Rosalie Elder, mother or Lakewood’s William Elder, was originally a North Carolina “country girl” who happened to live through the Spanish Flu of 1918. Years later, Rosalie shared her memories from the Spanish Flu with William who wrote them “down as part of her memoir, Tooter’s Damn!
William thought it might be interesting to share what Rosalie had to say about the Spanish Flu. What follows is an excerpt from Tooter’s Damn!
Papa caught malarial fever. He was livin’ off of nothin’ but milk and cereal Mama fixed for him. He never had had one ounce of weight to lose, and now he had less. He got so skinny— oh, he looked terrible. The doctor told him he was gonna have to give up the Powerhouse, get out outside and stay outside in the fresh air, or die. What could Papa say but, okay, outside, huh? That’s when he went to work for the Watkins people, sellin’ all kinds of household goods and patent medicines, drivin’ up and down the countryside. He decided to move to Pittsboro, the county seat, where he’d be centrally located for his open-air peddlin’, as he put it.
He got a house for us, the local parson’s house it turned out. He bought a T-Model Ford roadster. He took off the back-end and built him a little store on the back of this roadster. He had a chest that fit right into the back of this thing full of shelves. He’d get in this thing and go all around through the country on a regular route, to call on the farmers and their wives, and sell ’em this variety of stuff, everything from toothpaste to corn plasters. He’d take orders then deliver it back to them when it came in. Bless my daddy’s heart, he was no business man, never was, then or after. If the farmer needed this horse liniment for his horse, or if the lady of the house needed a bottle of vanilla or lemon extract, and they didn’t have the money, well, it was pay me next time when I come through. So that’s the way that thing went. Imagine how many times he got paid— with the horse long rubbed down and the lemon cake long eaten up.
While we were in Pittsboro the first World War broke out in Europe, in August 1914. My daddy said then, “This is not gonna be just one of those over-night things.” Papa read everything he could get his hands on. He told Mama, “It’s a pretty serious affair. ” Everybody in the whole country was scared to death— particularly those who knew where Europe was. The rest were rarrin’ for war. After Wilson was elected— he got elected on his slogan: “Vote for Wilson, Keep Our Boys Out Of War!” Papa never liked Wilson, didn’t want him in office. Too much the professor. No time after he was elected, the Germans were walkin’ all over everybody and we were fixin’ to get into that foreign war. It happened in April 1917.
Papa shook his head and said, “Well, I’m not doin’ much good with Watkins and it looks like nobody’s gonna have any extra money any time soon, scared like they are of war.” Papa told Mama, “I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do, Ina. I’ll go to Hopewell— Virginia— and work in the DuPont power plant there.” He took off and we got ready to move. With all his experience, they wouldn’t take him, like to never have gotten in. They claimed the name Jernigan sounded German. Luckily one of their boilers broke down and, knowin’ his experience, they sent for him to come to work. He fixed it and ended up workin’ for DuPont all through the First War, German fantasies forgotten. The family moved to Hopewell and so did Uncle Charlie about the same time— wherever he had been, up to whatever.
Winter of 1917-18, winter of the big flu epidemic, we spent in Hopewell. It was a very grim time and we were in the middle of it. All of us had flu. Every one of us was in bed at one time or another, not able to help the other ones, much less ourselves. The neighbors came in and helped us until somebody got able to get up and care for the rest, then naturally we had to do the same for the neighbors when they went down. That’s the way it went during the whole episode. Neighbor went from house to house until he or she got sick and had to go to bed. Then another one got up and went from house to house until he or she was took-off or until somebody else got better. In Camp Lee, down the road, they were dyin’ like flies. Couldn’t get ’em buried fast enough. They just stacked ’em up like cord-wood with tags around their necks in cold storage. More people died worldwide durin’ that flu epidemic than died on all the battlefields of the First War, they tell me, except our dying raged right next door.
Mama had been operated on and she wasn’t very strong in the first place, but she had to come home from the hospital— no room. Pauline went down first. Mama went back to bed. Then I went to bed, then Papa. Papa and I stayed up till we couldn’t stay on our feet any more. By the time I went to bed, I was practically dead-out. Don’t remember what happened for two days. You didn’t care whether you lived or died— high fever, freezin’ cold at the same time, just didn’t care, you were so deathly sick. There was nothin’ to fight it with, absolutely nothin’. I don’t think we even had aspirin at that time. The doctors were baffled, stood and watched people dyin’ around them like flies. Or died themselves.
