Illusive Phantom Killer

Written by: Sue Spearman Abernathy

(From the April and June 1999 "Trail Tracker")

An American phantom took many, many lives in Winston County, Alabama in 1918. No one really knows for sure where it came from or why it left. It was the worst epidemic in the Nation's history. It was an illusive killer called Influenza, Spanish Flu, or Pneumonia. Take a look at your ancestors' death date, and if it was in 1918, there is a strong possibility that they too, fell victim.

Some say it began in the Spring of 1918, in Fort Riley, Kansas. Soldiers were burning tons of manure, when a wind kicked up and a choking dust storm spread across the land. It was a stinging, stinking, yellow haze and the sun went black in Kansas. Two days later, on Monday, March 11, 1918, an Army Private reported to the hospital with a sore throat, fever, and a headache. There were 100 cases by noon that day and by the week's end the number had grown to 500 cases. Forty-eight soldiers died here, with the cause being listed as pneumonia.

Later that year in the summer and fall, over one and a half million Americans crossed the Atlantic due to the ongoing war, that later would be known as World War I. Some of the Doughboys were from Kansas and with them they brought the tiny, silent, but deadly companion. Almost immediately, the Kansas sickness resurfaced. Many American, English, French, and German soldiers got sick. This microbe mutated as it spread and became more deadly, coming back to America as a relentless killer.

Acting Surgeon General of the Army, Dr. Victor Vaughn, was called to Ft. Devons (located near Boston, Massachusetts) in September, where sixty-three men had died. The men had all turned a strange blue or bluish black color, and before they died they had been coughing up bloody sputum. An autopsy also revealed that the lungs were swollen, filled with fluid and had turned blue. The disease was diagnosed as Influenza, but it wasn't one like anyone had seen before. It could be passed on by just breathing!

At first it seemed it was only spreading from one military base to another, then it hit the streets! But America had tunnel vision to the war and called for a draft registration and continued life with rumors that Kaiser and Germany had been the cause of this illness by planting some kind of germ. Other rumors came from preachers announcing it was merely sin...spreading like wildfires. Congregations began to drop during church services, while the preacher was still preaching.

So many people were dying, they had to use steam shovels and trench diggers to dig mass graves. Caskets were in great demand and were having to be guarded to keep them from being stolen. It seemed they were as valuable as silver and gold. In Winston County, Henry Burnett was a farmer, made moonshine, and built caskets in 1918. Sam Snoddy was a skilled carpenter who also made coffins, and his wife, Dora, made the linings for them.

No one could tell who carried this dreaded disease until it was too late. It was even being brought in by the postman when he delivered the mail. I'm sure they must have felt like the situation was hopeless. Towns began to quarantine themselves, shut down schools and meeting places of any sort. They passed regulations that everyone must wear masks made of cloth but that was like trying to keep smoke out of a fence made from chicken wire. The police even resorted to shooting people in some towns, if they weren't wearing a mask. Some parents killed their families and then committed suicide to keep them from dying with influenza. (I fail to see the logic here!) Although, in keeping with the times, I have a letter home, from my great uncle, who fell victim to Influenza in France during WWI, saying a young man had thrown himself in front of a train to keep from being killed by Kaiser in France. Fright can play nasty tricks on the mind. Biochemist around the country worked feverishly to produce a vaccine...none helped. The vaccines were made from bacterias instead of viruses. Of course, they didn't have microscopes that were able to see the tiny microbes.

In Washington, Dr. Victor Vaughn discovered an unnerving fact. Unlike other strains of influenza, this one hit young robust males between the ages of twenty-one to twenty-nine hardest, instead of the very young and elderly that were normally targeted. My Great Uncle Troy fell to this age group, at twenty-four years. I have a card from the U.S. Army that was sent to my granddaddy, Lee (his brother), with this poem: "He left his home in perfect health; he looked so young and brave, we little thought how soon he'd be...laid in a soldier's grave."

My Great Uncle Troy J. Spearman, died Friday, December 20, 1918. It is because of him that I am writing this now. I have been told by one he died of pneumonia, then another that he died from influenza. In researching, I found why this was so confusing. We don't really know today what exactly it should be titled.

In New York, 851 people died in one day. In Philadelphia, the death rate was 700 times higher than normal, with over 11,000 deaths in one month. It killed over 195,000 people just in the thirty-one days of October alone. Everyone lived in deadly can see why.

However, by early November, a miracle happened. Influenza started going away as quickly as it appeared. Survivors of the flu had developed an immunity and the flue died out like a forest fire that had run out of fuel. The flu was running out of victims. The majority of the human species had been affected, including Winston County, Alabama.

I really thought I'd like to share this story with you all, but didn't think I would be able to find victims in Winston County, since I don't live there.

I guess I've given you an idea of the devastation that our ancestors went through in Winston County, Alabama in 1918, when they saw first hand what the "Illusive Phantom Killer" could do. Could it happen again? Unfortunately, the answer is yes!

[Submitted by Sue (Spearman) Abernathy, 159 County Road 713, Clanton, AL 35046]