1918: Albert B. Charboneau falls ill with influenza

Sepia Saturday 544Fifteenth in a series about Albert Barney Charboneau — my paternal grandfather’s brother who died in the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918.

Albert Barney Charboneau circa 1910. Scan by Molly Charboneau

My dad’s Uncle Albert Barney Charboneau, fell ill in October 1918 when the second wave of the deadly pandemic influenza, which had spread around the globe, reached his hometown of Dolgeville, Herkimer Co., N.Y.

At 33, Albert was the woodworking foreman at the Julius Breckwoldt piano sounding board factory and the head of the Dolgeville Mason’s lodge.

He had been married for six years to Annie (Miller) Charboneau — and he was a tall, robust man one would not expect to get sick, let alone die. Yet Albert’s age and profile put him at risk in the 1918 pandemic.

Dolgeville, N.Y., looking north from the East Canada Creek Bridge (2015). Even bucolic Dolgeville was not immune to the influenza pandemic, which arrived there in the fall of 1918 and claimed the life of my dad’s Uncle Albert. Photo: Molly Charboneau

The influenza’s virulent impact

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 sums up the sweep and toll of the influenza’s deadly second wave. [1]Kolata, Gina. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux:New York, 1999), 4-5.

The sickness preyed on the young and healthy.…The plague took off in September of that year, and when it was done over half a million Americans would lie dead. The illness spread to the most remote parts of the globe. Some Eskimo villages were decimated, and nearly eliminated from the face of the earth. Twenty percent of Western Samoans perished. No matter where it struck, the virus went after an unusual group — young adults who are generally spared the ravages of infections diseases. The death curves were W-shaped, with peaks for the babies and toddlers under age 5, the elderly who were aged 70-74, and people aged 20-40.[2]Kolata, Flu,4-5.

Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C., during the influenza pandemic of 1918. According to the CDC’s website, “In fall of 1918 the United States experienced severe shortages of professional nurses, because of the deployment of large numbers of nurses to military camps in the United States and abroad, and the failure to use trained African American nurses.” Photo: Library of Congress

Lethal curve of the 1918 influenza

Nor was Uncle Albert alone. As shown in the table below, he contracted the 1918 influenza during a peak fatality period in the U.S. armed forces. Like him, the soldiers and sailors who were mobilized/demobilized in huge numbers during WWI were in the vulnerable 20-40 age group.

U.S. Army in the U.S. – Deaths Due to Influenza and Pneumonia in 1918 – Source: Alfred W. Crosby America’s Forgotten Pandemic[3]Crosby, Alfred W. America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 59.
For the Week ending:
10 September 98
27 September 972
4 October 2,444
11 October 6,170
18 October 5,559
27 October 2,624
1 November 1,183
8 November 908
15 November 519
22 November 321

Civilian casualties climb

The curve of the 1918 influenza in the civilian population mirrored the military experience — although cities that took containment measures, and encouraged mask wearing and social distancing, fared better than those that did not.

All told, 195,000 people died of influenza in the U.S. during October, when the second wave peaked, according  to the 1918 Pandemic Influenza Historic Timeline on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website.

Sadly, my dad’s Uncle Albert was among those casualties, succumbing to the influenza on 23 October 1918 — 102 years ago this month.

He died before my dad was born. So the few details I know about his final days are contained in his obituaries — which will be reviewed in the next post.

Please stop back. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants .here

© 2020 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Similar Posts:

Please like and share:


1 Kolata, Gina. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux:New York, 1999), 4-5.
2 Kolata, Flu,4-5.
3 Crosby, Alfred W. America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 59.

10 thoughts on “1918: Albert B. Charboneau falls ill with influenza”

  1. I can’t help but wonder if this great tragedy, both for the world and your Uncle Albert, would have happened differently had America stayed out of the war, or joined the British and French a year or two earlier. The rush in 1917 to raise an army moved so many men into training camps, it’s easy to understand how the virus spread so rapidly in them. But after it moved into the urban populace and then was carried to Europe and beyond, the scale just exploded into unimaginable statistics. Except now, this year, we face nearly the same virulent conditions and must struggle once again with decisions about our collective future. Thank you for this series, Molly. You and Karen have both written thoughtful essays that demonstrate why we should remember and cherish our ancestors.

    1. Thanks, Mike. I make it a point to write about childless relatives like Albert as they don’t have descendants to tell their story. Yes, World War I and consequent troop movements played a major role in spreading the influenza. However, it likely originated in the midwest so may have spread here anyway — although possibly in a geographic area limited by the transportation of that era. Alas, today the economy and travel are global — and we now know what means for infectious disease transmission.

  2. I enjoy how our stories are like companion pieces – each of us going about our research a little differently due to the circumstances of our family member’s death. Yet – they were both young, healthy men and died less than a month apart.

    1. I am enjoying your posts as well. Your family was closer to the origin of the influenza — but in the end, it reached everywhere leaving heartbreak in its wake.

    1. Thanks, Susan. I have been wanting to write about Albert and the 1918 influenza pandemic for years and was waiting for the right time. Never imagined that the “right time” would be in the middle of a global pandemic of Covid-19 — yet in some ways it makes his story so much more real as we live through our own public health crisis.

  3. It’s surprising the 20-40 age group was so heavily hit. On the other hand, young people are the ones who ‘keep going’, who feel their youth and health will see them through and maybe don’t always take the precautions they should. We’re seeing that now with the COVID-19 pandemic. Apparently we supposedly smart humans don’t learn that well from experience!

    1. Yes, it is surprising. In public health, there something called the “healthy worker effect” — which means those in the prime of life can usually fight off illnesses that hit infants and the elderly very hard. But the 1918 influenza was different — laying low those you’d most expect to survive.

Comments are closed.