Uncle Albert and the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918

Sepia Saturday 523. First in a new series about Albert Barney Charboneau — my paternal grandfather’s brother who died in the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918.

As we collectively live through the global Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, there is new interest in the last similar worldwide outbreak of a deadly respiratory disease – the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918. Surprisingly, news commentators and others generally say they knew little about the 1918 pandemic before now.

Yet I learned about that outbreak years ago because it claimed a collateral family member in the prime of his life – my paternal grandfather’s brother, Albert Barney Charboneau.

And it all started with a family photo.

The Charboneau brothers (circa 1910). From left, my paternal grandfather William Ray (b. 1888) and his brothers Albert Barney (b. 1885), George Dewey (b. 1899) and Orville Nile (b. 1892). The photo was taken at the John Mutchler Jr. Art Studio in Dolgeville, Herkimer Co., N.Y. Scan by Molly Charboneau

Charboneau brothers photo

When my parents retired and downsized to a new house, my dad hung the studio photograph shown above of my grandfather William Ray Charboneau and his brothers — Albert, Dewey and Orville. During a visit, I noticed the photo and asked Dad about his uncles. That’s when I first heard about Uncle Albert.

“Albert died in the 1918 flu pandemic,” Dad said, shaking his head. “Really a shame. I always thought he was the handsomest of the four brothers.” Sadly, Dad had to base his assessment on photographs because Albert died six years before my father was born.

The story of Albert’s untimely death stayed with me, and when I began doing regular genealogy research in the 1990s I asked Dad if he knew more. Alas, he did not.

“Well, it makes sense that the family wouldn’t talk about it,” I observed. “It must have been such a shock.”

“Oh, the family talked about Albert and what happened to him all the time,” Dad said. “I just can’t remember anything specific.”

A three-generation tale

So here was a 1918 pandemic story passed down through three generations of my family — from my grandparents to Dad to me. Yet the details remained elusive — and that got me wondering.

Why did Albert die and while other family members lived – including his wife? Who else got the flu in his area? What more could I learn about the deadly virus that claimed Albert and millions more?

In 1918, all four Charboneau brothers lived in the small Mohawk Valley town of Dolgeville in Herkimer Co., N.Y. — located northeast of Utica, the closest city. So how did the deadly influenza that was sweeping the globe arrive in this relatively sparsely populated area?

https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017668638/
Infection control in Seattle, Wash., circa 1918, where passengers were not permitted to ride on street cars without wearing a mask. How did the deadly influenza then sweeping the globe arrive in sparsely populated Dolgeville, Herkimer Co., N.Y., and claim the life of my dad’s Uncle Albert? Photo: Library of Congress

Time to tell Albert’s story

Over the years as I researched my family, I began gathering information about the 1918 influenza pandemic – books, news clips, whatever I could find – with the idea that one day, when the time seemed right, I would tell Uncle Albert’s story.

I never imagined that the right time would arrive this year — more than 100 years after the 1918 outbreak — as humanity grapples with a new, global coronavirus pandemic.

Suddenly the unimaginable 1918 infection control measures I read about – homemade masks, venues and schools closed, no large gatherings, social distancing – have become part of our everyday lives.  The significance of Albert’s death to those who loved him has also become all too real — with so many now losing loved ones to Covid-19.

Beyond the statistics

Today, daily briefings sum up the coronavirus toll and our progress in stopping its spread. Yet so many personal stories of individuals, their families and their communities are hidden in the numbers.

In her book Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It, author Gina Kolata speaks to this phenomenon:

One way to tell the story of the 1918 flu is through facts and figures, a collection of data whose impact is numbing and whose magnitude is almost inconceivable….But the raw numbers cannot convey the scenes of horror and misery that swept the world in 1918, which became part of everyday life in every nation, in the largest cities and the remotest hamlets.

In this new blog series, I hope to rescue Uncle Albert from the statistical realm by placing him in the context of his family and community and telling what I have discovered about his life — cut short in its prime by the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Up next, First born son: Albert Barney Charboneau. Please stop back! Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

© 2020 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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20 thoughts on “Uncle Albert and the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918”

  1. Molly.
    Thanks for your research.
    It means so much the all of the families.
    Richard Owen

  2. Yes, it is the perfect time to find these 1918 influenza stories and share our family experiences. My grandmother helped her sister nurse her husband who died. Then grandmother got sick but survived it.

    1. Thank goodness your grandmother and her sister survived, but such an unfortunate loss of her sister’s husband. I hope more genealogy bloggers tell their family’s 1918 stories. Very important for us to learn from at this difficult time.

  3. I have two great-uncles who died in that epidemic. My grandfather was gravely ill, and although he recovered and lived into the 1970s, he was never really “well.” They were living in South Texas and had to move to a drier climate in the 1920s because his lungs were fragile.

    1. Wow, I have a feeling there a more of us out there who had ancestors affected by the 1918 influenza pandemic. Based on your grandfather’s experience, there appear to have been long-lasting effects from that flu, too — much like with COVID-19 today.

  4. Great photo of the brothers.Im sure it’s treasured by your family. I’ve been wanting to read more about the 1918 pandemic so have signed up to your blog so I do not miss out.

  5. Another great post, Molly. So many lives lost in 1918 and it seems we may not have learned much more about stopping this pandemic now, than we knew back then. Well written and very informative.

  6. A very timely post! I’m not surprised in this day & age COVID-19 spread far and wide across the world. But I am surprised the 1918 pandemic spread so far as back then interchange between countries – especially across seas and oceans – was not nearly what it is today. But it did. You’d think in all those years between the two pandemics we would have learned how to control things a little better. If we have – not by much! I look forward to reading more about Albert & his untimely passing.

    1. The troop movements during WW I contributed to the spread of the 1918 influenza — the one mobile factor at a time before air travel was widely available. But I agree about the control issue. There have been ignored warnings for years that a new pandemic would eventually hit, and now here we are.

  7. That’s a wonderful photo of the four brothers and it must have been bittersweet for the family to have it yet be reminded of the son they’d lost. Whenever there a huge numbers of deaths from a pandemic, a famine or war, it’s all to easy to clump up the statistics and “forget” that each death represents a person and their family and friends.

    1. I also love this photo — and thank goodness it was taken. It’s the only one of the brothers together. Perhaps their parents wanted to share it with relatives? Whatever the reason, I am sure no one imagined that in eight short years Albert would be gone.

  8. My great grandfather died of TB in 1918, but I have begun wondering if he had contracted the Spanish flu. Looking forward to reading your new series.

    1. Perhaps he contracted the influenza on top of his preexisting TB? His health history might be worth researching to see what more you can find.

  9. Such a great photo of the brothers and good on you for taking the story further than just a transcription of a death certificate or an entry on a family tree. I can’t wait to read more.

    1. Thanks, Alex. Fortunately, Albert’s story — as told to my by by dad — preceded my research, so I kept it in mind as I looked for clues about his life.

  10. I am looking forward to following another series of interesting posts – about Uncle Albert. So far I haven’t found anyone of my ancestors who died in that epidemic.

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