination of archived Mecklenburg County death certificates by The Charlotte Observer and a parsing of century-old news accounts reveal that Charlotte leaders — enabled by an acquiescent press and accepting public — systematically under-reported the 1918 death toll by half.

In fact, at the height of the epidemic, when citizens were dying at the rate of more than 10 a week, they under-reported the scope of the crisis by two-thirds.

To research the issue, the Observer examined official Mecklenburg County death certificates, held in an archive managed by Ancestry.com and accessed through the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system, from September 1918 through January 1919 and compared the results to public statements about the scope of the crisis made by officials during the same time.

Epidemics in Charlotte date to colonial times. Smallpox hit in 1770 and returned in 1851 and 1896. Malaria was rampant in 1853. Dysentery struck in 1855, polio in 1948.

But nothing rivaled the influenza epidemic of 1918. It killed more than 800 civilians — about one percent of the population — comparable to about 11,000 killed today.

It was a ghastly contagion, starting with chills and fever, aching muscles and eyes. In four or five days, many patients suffered bacterial pneumonia. It became known as the “Blue Death,” said Shelia Bumgarner, current librarian at the historical Carolina Room of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, because as patients’ lungs filled with fluid, the lack of oxygen turned their skin blue.

An estimated one-third of the Earth’s population got infected during the 1918 global pandemic, and it is believed more than 50 million died. In the United States, the death toll was estimated at 675,000, more than the population of modern-day Vermont.

In a single year, the flu drove down the statistical life expectancy in the United States by 12 years. In Charlotte, deaths exceeded births in 1918 by 15 percent.

“It killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS has killed in 24 years,” historian John M. Barry wrote in his book “The Great Influenza,” “more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century.”

Mortuary Notice

Eleanor O’Hare Cone, 24, died Oct. 10. “Her husband, Sgt. Martin Harold Cone, was taken ill with influenza last Thursday and taken to the base hospital. Mrs. Cone became ill the following day with influenza and was taken to Mercy Hospital where her child was prematurely born. … The tragedy of the situation is that her husband cannot be told of his wife’s illness and death as his condition is also serious.”

– Charlotte Observer, Oct. 11, 1918.

The Flu Generals

Two Charlotte men of unquestioned character emerged as the leaders of the battle against influenza and controlled the false narrative fed to the public: Mayor Frank McNinch and health director Dr. C.C. Hudson.

McNinch was the respected scion of a prominent family; his brother Sam had served as mayor previously.

Hudson came to Charlotte in 1917 as Mecklenburg’s first health director. A bacteriologist by training, he was regarded as a modern thinker and established the city’s health laboratory.

Why again and again the two men vastly misled the public on the death toll can never be known. Incompetence? No, Hudson was devoted to imposing metrics on health problems. McNinch was a dedicated mayor. To avoid panic? To serve the city’s business interests?

But their deceptions had deadly consequences. As a quarantine on the city — similar to the stay-at-home order now — grew long and costly to business in October 1918, they pressed for it to be lifted, arguing that the disease had been staunched.

Lifted it was, and influenza roared back into the community, killing hundreds more.

Mortuary Notice

Elizabeth Stowe Hursey, 5, of 400 E. Oak St., died Oct. 13. “She was a bright and attractive child and very popular with her playmates.”

– Charlotte Observer, Oct. 14, 1918.

Flu Races West

Influenza may have moved into North Carolina by the port of Wilmington. A case was reported there on Sept. 19, 1918, and the infection quickly spread west to Raleigh.

Beginning the first day of October, a Tuesday, influenza tore through Charlotte with concussive reverberation. On Wednesday, 100 new cases; Thursday 160 more; Friday, 170.

On the edge of the city was a sprawling Army camp training recruits for the world war. Camp Greene had 29,000 soldiers packed into tents. Poor sanitation and overcrowding would lead to epidemics in the camp that killed an estimated 1,200 soldiers.

But on Oct. 1, a camp spokesman quoted by the Observer said all was well. An officer at the base hospital reported only a few mild influenza cases, no deaths.

This gross distortion would unravel within days.

Despite the galloping infection rate in the civilian population, the message to the public was one of reassurance.

In an editorial, The Charlotte Observer said on Oct. 4 the outbreak was “no cause for alarm or panic or hysteria. … Spanish influenza is not such a terrible disease; its mortality rate is not so high as that of some other diseases the presence of which causes no serious consideration.”

Camp Greene was sealed off Oct. 4 by a quarantine that would last five weeks. Charlotte imposed a quarantine the next day intended to last 10 days. Theaters, restaurants, schools and churches were shuttered. Stores were exempt.

At this juncture, the Observer was supportive. Editorial: “Wisdom has again guided the hand of the Charlotte administration.”

