|Maud Hines, 1918. Photo|
is courtesy of the Arkansas
State Archives, G5566.33.
We have all spent the last several weeks attempting to make sense of our “new normal,” which was brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, that means looking to the past for similar events to identify what worked and how previous generations handled similar circumstances.
Frequently over the past month, the event most have turned to is the so-called “Spanish Influenza” outbreak of 1918. We even included an article about it in last March’s newsletter.
Interest in the Spanish Flu epidemic is not new, but there has been renewed and increased attention to it. Patrons often want to understand the experiences of their relatives. This research is not always easy, but as always, we are here to help.
First, a brief summary of Spanish Influenza in Arkansas is necessary before we can discuss record availability. The Spanish Influenza caused anywhere between 50 million and 100 million deaths worldwide. In the United States alone, the Flu killed between 550,000 and 700,000 people. The Spanish Flu lingered from 1918 to 1920, falling on and in the aftermath of World War I. The 1918 Influenza earned its name when Spain, a neutral party during WWI that did not censor its newspapers, provided the first detailed reports of the new disease.
The second wave of Influenza began in August and September of 1918 and continued through the end of the year. This is the deadliest time period for the disease worldwide. The disease spread quickly and tended to kill quickly, too, with frequent reports of Flu patients dying within hours of falling ill. Most of the deaths were caused by the quick onset of secondary infections, specifically pneumonia. Aside from the speed at which it killed, this Flu was an anomaly in another way. Traditional flu is usually only deadly for the elderly and the very young. The main victims in 1918, however, were young adults in their 20s and 30s who should have been able to fight off the disease. The fact that the young and healthy members of society were the ones dying added a new level of fear to this outbreak.
For Arkansas, the outbreak began mid-September 1918, when the first case was reported in Little Rock. Once the Flu reached the state, it traveled quickly, spreading among the state’s civilian population as well as WWI draftees at Camp Pike. Camp Pike was placed under quarantine Oct. 4, and a statewide quarantine was issued Oct. 7. The quarantine barred all public gatherings in areas where the Flu was present. Schools and churches were closed, stores and restaurants had to shorten hours, and limits were placed on the number of patrons in establishments. Pool halls and movie theatres closed as well. The order allowed for no public gatherings of any kind.
Despite the quarantine, Flu numbers in Arkansas continued to rise, which stretched medical personnel thin. Due to the War, finding doctors or nurses to provide medical attention became difficult, because many were either already overseas or training in another area. As a result, the state was dangerously short of help.
By the end of the three-month period spanning from mid-September to early December 1918, Camp Pike reported a total of 13,493 cases of Flu and about 300 deaths. For the general population, authorities estimated 50,000 cases of Flu in Arkansas and at least 5,000 deaths. But, by the end of October, the worst has passed for the majority of the state. The statewide quarantine was lifted Nov. 2, and any further restrictions were left to local authorities.
Researchers who are interested in learning more about their family members’ experience with the Spanish Influenza have several types of resources available:
- Death Certificates - Locating death certificates for the Spanish Influenza outbreak in Arkansas can be difficult. The state did not begin to require birth or death certificates until 1914, and the system was still in the early stages by 1918, so there was no consistency when it came to filing them. During the epidemic, doctors were short-staffed and overworked, and because of this, there may not have been a physician present at the time of death, especially in rural areas. The Archives does have a printed index to death certificates issued in the state for 1918 to 1920 that can help researchers determine whether there is an official record on file. One more thing to keep in mind when researching this timeframe is a cause of death will not always be listed on the certificate, again, due to a shortage of medical personnel. In addition, many of the deaths were not attributed to the Flu, but to pneumonia.
- Local Records - Exploring local county records can also yield some information about the Flu epidemic, specifically funeral home records or local death records. The Archives has funeral home records from Gross Funeral Home and Funeral Home, both in Hot Springs, and from Cornish Funeral Home in Prescott. The level of detail in these records varies, but all include the individual’s name and date of death, and many include the cause of death or details about the funeral. Similarly, we house local death records kept by Sebastian County for this time period. Those records include the deceased individual’s marital status, occupation and cause of death.
- Newspapers - Newspapers are the best source for general information on the Influenza epidemic. Here you can find articles about local conditions, quarantine status, infection rates and statistics, death announcements and more. Unfortunately, there is not really a designated area of the paper where this information will appear. If this is a source you’re interested in exploring, it will require some time and some patience, because you’ll have to browse through the newspaper to see what was included. Thankfully, the archives has newspapers from all over the state for the years of 1918 to 1920 available in our research room, on newspapers.com and on the Library of Congress website Chronicling America.
- Personal Accounts - Personal correspondence is a wonderful resource, if you can find it. Often, to find something like that, you must go through family collections from that time period and hope they talk about the Flu. There are some collections in the Archives that could be used for this type of research. The Clark-Hamilton papers (MS.000581) and the James Logan McDonald Letters (MG0513) are good examples. Both sets of letters involve a man stationed in an Army training camp. Benjamin Clark was from Vilonia and training at both Camp Pike in Arkansas and at Camp Taylor in Kentucky. Clark wrote to Flora Hamilton in Faulkner County. James McDonald was at Camp Pike and wrote to his wife in Oklahoma. The bulk of the letters from these men revolve around the day-to-day life of the training camps. But as October comes and goes, there are also glimpses of the outbreak and how it was impacting their lives and activities. For those interested, several letters from the Clark-Hamilton papers are included in our Digital Collections at http://ahc.digital-ar.org/.
While the Archives is open with limited capacity requirements. We also offer some research services. For more information, please contact us at 501-682-6900 or email@example.com.