The deadly 1918 influenza spreads — around the world and back to Dolgeville, N.Y.

Sepia Saturday 542. Thirteenth 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 died in Dolgeville, Herkimer Co., N.Y. during the second, more virulent wave of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918.

After an initial spring 1918 outbreak of influenza in Haskell County, Kansas, the virus began its march with WWI troops to other bases across the U.S., then to the front in Europe and around the world — returning to the U.S. in a deadlier “second wave” in the fall of 1918.

https://bmcinfectdis.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12879-019-3750-8/figures/2
Spread of the 1918 influenza pandemic (Waves 1 and 2). The purple dotted lines, which begin in the U.S. heartland, mark the spread of the first wave of the 1918 influenza during WWI. The red lines show the spread of the second, deadlier wave around the world and back to the U.S. Source: BMC Infectious Diseases

Along the way the pandemic virus picked up the erroneous name “Spanish influenza” because Spain, a neutral country in WWI, openly publicized the outbreak — while the combatant countries suppressed news of the influenza’s toll.

A complete history of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 is beyond the scope of Molly’s Canopy. However, an excellent Influenza Encyclopedia compiled by the University of Michigan provides ample detail for readers who want to learn more.

First New York State cases

Of concern in this blog series is: When did the influenza spread to New York State? And how did my dad’s Uncle Albert — who lived in the small town of Dolgeville in New York’s Mohawk Valley — end up dying from it?

The Encyclopedia of New York State 1gives details about the arrival of the 1918 influenza in the state — making its first appearance in New York City in the fall.

http://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-newyork.html#
Masked New York City street sweeper during the 1918 influenza pandemic. According the the Encyclopedia of New York, “The New York Times reported that the first cases in the state were merchant mariners who shipped into New York Harbor on 13 Sept 1918. They were promptly quarantined….Less than two weeks after it appeared in New York City, the epidemic skipped northward to Victory Mills and Schuylerville (Saratoga Co) and then westward to Oswego.” Photo: Influenza Encyclopedia/NARA

According to the encyclopedia:

The New York Times reported that the first cases in the state were merchant mariners who shipped into New York Harbor on 13 Sept 1918. They were promptly quarantined….Less than two weeks after it appeared in New York City, the epidemic skipped northward to Victory Mills and Schuylerville (Saratoga Co) and then westward to Oswego.2

The rapid spread of disease was linked to army and navy personnel crowded into training camps during the final months of WWI. Soldiers taking leave in nearby cities and traveling in public conveyances increased civilian exposure. Being near a military installation or acting as a transportation hub predisposed a community to greater danger.3

New York takes action

Once New York City began reporting influenza cases, the state and its Department of Health swung into action — producing fact-filled literature about flu prevention and caring for the ill, assigning medical staff to hard-hit areas statewide, and making it a misdemeanor to cough or sneeze openly in public.4

http://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-newyork.html#
New York City resident shopping in homemade mask and gloves (1918). Flu prevention measures we are now familiar with were put in place in NYC and statewide — from mask wearing to parade cancellations to closing of theaters and other venues that could attract crowds. Photo: Influenza Archive/NARA

Measures we are now familiar with were put in place — from mask wearing to parade cancellations to closing of theaters and other venues that could attract crowds.

Meanwhile, in its spread across the state the influenza landed in Dolgeville and Little Falls — the Mohawk Valley hometowns of my dad’s Uncle Albert and the rest of the Charboneau family — where it created a crisis similar to what unfolded in towns and cities throughout the state.

Up next: The 1918 influenza strikes the Mohawk Valley. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

© 2020 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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5 thoughts on “The deadly 1918 influenza spreads — around the world and back to Dolgeville, N.Y.”

  1. The speed of the 1918 epidemic virulence was frightening.. As newspapers were the dominant and really only social media, the daily reports on the “Spanish Influenza” in my local Asheville paper start as a trickle in late August and become a torrent by November. Health authorities quickly closed churches and prohibited social events. Crazy remedies were promoted like putting sulfur in your shoes or smearing Vicks valor-rub on your chest. The papers ran daily local and state statistics on new cases and deaths. Every other day was either an optimistic lower number of a pessimistic higher number. if someone had a distant relation suffering from the flu, it got a notice. And as a Southern city, all Asheville’s health services for the pandemic were segregated into white and black clinics.

    It was a terrible time, but as the nation’s patriotism was already in place for the war there seemed to be a unity of purpose to beat the pandemic too. Something that unfortunately is not so universal in our time.

  2. What goes around, comes around and the story is repeated over and over. It seems, today, we still haven’t learned from our past mistakes in handling a pandemic and in some cases, are making the same ones all over again. Very frustrating.

  3. Here is where the stories you and I are writing intersect. I haven’t written this part yet, but my grandfather’s cousin was sent to one of the camps in either New Jersey or NY the first week of September. He had a photograph made in NYC. Coincides neatly with what you have recounted here.

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