Mortuary Notice

J.S. Annabelle Simpson, 24, died Oct. 14. “She leaves her parents, husband and three children, all of whom are seriously ill at their home on Parkwood Avenue with influenza. Her father and mother are not expected to live.”

– Charlotte Observer, Oct. 16, 1918.

First Deaths

On Oct. 5, authorities reported the first two official deaths: Mrs. Louise Sears Wearn, 613 N. Caldwell Street, and Mrs. Margaret Nicholson, 220 N. Brevard St., though death certificates show that five residents died of the influenza in September.

On Oct. 6, the War Department in Washington revealed the truth about Camp Greene. There were 733 soldiers with the flu. Soldiers had been dying there since Sept. 13, the military admitted, 10 so far.

But Charlotte’s two newspapers found a positive spin for the crisis. Reporting that 99 new cases of the flu had been reported on Oct. 5, the Observer noted that it had fallen by half from the day before.

Three days later, The Charlotte News declared the epidemic under control. “Climax in the epidemic of Spanish influenza has been reached,” it said, with only 125 new cases reported on Oct. 8. “Believing now that the disease cannot get away from the forces that are ready to combat it,” the News continued, “health officials today felt more encouraged and there was a lessening of the tension of the last week.”

Though dozens of new cases were being reported daily, coverage remained soothing.

Under the headline “Flu Situation In City Better,” the Observer reported Oct. 12 that 151 new cases were reported the previous day. “Analysis of the physicians’ reports showed, said Dr. Hudson, that the general spread of the disease has been checked.”

Optimistic headlines appeared in Charlotte newspapers despite the rising toll of influenza in the autumn of 1918. Carolina Room/Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library

But the situation in the city was steadily unraveling. Two physicians and several nurses were down with the disease. Three nurses were already dead. Only essential calls should be made, the telephone company pleaded, because 14 operators were stricken, and the remaining force couldn’t keep up with the volume.

Solemn soldiers from Camp Greene bore caskets down Tryon Street daily to the Southern Railway station, where coffins were already stacked to the ceiling. Only the city jail offered solitude; it was empty.

Mortuary Notice

Rose Stevenson, 26, died Oct. 14 at Presbyterian Hospital where she was a senior in its student nurse program. She volunteered to go to Davidson College where 150 students were ill, and contracted influenza herself. “Had she survived, she would have graduated from the institution yesterday.”

– Charlotte Observer, Oct. 15, 1918.

Gross Deception

On Oct. 14, Hudson released the first comprehensive numbers on mortality. Charlotte, he announced, had lost 20 people to the disease.

This was the first in a series of wildly inaccurate accounts of the death rate offered by Hudson and McNinch. A review of death certificates shows that by this date, 103 people had perished from the disease, five times the number Hudson revealed.

When Raleigh reported 82 deaths from the epidemic on Oct. 19, Hudson said Charlotte had only 33. Death certificates, however, show 148 had been recorded locally by this date.

“These figures are low compared to the harvest of death that has been claimed by the disease in many other cities of the country,” said Hudson in a statement that would be oft-repeated, “and the epidemic in Charlotte has touched the city lightly when its results in many other communities are considered.”

On Oct. 25, Hudson announced that 6,000 people had become ill with influenza in the city during October. “This figure is very favorable when it is set down against the total number of cases in many other cities,” he told the News.

There had been 61 deaths, he said. Death certificates show the actual toll by this date to be 181.

Mortuary Notice

Minnie Williamson Russo, 32, of 11 Grove St., died Oct. 21. She was survived by her husband and five children aged 10 to 3 months. “The deceased was a woman of beautiful life and character and was esteemed by a wide circle of friends.”

– Charlotte News, Oct. 21, 1918.

Quarantine Gets Old

Charlotte’s quarantine had been extended, but on Oct. 25 Hudson announced it would be lifted in one week because things looked better. This marked a shift by McNinch and Hudson away from supporting the quarantine.

“We are not unmindful of the fact that we have had more deaths from complications of this disease during the past few days than hitherto,” McNinch said, “but deplorable as this increased death rate is, it does not at all indicate the status of the epidemic as those deaths are due to the accumulation of cases heretofore.”

Deaths plunged as the quarantine entered its fourth week, down to fewer than one a day. New infections fell to about 15 a day.

On the night of Oct. 31, a meeting of the city’s medical society and top civic officials was scheduled to discuss easing restrictions.

“Dr. C.C. Hudson, city health officer, said it seemed likely that the medical society would approve a relaxation of the quarantine because infection rates had dropped,” the News reported beforehand.

Mortuary Notice

Roy Penninger, 8, of N. Lee Street, died Nov. 8. “The little fellow had only been sick a couple of days. … All the other children of the household are down with influenza.”

