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Atlanta’s 1918 pandemic: Fresh air rocks, but don’t forget your mask

Jason Marshall

By Guest Columnist BO HIERS, a semi-retired marketing officer in the reinsurance industry and super-proud grandfather of his beloved grandson, Fletcher

Sir Winston Churchill once famously said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Going through hell is exactly what the city of Atlanta has experienced of late. That’s why in scary times like this, it is comforting to know we’ve “been there, done that” before – and survived.

Bo Hiers

Bo Hiers

The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic was horrific, claiming 675,000 souls in the United States. This count includes my maternal grandfather’s big brother, Sgt. Carlton Wellborn Jones. Sgt. Jones contracted the deadly disease while stationed at Camp Wheeler near Macon and died while home on leave in Savannah. I would extrapolate the 675,000 total to today’s population, but I would only mess it up, and further depress everyone. Thanks to terrific resources such as The Atlanta Constitution’s online archives and WABE in Atlanta, I learned the 1918 version of the current hell we’re experiencing was eerily like our 2020 global pandemic.

Authorities of yesterday had the same advice for the population: Wash your hands, they said. Whatever you do, don’t touch your face. And by all means, always wear a mask in public. But there were differences, too. Gargling with saltwater and getting fresh air were considered effective ways to ward off the deadly influenza. Streetcars and automobiles were ordered to keep their windows down at all times, except during thunderstorms. Keep in mind, antibiotics or antiviral medicines were not available in 1918. Ventilators? Forget about it. Known as the “iron lung”, ventilators were sadly still 10 years away.

Breaking the ‘channels of communication’

As soon as government officials realized the seriousness of the pandemic, most public gathering places were closed. Stores, theaters, schools, churches, not to mention billiard and dance halls, were all shuttered (apparently billiard and dance halls were big in 1918 Atlanta). Surprisingly, Atlanta’s Southeastern Fair and Liberty Pageant, the largest annual public event in the city, decided the show must go on – but only because the fair was held outdoors. The Oct. 12-19 event boasted 25,000 visitors in one day.  However, there was one important stipulation in place – everyone who attended the fair had to wear a gauze mask.

Bo Hiers, ancestor, Jones

Sgt. Carlton Wellborn Jones, an ancestor of the author, died of pneumonia contracted during World War I at Camp Wheeler, near Macon.

The initial plan was to keep most business establishments closed for two months. But Atlanta’s mayor, Asa Candler, a first-rate businessman and philanthropist at heart (Candler founded the Coca-Cola company in 1892), had a change of heart. After less than three weeks, Candler and the majority of that generation’s version of city council decided Atlanta needed to be open for business. Candler and others worried greatly about the local economy and knew those who did not work were not getting paid.

Social distancing and sheltering-in-place were viewed as important strategies in waging war against the pandemic, only then the catchphrase was “breaking the channels of communication.” Fortunately, sheltering-in-place is far easier in 2020 than it was for our 1918 brethren. After all, we’re blessed with central air, microwave ovens, refrigerators with icemakers, 60-inch plasma televisions, state-of-the-art washers and dryers, Uber Eats, iPhones, laptops, Zoom, Minecraft, Google, Netflix, and Amazon –and don’t forget Disney Plus! Compare that to 102 years ago, when commercial radio was not even a thing yet (WSB first aired in Atlanta in 1922). Even worse, the automatic dishwasher was still almost 20 years away. But, hey, homes were blessed with electric irons.

I’ll see your World War I and raise you a global pandemic

Talk about the lollapalooza of one-two punches: Atlantans were also dealing with the horrors of World War I when the Spanish Flu arrived. Many Atlanta men and women were either already in France waging war against the hated Kaiser Wilhelm II, or in the process of shipping out. This included many of Atlanta’s finest medical personnel.

According to the University of Michigan’s Influenza Encyclopedia, World War I power consumption restrictions were already in place in Atlanta when the deadly disease began to ravage our city. These restrictions included closing elevators, rolling blackouts two nights a week, and the requirement to close stores by 6 p.m. on Saturdays. Ironically, these restrictions may have played a helpful role in preventing a wider spread of the deadly flu.

bo hiers, fort gordon, human eagle

The Human American Eagle was created by 12,500 officers, nurses and servicemen standing in formation at Camp Gordon in 1918. The Spanish Flu hit the base hard, infecting more than 9,000 individuals. Credit: Copyright expired; 1918, Mole & Thomas, Chicago

The 1918 Spanish Flu first began gaining traction in Army bases throughout the U.S. Georgia’s Camp Gordon in Chamblee (on the present-day site of DeKalb-Peachtree Airport) was especially hard hit. Over 9,000 cases were reported at Camp Gordon in early October. Fortunately, the camp’s chief medical officer, Col. Frank Woodbury, ultimately did an outstanding job of mitigating the number of deaths by quickly putting strict quarantine measures in place. Requiring all soldiers who weren’t in sick bay to sleep outside in the fresh air was just one of the measures Col. Woodbury put in place.

