The medical mystery of Uncle Albert and the 1918 pandemic

Sepia Saturday 547Seventeenth 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

When the 1918 influenza pandemic swept through Dolgeville, N.Y. — where my dad’s ancestors lived — only his Uncle Albert, 33, caught the dreaded virus and died.

“Nobody else in the family caught it, only Albert,” he told me — and I had to wonder why.

Of the four Charboneau brothers, Albert was the oldest and seemingly the most robust — with enough energy to hold a full-time job as foreman of woodwork in Julius Breckwoldt’s piano-related lumber works and be active in fraternal groups besides.

He was described as tall and stout when he registered for the WWI draft — and photos of Albert with his wife’s family, the Millers, bear out his stature.

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). Albert was the oldest and seemingly the most robust. Why did he catch and die from the 1918 influenza? Scan by Molly Charboneau

A medical mystery

As we have learned from the current COVID-19 pandemic, viruses behave in specific ways that provoke an immune response — sometimes so strong it overwhelms their human host.

Scientists have speculated that this may be why the 1918 influenza took a heavy toll among the young and robust — such as the WWI troops — many of whom did not survive their body’s strong immune response.

Perhaps that was the case with Albert. His Utica Herald-Dispatch obituary, on 24 Oct. 1918, said he died from pneumonia after contracting influenza — possibly brought on by a powerful immune response in the lungs.

Uncle Alert Charboneau with his in-laws (undated). From right, father-in-law Charles Miller, Albert, brother-in-law Arthur Miller, wife Annie Miller and mother-in-law Mary Miller. Albert towers over everyone in this photo — yet he was felled in 1918 by the pandemic flu. Scan by Molly Charboneau

An obituary clue

As with today’s coronavirus, those with pre-existing medical conditions also likely fared worse during the 1918 influenza pandemic. And according to Albert’s obituary in the Little Falls and Courier (29 Oct. 1918), he had a co-morbidity that made him vulnerable.

Albert B. Charbonneau passed away Wednesday afternoon at his home on State street, after making a valiant fight against Bright’s disease superceded [sic] by influenza.

Bright’s disease was a term used at that time to describe chronic inflammatory disease of the kidneys (today called nephritis) — often accompanied by high blood pressure, heart disease and excess weight.

Events and gatherings

Finally there was Albert’s role at work and in his fraternal groups — all of which required his presence at large gatherings where he could have caught the flu before social distancing was widely encouraged.

Adirondack lumber camp mess hall (1912). Crowded conditions in lumber camps could have spread the 1918 influenza. Was Uncle Albert exposed on trips to the camps? Photo: NYSA

The influenza was prevalent in the U.S. Navy during the fall of 1918, and Naval officers visited Julius Breckwoldt’s lumber company, where Albert worked, to select wood for seaplanes. Could they have exposed him to influenza?

As foreman of woodwork, Albert may also have visited Breckwoldt’s crowded lumber camps — with or without Naval officers — to see about wood supplies for the piano factory. Could he have caught it there?

Finally, as the head of the Dolgeville Mason’s lodge, Albert would have been in demand for ceremonies, member funerals and other gatherings — any of which could have been influenza-spreading events in the fall of 1918.

Many of these questions will remain unanswered. Yet however he caught the influenza, and whatever his risk factors, Uncle Albert’s death from the 1918 influenza left a hole in the Charboneau family of Dolgeville, N.Y. — and they never forgot him.

Next in this series: Bidding farewell to Uncle Albert. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

© 2020 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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3 thoughts on “The medical mystery of Uncle Albert and the 1918 pandemic”

  1. Molly, once again, a great detective job! I like the speculations about where and how Albert might have contracted the virus–contact tracing across the decades!

    I also really like Mike B.’s comment. It is so gratifying when someone comes across these treasures and recognizes them as such, not simply tossing them!

  2. This has been a great series, Molly, and a fine tribute to your great uncle. In the past it was somehow easier to understand the experience of families and communities during the war than during the the pandemic. But after the past several months of covid19 I think we all can relate to the anxiety, stress, and sorrow that people of 1918-19 endured with influenza. In my family tree I don’t believe any ancestor caught the flu but you’ve inspired me to check.

    Recently I’ve started to sort out the countless boxes of old photos, letters, cards, and ephemera that my mother saved for 89 years. Yesterday I discovered that a lot of the ephemera was actually from my grandmother. So I have stuff from the 1900s through the 1930s and into my generation. For some reason there were a few pages of newspapers saved from 1937, 1934, 1917, and 1911. The ones from the 30s had nothing I could find to explain why they were preserved. But the next oldest was a front page from April 7, 1917 — President Wilson’s declaration of war with the notice of raising a force of 1.7 million strong. Plus small reports of the arrests of German-Americans suspected of dealing with the new enemy.

    The oldest was also a front page, the July 21, 1911 edition of the Manassas Journal . At the top was a photo of President Taft who was attending the 50th anniversary of the first big battle of the Civil War. There were reports on the fellowship shared by the old veterans from the North and South.

    The pages are now too brittle to save and have lost any sentimental meaning, if they ever had any. But it’s the act of preservation that’s important. Someone in my distant family felt a need to retain a memento of a great event that affected them. Perhaps to save an emotion, a memory of a person, or just a record of an important event. I had to throw the papers out. But i think, however briefly, I have shared some contact with an ancestor across time. You’ve done that too, with your brilliant series honoring Albert. It’s given us, your readers, a sense of this person, his era, and his full life story. Thank you.

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