– Charlotte Observer, Nov. 9, 1918.

Medical Showdown

But Charlotte’s doctors weren’t swayed by the encouraging statistics Hudson and McNinch presented. Unanimously, they voted that the quarantine be extended a week. Reluctantly, Hudson and McNinch ordered it.

McNinch registered his disappointment in a statement to the newspapers the next day, one that hinted at pressure building from several quarters:

“We regret that in the opinion of the medical society, conditions do not warrant lifting the quarantine. We had hoped that a comparison of data and discussion of the situation would show that it would be safe to open up Saturday as we fully realize the financial loss and disorganization resulting to businesses, schools and churches.” This extension would be the last, he predicted.

Hudson would later revise the official October death toll to 111 deaths from influenza and complications.

Death certificates: 203.

There had never been a worse month at Presbyterian Hospital than October 1918, the institution reported in November. In all, 320 patients had been served; the average monthly caseload was 200. There had been 32 deaths, highest on record for a single month, more than usually occurred in a year at Presbyterian. All but one was from influenza.

Mortuary Notice

Mrs. Ruth Miller Clark, 25, 514 N. Poplar St., died Nov. 21, 36 hours after the death of her husband, J.R. Clark. They had been married three weeks.

– Charlotte News, Nov. 21, 1918.

End The Lockdown

Pent-up pressure to resume business as usual popped up at the city commission on Nov. 2. Pool hall owners were the first to go public, pointing out that merchants such as Belk, Ivey’s and Efird were allowed to stay open.

“Owners argued that there was less danger of spreading influenza in pool room gatherings than in large stores where many more people congregated every day than visit the pool rooms,” the News reported. “The commission replied that the regulations were not perfect and it was not improbable that these regulations were hard on some lines of business.”

Next came the Charlotte Ministerial Association, calling for churches to be free of quarantine. If anyone should be exempt, the group said, it should be houses of worship.

“The whole interest of the city is now bent upon the question of lifting quarantine off the city,” the News said in an editorial Nov. 4, “and permitting a return to normal conditions.”

On Nov. 6, authorities lifted the quarantine. Theaters, businesses, public gatherings and church services resumed.

Camp Greene announced its quarantine would end Nov. 11. “Businessmen will also be glad to see the return of the soldiers,” said the News, “as the men in camp are liberal patrons of many local stores, restaurants and of amusement places.”

Mortuary Notice

E.J. Miller, 50, of Mount Airy died Nov. 26 at Presbyterian Hospital. “He came here several weeks ago to nurse his daughter, Mrs. J.R. Clark, who contracted influenza while nursing her husband. Mr. Clark died at home and Mrs. Clark died at Presbyterian Hospital several hours later. Mr. Miller, after nursing his daughter, contracted the disease. … He has been steadily growing worse until early last night when he passed away.”

– Charlotte News, Nov. 27, 1918.

A Huge Parity

On the night of Nov. 11, thousands of soldiers joined throngs of civilians in the streets of uptown Charlotte: At last, the world war’s armistice had been announced.

It took only a few days for Hudson to be proved wrong on his prediction that the flu had run its course. Turned out, it was just pawing the turf at the starting gate.

Days after the celebration, new cases of influenza shot up to 25 a day, then 50. “There is general apprehension,” noted the News, “that the lifting of the ban early in the week and the general resumption of public meetings has given rise to the setback in the epidemic conditions.”

No new quarantine would be needed, Hudson said. Only one or two of the new cases was serious, and the death rate had become very low, he said.

Cases mounted.

“While Dr. Hudson still maintained that there was no move on foot for a renewal of quarantine regulations in the city,” the News reported Nov. 30, “he felt that the condition that has developed is far from what the health department desires.”

On Dec. 3, 60 new cases were reported in one day. Authorities abruptly closed schools for a week, then extended it to a month.

By Dec. 5, the News said, it was known that the city’s doctors favored a new quarantine. But the paper said that was a complicated situation when commerce was considered.

“It has been known since the removal of the first quarantine late in November that not a few medical men held that the step was taken a little early and that the sweeping restriction then in force, should have been held by the city for a week or 10 days longer, when it is claimed by not a few medical men that the disease would have been completely stamped out here,” said the News.

“But the approach of the holiday season and the vast amount of shopping to be done, offers a serious consideration to officials when a complete and rigid quarantine is suggested, for it is recognized that anything that would hamper or interfere with Christmas shopping would be most serious both to the business man and the citizen.”

That same day would see about 80 new cases, the biggest surge since the quarantine was ended.

Mortuary Notice

Corrine Finley, 20, of North Wilkesboro, a student at Queens College, died Dec. 6. “Miss Finley was just 20 and was a young woman of bright promise and a member of a leading family in her hometown.”

