Fernandina during the 1918 pandemic

  • A cartoon from 1918 illustrating the dangers of the influenza virus.
    A cartoon from 1918 illustrating the dangers of the influenza virus.

In the Fernandina News-Record of Friday, Oct. 18, 1918, a front-page article is headlined “Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu.” The sub-headline breaks it down: “Epidemic probably not Spanish in origin – germ still unknown – People should guard against ‘Droplet infection’ – Surgeon General Blue makes authoritative statement.”

In the months since we first heard a new coronavirus was sickening people in China, prepared ourselves to some degree, then watched as the worldwide pandemic spread to U.S. communities, many have compared it to the 1918 influenza outbreak. So, what was going on in Fernandina in 1918? Digital copies of the local newspaper provide some insight.

The Oct. 18 issue contains a special public health bulletin with information from U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue, who offered the same basic advice we are getting 102 years later with one curious exception: Blue gives no advice on hand washing.

Blue tells the public that the epidemic raged in Europe in May, June, and July. Troops returning from World War I infected their fellow passengers on the troop ships and helped spread the virus back home at a furious rate.

“The disease now occurring in this country and called ‘Spanish Influenza’ resembles a very contagious kind of ‘cold,’ accompanied by fever, pains in the head, eyes, ears, back or other parts of the body and a feeling of severe sickness,” Blue explained. “In most cases the symptoms disappear after three or four days, the patient then rapidly recovers. Some of the patients, however, develop pneumonia, or inflammation of the ear, or meningitis, and many of these complicated cases die.”

Blue also warned about how the virus is spread: “(F)rom person to person – the germs being carried with the air along with the very small droplets of mucus expelled by coughing or sneezing, forceful talking, and the like from someone who already has the germs of the disease. They may also be carried in the air in the form of dust coming from dried mucus, from coughing or sneezing, or from careless people who spit on the floor and on the sidewalk. As in most other catching diseases, a person who has only a mild attack of the disease himself may give a very severe attack to others.”

And Blue’s advice for those who come down with it? “Go home at once and go to bed. This will help keep (it) away.  … It is advisable (the) attendant wear a wrapper, apron or gown over their ordinary house clothes while in the sick room and slip this off when leaving to look after the others. Nurses and attendants will do well to guard against breathing in dangerous disease germs by wearing a simple fold of gauze or mask while near the patient.

“Make every effort to reduce the home crowding to a minimum. … When crowding in unavoidable, as in street cars, care should be taken to keep the face so turned as not to inhale directly the air breathed out by another person. It is especially important to beware of the person who coughs or sneezes without covering his mouth and nose. … In all health matters, follow the advice of your doctor and obey the regulations of your local and state health officers.”

That issue of the paper also contains a story about a fireman first-class named Myron W. Lovell, stationed here in the Coast Guard, who caught influenza and died of “dreaded pneumonia” on Wednesday of that week. The story says Lovell was “highly regarded by the officers above him, and by his companions.” His father arrived a few minutes too late to say goodbye.

In the same October 1918 issue, the Baptist Association of Jacksonville decided “it was deemed advisable to postpone the holding of (a) meeting … on account of the great amount of sickness.” But the annual state convention of the Florida Sunday-School Association was still scheduled for Oct. 29-31 in Miami.

In Fernandina news, Dr. Lynn “can be found again in his dental parlors, he having been kept away by an attack of influenza.”

In a report to the paper, A.S. Allan, the chairman of the local Liberty Bonds drive, says “Notwithstanding the ‘flu,’ the Amelia Island Concert band and the fire bell brought a large crowd of our good people to the intersection of Third and Center streets Monday evening, Oct. 14, where, after appropriate introduction by our gifted mayor, Mr. Lawrence Chamberlain of New York delivered one of the best speeches heard in Fernandina recently.” The speech was about World War I. 

The Board of County Commissioners met and struck from the county’s registration book those who had “died or left the county since the August revision.”

In another rare issue available at the Library of Congress, this one from Friday, Nov. 15, 1918, an advertisement taking up two-thirds of the front page concentrates on raising money for the war effort, though the armistice between the allies and Germany had been signed that Monday.

Sad news in that issue was published alongside a story touting the shipping advantages of Florida and the historic news that the war was over.

The influenza pandemic was ravaging Camp Gordon, Ga., and women from the YMCA, originally sent to the sprawling training base to act as secretaries, had been pressed into service as seamstresses to make gauze masks for the soldiers. “Thousands of masks were in demand and every woman who could ply a needle was pressed into service.”

Commanding officer General Sage issued orders “that every trooper should wear a ‘flu’ mask, whether at drill or enjoying a much needed rest.”

The camp’s YMCA facilities as well as “Knights of Columbus recreation halls, the camp’s theaters, and Jewish welfare establishments” were closed. Only outdoor events could be staged for the quarantined men.

S.W. Manucy, the publisher and editor of the Fernandina News-Record, says on page three that a “labor shortage, overwork, and sickness caused the scarcity of local news in this issue,” but a bit further down, Manucy’s buried lede can be found: “About 4 o’clock Monday morning
news of the signing of the armistice was received, and from that hour and the following
night joy reigned supreme in Fernandina. The waterworks whistle started the spreading of the joyous news, which was joined in by other whistles and other noise making devices which all day and all night kept
it up. In the afternoon the school children formed in procession, headed by their instructors and the waving of flags and the tooting of horns, paraded over the city. The day will never be forgotten.”