The 1918 influenza strikes the Mohawk Valley

Sepia Saturday 543. Fourteenth 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

The first time I called the Little Falls, N.Y., public library in April 2006 looking for the obituary of my dad’s Uncle Albert Barney Charboneau, I did not know his exact date of death.

I only knew the year, 1918 — when Uncle Albert died in Dolgeville, N.Y., in the Great Influenza Epidemic — most likely in the fall.

“That’s going to be a problem,” the librarian said. “Papers weren’t published during the flu pandemic for fear of spreading it by circulating the paper, so there may not be an obituary, but we’ll check.”

Some newspapers stopped publishing

Wow, no papers published? That’s when I first realized just how severely the 1918 influenza had hit in Herkimer County.

Later, the librarian called me back to say she was unable to find Uncle Albert’s obituary in 1918. “But I did find one article that said 15-25 people died per day between October and December 2018,” she said. “Do you want me to send it?”
Along the Mohawk River in Little Falls, NY. A call to the Little Falls Public Library yielded a chilling news article about the impact of the 1918 influenza pandemic in this Mohawk Valley town — not far from Uncle Albert’s home in Dolgeville. Photo: Worldwide Elevation Map Finder

Apparently some papers were published after all! So I said yes, hoping to learn more about the influenza’s impact in the Mohawk Valley —  which would help me put Albert’s death in perspective.

The article she sent, from the 15 Oct. 2018 issue of the Little Falls Journal and Courier, is a chilling summary of the influenza’s sweep through Little Falls — just south of Uncle Albert’s Dolgeville hometown and where his brother Uncle Dewey lived.

Health staff “worked almost to the limit of endurance”

The article (transcribed below) did not include a death toll. Yet it sounds sadly familiar as we continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic — closed schools and gathering places, no church services, numerous deaths and a terrific burden on frontline healthcare staff.

Little Falls, in common with nearly all other cities, is suffering greatly from the epidemic of Spanish [1918] influenza that so thoroughly covers the country. The schools are still closed, and so also are the theaters, churches and other places of public gatherings. No services were held in any of our churches last Sunday. Our obituary column carries report of numbers of deaths, and many people are still suffering, although it is believed that there has been a slight improvement during the past 48 hours.
1918: Influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. Photo: Library of Congress.

Physicians, nurses and all who have to do with the care of the sick and the homes where they are, are worked almost to the limit of endurance, and it is exceedingly difficult to get help of any kind. Even the undertakers are hardly able to take care of the cases they they have in hand and find it exceedingly difficult to secure such supplies as are demanded.

“The hearts of the people are in the right place”

The article goes on to describe the emergency house-to-house nursing care provided in Little Falls — back when health care professionals still made house calls.

The system of outside nursing outlined and directed by Miss Hunter, superintendent of the local hospital, has done much to relieve the situation. The city has been divided into districts and public spirited men and women have donated the use of automobiles to carry the nurses from house to house, so that much more territory could be covered than would otherwise be possible.

Miss Elizabeth Burrell has assisted at the hospital by serving as clerk for this service and trained nurses who now have homes of their own to look after have been doing work for others. The spirit of it all is most commendable and it’s being demonstrated that in times of stress the hearts of the people are in the right place.

The Influenza, Little Falls Journal and Courier, 15 Oct. 2018. Scan by Molly Charboneau

All around the article are columns of obituaries for those who died in the Little Falls, N.Y. area from the 1918 influenza and/or the pneumonia that followed in its wake.

Learning Uncle Albert’s story

But what about Uncle Albert’s experience?

Eventually, in the New York State Death Index, I was able to find his date of death  — 23 Oct. 1918, just after the influenza’s peak in the U.S. Army. 1 Crosby, Alfred W. America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 59.

So when I called the Little Falls library a second time, they were able to locate Uncle Albert’s obituary chronicling his final days.

Up next: The final days of Albert Barney Charboneau. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

© 2020 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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6 thoughts on “The 1918 influenza strikes the Mohawk Valley”

  1. I know how special it is to discover a date like this, Molly. Finding the other bookend to a life is a reward that only other genealogists can appreciate the dedication it takes to research this kind of history.

    Your story on the 1918 influenza could not be better timed. It’s unsettling to feel the same emotions, the same fears, the same stress over the unknown as the people of a century did. I was intrigued by your research this week to check the Oct 15, 1918 edition of my Asheville newspaper. The health department here reported 213 new cases, up from 100 the day before. The total was 1,750 cases since the pandemic began but by the following week on Oct 22 it was 2,708.

    There was a shortage of nurses, as over 50 had succumbed to the flu. Asheville’s Masonic temple was turned into a soup kitchen. An annex at the temple was converted into a hospital ward to care for the “colored” folk. The charge was $1.50 a day. Schoolteachers were asked to assist in the kitchen. The newspaper ran an apology that its home delivery was disrupted because its newsboy carriers had the flu . There were runs on disinfectant and over-the-counter “remedies”. People were advised to sterilize their masks several times a day. One drugstore advertised, “Clean mouth, clean body, clean clothes prevents influenza.” The same drugstore apologized that its “orchestra” would no longer perform. (Something new for me to research!)

    And meanwhile the front page was covered 60pt headlines with alarming reports from the war.

    1. Yes, there are so many parallels to what we are going through today — from health care workers succumbing to the need for mask wearing and social distance. I also saw those ads for myriad over-the-counter remedies, but it’s important to remember that the 1918 influenza took place before antibiotics and when the viral origins of infectious disease were as yet unknown.

  2. It’s sobering to read of the similarities between 1918 and today. We expect so much from modern medicine and think we’re living in dire times. And yet, we are not the first to experience terrible years.

    1. Even more sobering is that virologists and other public health professionals familiar with the 1918 pandemic have been warning about a return of something similar for years. And now here we are! Amazing that something so simple as wearing a mask can be such an important step in preventing viral spread — just as it was in 1918.

  3. So he died 102 years ago as of yesterday, October 23rd, 2020. So many lives lost to that flu then, and so many lost now, so far, to the CORONA virus. It’s frightening how something so small as to be unseen by the naked eye can lay so many so low.

    1. This was particularly true in 1918 when the viral origins of infectious disease were still unknown and so many fewer treatments existed.

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