Hear Ye!  Hear Ye!  Read all about it in The Atlanta Constitution

To see how Atlanta was holding up during the Spanish Flu, I randomly looked at four October issues of The Atlanta Constitution. Predictably, news from World War I dominated the newspaper in the fall 1918. I was also struck by how headline writers referred to the deadly Spanish Flu as the “Flu.” Something else noteworthy – the headlines from yesteryear were really long. Each issue revealed increasingly telling and alarming headlines about how the Spanish Flu was progressing in Atlanta. Here’s what I learned:

Thursday, Oct. 10 – The following front-page headline caught my eye: “Spanish Influenza Not Epidemic Here – Health Authorities Say Measures Taken Merely Precautionary, and So Far, There Is No Reason for Alarm.” The Atlanta Constitution also featured an article citing improving conditions at Camp Gordon. The gist of the article was Col. Woodbury was to be complimented for getting ahead of the flu with his strict measures, including cancelling all leave passes to Atlanta and Chamblee.

On the good news front – thanks to American troops, Allied forces were gaining the upper hand in France. Not only that, but Sophie Mae Milk Nut Chocolates were available for the special price of 80 cents per pound at That Bright Little Sweets Shop at the Peachtree Viaduct!

Tuesday, Oct. 15 – Here’s a headline that’s hard to miss: “Masks Will Make Fair Grounds Look Like Great Harem – Orders Issued Monday as a Preventative Against ‘Flu’ Offer Great Possibilities to People Here for Big Show.” Prepare yourself for the following article excerpt – and no, I did not make it up: “Think of the women whose teeth fail to fit – she may be beautiful in a mask; think of the man whose wife knocked out a few of his front teeth – he may be handsome once again, in a mask….”

bo hiers, loew's grand theatre

Atlanta closed theaters during the Spanish Flu of 1918, just as theaters today are closed during Covid-19. This photo dates to about 1920. Credit: Copyright expired, Smitheys1

Another front-page article headline: “Protest is Made by Theatre Men.” Theater and picture theater owners strongly believed they were being discriminated against. In other words, why open the doors to the Southeastern Fair and Liberty Pageant, but close the theaters?

A Page 10 headline read as follows: “Low Death Rate From ‘Flu’ Here.” However, when you read on you’ll discover the following ominous excerpt from Atlanta’s city physician, Dr. J.P. Kennedy: “We can look for more deaths as a result of influenza during the next week to ten days because the malady frequently runs into pneumonia and other dangerous complications….”

Finally, if you were looking to bolt to Savannah for fresh coastal air, a Central of Georgia train was departing from Terminal Station at 7:50 a.m. All aboard!

Saturday, Oct. 19 – The news about the World War just kept getting better, which makes sense: The Armistice agreement ending all hostilities with Germany was less than three weeks away. There were an increasing number of headlines related to the “Flu.” Here’s a sampling:

“Great Movie Stars to Be Seen Tonight Despite the ‘Flu’ – Films Which Were Made to Boost Fourth Liberty Loan Campaign Will Be Flashed on Outdoor Screen.” There were plans for “a great outdoor moving picture exhibition” at the corner of Peachtree and Broad streets at 7 o’clock. These were Liberty Loan pictures “prepared by the government.”  Movie stars included Charlie Chaplin. The movie projector was located on the 5th floor of the Flatiron Building, and the extravaganza was under the direction of the United War Work campaign.

“Reports on ‘Flu’ In State Received – Georgia health Officials and Federal Authorities Will Co-operate in Steps to Prevent Spread of the Disease.” The article recognized the epidemic of influenza in Georgia was becoming serious, and authorized Dr. T.F. Abercrombie to “take full charge of the situation, and to issue whatever regulations are needed in the various towns and counties of the state.” A total of 2,749 new cases had been reported, with 51 deaths, in the past 24 hours.