– Charlotte News, Dec. 7, 1918.

A Historic Spike

Then came the worst.

On Dec. 6 and 7, more than 200 new cases were reported each day, surpassing the epidemic’s record set Oct. 4, when new cases peaked at 170.

Hudson and McNinch announced no new quarantine was necessary. Hudson explained that 30 percent of the population was destined to get the flu. Already, 20 percent had had it. He said 70 percent of the population was naturally immune, so only 10 percent was at risk.

“Physicians have concluded that quarantine or no quarantine, they are going to have it anyway, sooner or later,” Charlotte’s health officer announced.

On Dec. 10, the school board chairman broke ranks with Hudson and McNinch, calling on them to shut down public gatherings and theaters. “Reports that come to me as chairman of the school board, from all parts of the city,” said Harry Harding, “convince me that the disease is spreading rapidly.”

Swollen with Christmas advertising, the News disagreed with Harding on Dec. 10. “This newspaper accepts heartily the verdict of the doctors that there is no need for a renewal of general quarantine. … They know their business. … It is simply an expected flurry that is being faced here so far.”

On the next-to-last page of that afternoon’s edition, the News reported that 125 fresh cases of influenza had been reported in the city by 2 p.m.

Mortuary Notice

“Three members of the family of H.L. Wallace, 1308 N. Brevard St., have died from influenza. The father was the first victim, his wife following 48 hours later and a little baby of two years died yesterday afternoon.”

– Charlotte News, Dec. 7, 1918

Lack Of Labor

Some businesses were crippled because so many workers were sick, particularly in communications. Sixteen men and women at the Observer were out with the flu; the Concord Tribune told its readers it might not appear every day because of sick workers. Postmaster J.H. Weddington said 28 out of 65 workers were idled by flu as the Christmas rush began.

Hudson called on domestic servants who had recovered from influenza and were assumed to have immunity to register at his office “as a number of calls for servants for stricken homes has been received.”

While Hudson wasn’t dispensing death figures, the Observer determined the toll wasn’t bad.

“Reports from undertakers show that the death rate has been considerably lower during this ‘flare-up’ than during the previous epidemic,” it said Dec. 12. “Several deaths have occurred out of the city, the remains brought here for burial, which has tended to appear to make the death rate appear larger than it really was.”

On Dec. 20, Hudson had an update. Since the beginning of the epidemic in October, he announced, there had been 197 deaths from influenza and all complications, 53 in December alone.

Death certificates list 590 influenza deaths since the outbreak at that point and 80 in December.

On the following day, the News reported that only 12 new cases of flu were reported. “It is now apparent that the second epidemic has worn itself out,” the paper added, noting that no deaths had been reported in three days. Death certificates would show eight deaths in those three days.

Mortuary Notice

Mary Lamb Smith of 408 Park Ave., mother of nine, died Jan. 2, one day after her 43rd birthday. She is memorialized in a stained-glass window over the altar at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church on Park Road. “Cheerful and possessed of all her faculties to the very last, Mrs. Smith made a brave fight for life.”

– Charlotte News, Jan. 2, 1919.

Hudson Gets Sick

On Jan. 1, 1919, Hudson himself caught influenza. He would be hospitalized with a serious case and unable to return to work until Jan. 21. Hudson never gave a complete death toll for December, but death certificates show 104 perished of influenza.

On Feb. 2, Hudson announced that 37 people died in January of influenza. Death certificates show 81.

Influenza fizzled in Charlotte as warm spring weather took hold. Occasional flare-ups would occur over the next two years, but it never returned with vigor.

There is no evidence that anyone ever challenged Hudson or McNinch on the misleading information dealt to the public during the epidemic. Nor is there any known historical reference to an audit of death certificates, apparently unsifted until now.

On April 14, 1919, Hudson went to Pinehurst for a gathering of health officers from across the state to report on conditions from their districts. His remarks are preserved in the book “North Carolina Health Officers Association, ninth annual session.”

Ever the precise statistician, Hudson reported on key indicators in Charlotte over the last year, including new sewer connections (503), vaccines administered for smallpox (1,814) and approximate treatments for venereal disease (11,000).

Unlike many of his colleagues at the meeting, Hudson never breathed the word “influenza.”

Mark Washburn: mwashburn76@gmail.com

Postscript

Charlotte, always looking forward, has forgotten its deadliest struggle in 1918. Only a small, poignant remnant remains.

It is in an obscure corner of Uptown’s Elmwood Cemetery near a tulip poplar tree. There are a dozen military graves, white headstones, six to a row. Here lie in perfect formation for perpetuity the soldiers whose remains never left the Southern Railway station. No kin ever claimed their bodies.