Source: New York Times

Memories of the 1918 Pandemic From Those Who Survived

Oral histories tell the stories of “garages full of caskets” during an influenza strain that killed at least a half-million Americans.

A Red Cross demonstration in Washington during the influenza pandemic of 1918.
Credit…Library of Congress

‘Everybody was so afraid’

A century after an earlier pandemic, oral history projects have preserved the voices of those who survived.

Nearly everyone who survived the 1918 flu pandemic, which claimed at least half a million American lives, has since died. But their memories, preserved in oral history interviews, shed light on its indelible impact. Bustling major cities and rural towns were brought to their knees, as transportation, law enforcement, commerce and civic life were wiped out.

“They were stacked up in the cemetery and they couldn’t bury them. I was living on 31st Street. then. And that was a two-way street then, you know, and it’s one-way now. But people that died over this way had to be buried over this way and they used to have a funeral procession coming this way. And they used to be crossing. You had, they had to come to this bridge, coming one way or the other. And people would be there. And I would be laying in there and I says, I looked out the window and says, ‘There are two funeral processions. One going one way and one going the other way meeting like that.’ And that’s the way it was. There wasn’t a lot of comforts in those days. But it didn’t worry me. I was taking care of myself. What I mean, I wasn’t thinking about it. I wasn’t knowing whether I was going to die or what. I was just figuring it’s got me, and everything else is going on.”

— Clifford Adams, Philadelphia, 1984

“A lot of people died here. I went to a funeral about every day there for a week.”

— Charles Murray, discussing Glencoe, N.C., 1976

Across the country, state and local politicians have begun donning protective gear, in contrast to President Trump.

“Nearly every porch, every porch that I’d look at had — would have a casket box a sitting on it. And men a digging graves just as hard as they could and the mines had to shut down. There wasn’t a nary a man, there wasn’t a — there wasn’t a mine a running a lump of coal or running no work. Stayed that away for about six weeks.”

— Teamus Bartley, coal miner, Kentucky, 1987

“My mother went and shaved the men and laid them out, thinking that they were going to be buried, you know. They wouldn’t bury ‘em. They had so many died that they keep putting them in garages … garages full of caskets.”

— Anne Van Dyke, Philadelphia, 1984


“We were the only family saved from the influenza. The rest of the neighbors all were sick. … Directly across the street from us, a boy about 7, 8 years old died and they used to just pick you up and wrap you up in a sheet and put you in a patrol wagon. So the mother and father screaming, ‘Let me get a macaroni box … Please, please, let me put him in the macaroni box. Let me put him in the box. Don’t take him away like that.’ (Pasta used to come in 20-pound boxes.) … ‘Please, please, let me put him in the macaroni box. Let me put him in the box. Don’t take him away like that.’”

— Louise Apuchase, Philadelphia, 1987

“That was the roughest time ever. Like I say, people would come up and look in your window and holler and see if you was still alive, is about all. They wouldn’t come in.”

— Glenn Holler, Conover, N.C., 1980

The coronavirus pandemic has depleted many of these clinics revenues, causing layoffs.

“Armistice Day was the first time mother got up on her feet and holding on to the different pieces of furniture. She went to a window to watch the parade and the festivities because the war was over.”

— Esther M. Davalos, Texas, 1982

“They were dying — many families losing one or more in their family. It was getting so bad, the deaths, they even, they had to use wagons drawn by two horses to carry people to the grave. I remember seeing them past the house, seems like to me now it was every day. … At that time, when the phone would ring, when my mother or my father wanted to listen in, and they would turn to us, and they would name the person they just heard had died. It was night and day that you would hear about these people dying. My father never got the flu but he would go to town and buy groceries for the neighbors and take it to the front porch. And we didn’t get the flu at all in our family, but it was terrible.”

— Robert McKinney Martin Jr., 1996