Spanish Flu epidemic took 23 lives in Tyrrell County in 1918-19

Published 11:05 am Wednesday, May 13, 2020

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Excerpted from an article written by Denise McClees and Ray McClees and published in the October 2018 Tyrrell Times, published by Tyrrell County Genealogical and Historical Society. Reprinted by permission.

On September 19, 1918, the contagion known as the Spanish Flu appeared in Wilmington, N.C. Within a week the hard-struck city reported some 400 cases of the illness.

At the height of the flu outbreak during the winter of 1918-1919 at least 20% of North Carolinians were infected by the disease. The so-called “Spanish Lady” killed nearly 14,000 citizens of the state.

A confluence of events created a viral strain of the contagion, and that mutated virus found more victims than normal due, in part, to the ongoing First World War. Large numbers of people were traveling around the country and the world like never before, and the virus was able to travel by hosts and spread.

The World Book Encyclopedia states, “A pandemic, or world epidemic, of influenza occurred in 1918-1919. It spread throughout Europe and later the Americas. The disease caused 20 million deaths, partly because of complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and mastoid and sinus infections.”

Swamproots, a publication of Columbia High School, began an article in its 1977 edition about the “Spanish influenza” by stating that the disease “more or less paralyzed Tyrrell County.”  Every home was affected, whole families in cases.  Blanche Cohoon, a local citizen, said, “It was almost an hourly message that some friend had died.”  The epidemic was so serious that the United States government was forced to send help (a physician).”

The illness often stuck without warning. A person could very suddenly start to show symptoms of influenza, and die the next day.  There were people who fell off horses or collapsed on the sidewalk.

In March of 1918, recalls local Margaret Meekins of Columbia, “I just collapsed one day and was carried to the hospital unconscious…they kept me there a whole month.”

The devastating effect of the Spanish Flu epidemic, or the Blue Death, in Tyrrell County can be measured by the number of recorded deaths attributed to influenza. Some other deaths during the period not diagnosed were likely flu related.

The county’s death certificates show that the first influenza death was on 10 October 1918 and the last on 28 February 1919, a span of 141 days during which 23 residents died.