Col. Frank Woodbury served as Camp Gordon’s chief medical officer during the Spanish Flu. Credit: University of Michigan’s Encyclopedia Influenza

“Optimism Is Shown by Health Leaders Over ‘Flu’ Outbreak.” In summary, the city Board of Health met Friday and expressed optimism that the “influenza danger would soon be passed.” While there were no resolutions passed to lift the ban on public gatherings, “Mayor Candler stated he would call a special meeting of council to rescind the order at any time the board of health recommended such action.” The improved situation at Camp Gordon was fueling the optimism.

As a testament to how small Atlanta was in 1918 compared to 2020, I also learned Chief Petty Officer J.C. Adams was in town on military leave to visit his parents at 401 Simpson St. Not only that, but Brigman Motors Co. at 255 Peachtree Street had three automobiles for sale, including an eight-cylinder 1917 Cadillac in first-class condition with room for seven riders!

Saturday, Oct. 26 – The headlines were all about reopening Atlanta’s business community and returning to a sense of normalcy. My guess is the billiard halls and dance saloons were hopping that evening!

“Ban on Public Gatherings in Atlanta Repealed Friday By Action of City Council – Step Is Taken on Recommendation of Dr. J.P. Kennedy After Board of Health Had Declined to Act.”

The vote was 19-5 in favor of repealing the ban put in place on Oct. 4 banning public gathering places and forbidding indoor gatherings. Mayor Candler and other council members were enthusiastic proponents of Dr. Kennedy’s recommendation to lift the ban. A few councilmen argued vigorously against lifting the ban, but to no avail. Dr. Kennedy said, “I understand that the moving picture men are losing $22,000 a week, but I would not favor any change if I thought it jeopardized the health of the city.”  However, the Board of Education recommended schools remain closed until sometime in November. It would be up to the county boards to decide when schools reopened. Amazingly, schools in several major U.S. cities including Chicago, New Haven and New York City never did close.

bo hiers, churchill, 1918

A 44-year-old Winston Churchill met female workers on an Oct. 9, 1918 tour of Georgetown’s filling works near Glasgow, in his capacity as minister of munitions. Credit: Copyright expired; Imperial War Museum

“Fewer ‘Flu’ Cases Reported in State During 24 Hours.” Even though 44 deaths were reported in Georgia on Friday, the state board of health reported these numbers to be a decided decrease and were optimistic we were turning a corner.

“Atlanta Theatres and Movies Will Open Doors Today – Agreement Is Reached After Conference Held by Local Entertainment Leaders and Captain Miltenberger.” Because of the power restrictions already in place during a wartime economy, the theaters did agree to limit their hours of operation to only six hours a day. An advertisement in the Saturday paper alerted readers that the Loews Grand would be opening its doors at 5 p.m. The show lineup included “Usual Big Vaudeville Show and Feature Pictures.” Prices ranged from 10 cents to 30 cents, including war tax.

The Atlanta Constitution also reported Mrs. Ella May King had filed for divorce against T.C. King because he smashed her upside the head with a “Kewpie” purchased at the Southeastern Fair for her daughter, and then slapped her on both cheeks. Things were no better with the Gore family. W.F Gore filed for divorce when his wife, Lavonia, attacked him with a four-pound lump of coal. And if that’s not bad enough, W.F. also discovered his wife was 10 years older than she said when they married.

According to numbers reported to the Census Bureau, the ultimate Spanish Flu death toll in Atlanta was 829. But many remain skeptical of that number. A WABE article indicated “…health officials stopped reporting numbers, and there was no test.” Additionally, many death certificates listed the cause of death as pneumonia, when, in fact, the cause of death may have been the Spanish Flu. Fortunately, deaths did recede in our state after the bans were lifted, but it was short-lived. Beginning in late November 1918, deaths spiked again and would continue to do so through February 1919. It wasn’t until mid-March that Atlantans finally awoke from their nightmare.

Oftentimes, bad news is followed by a healthy dose of good news. With the horrors of the Spanish Flu and World War I mercifully behind them, Atlanta and the U.S.A. were tan, rested and ready for what came next – The Roaring Twenties, truly one of the most prosperous and exciting times in our nation’s history. There’s still time to turn things around and salvage our decade. Maybe, just maybe, The Roaring Twenties Part 2 are right around the corner for us too. We got this, Atlanta.

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