I had the flu twice. After I had my first case of it, I got up and started helpin’ everybody else, because everybody else had helped us. Mama and Papa and Pauline were still in bed. Next day, after I got out of bed, I carried water — we had a local place to get water, for the city water was out. Everybody had to carry their own water, or somebody for them, or went without. After I got out of bed, I carried water and washed sheets and pillow cases and nightgowns. Scrubbed ’em down with lye soap on a washboard and hung ’em out on a line the next day. I was strong as a horse, came through with flyin’ colors. I knew where everybody was sick up and down our street, and I’d go here and I’d go there, fix soup for somebody and feed em’. I’d change a bed for somebody else, dump their bedpan. Whatever had to be done we did it, and went on to somebody else. There was just no other help, nothin’ else you could do but help. The doctor didn’t even try to make house calls. He was doin’ most of what little he could do from his office. Everybody was in the same boat and the water was pourin’ in.
I walked down to one house and walked in— no locks, nobody knocked then. A whole family of five lay dead in the same bed— the whole family, not a sign of struggle, nor anything like that at all. I got to a telephone down on the corner in the grocery store and called the doctor and told him. He said, “Don’t go back down there. I’ll take care of it.” Evidently he did. That’s all I know because I was too busy to find out anything more about it. I’m sure he sent the undertaker out there and there was something half-reasonable done about it.
Right at this point everybody in the whole dang neighborhood seemed to want to get sick! Or were, anyway. The ones of us that was on our feet were all dead tired. I had another family, pregnant mother and five kids and the father, all was just hangin’ on by a thread to keep from goin’ down for good— what an expression, goin’ down for good. I called the doctor and told him what was up. “Get em drunk,” he told me, talkin’ about the kids. “Get liquor in ‘em and them keep ’em wrapped up and let’s see if we can sweat it out of ’em. Maybe that’ll save ’em.” Somehow he got a bottle of liquor to me— I don’t remember now. I taken and sweetened it with sugar and make up a whole batch of this liquor, with just a tad of water, cause the quicker I could get ’em knocked out and start sweatin’ the better. And that’s what I did. If they wouldn’t drink it, I’d feed it to ’em with a spoon. Get their mouth open with a spoon in it and blow it in and they had to swallow it. I’d trick ’em into openin’ their mouth again and I’d get some more in ’em. Got every one of ’em kids tight as monkeys. Wrapped them up good in blankets. Saved every one of those kids— saved themselves, truth be known. The father never did go to bed. He was pretty sick but he evidently didn’t have as severe a case as many people. Lost the mother, though, and her baby. Nothin’ we could do about it. I was sittin’ there when they died. Too sad for words.
I got it twice. I went to another woman up in front of us. Just a mother and a daughter in that family. I don’t know the history or anything about ’em. I come home to change my clothes. Come in the back door and come on through the house and I walked out on the front porch and this woman was standin’ out in her yard just screamin’ bloody murder: “Oh, my daughter! Oh, my precious daughter!” So I went to see what’s wrong with her. Went flyin’ across the field up to her house. She’s screamin’ so I couldn’t get a bit of sense out of her. I shook her and that didn’t work. I slapped her, not hard, but it worked. When I finally got her in the house she said her daughter was dead. I said, “How do you know she’s dead?” She pointed and said, “She’s in there.”
I said, “Okay, I’ll go check. You stay right here in this chair.” Sure enough, when I get into this room the daughter is sure enough dead as a door nail. I went out and told the old woman, “I don’t know what to do about this,” and she started to go to pieces again. “Alright let me get somebody else.” I went out to look around to see if I could see anybody else circulatin’ and I happened to see another lady named Mrs. Hildeberry, an elderly woman. I gave her the high sign I needed some help. So she came on down and she said, “What do you need?” I said, “I can handle things here, but go back and call the doctor and tell him what I’ve got here: a dead woman and a hysterical mother.” So she did and she came back and told me the doctor said he’d send the undertaker out. We got the mother back in the kitchen and I give her some coffee with some of the liquor I still had in my pocket. She calmed down.
The undertaker finally showed up, took one look, and said, “My establishment is full. I don’t have any room for another body. In the meantime this old lady was cryin’ she wanted the body shipped back to somewhere. He said, “We cannot ship that body without it bein’ embalmed. How in the world am I gonna get her embalmed like this?” The poor guy, I felt sorry for him, but embalmin’ was his problem. I was dead tired and turned to go see about the livin’. “Well, you know,” he said, “I don’t have but one way out, and that is to bring enough equipment out here, and a casket, and embalm the body here. Will you help me?”
“Do what? I said, wakin’ up at this. “What can I do?” He looked at me, sizin’ me up. “The face is gonna have to be washed, hair done, and things of that kind. Clothes are gonna have to be ready to put on her when she’s put in the casket. We’ll put her out on this table here. We’ll embalm her, then we’ll put her in the casket.” He beamed at me, problem solved— his problem.
Mrs. Hildeberry declined to participate. She did agree to stay with mother and corpse while I went to the home for a while. I’m dead, absolutely rockin’ on my feet. The undertaker was supposed to be back in an hour and a half. I went home, curled up on an old couch we had, didn’t even take off my clothes. I woke up when Papa got up. I got up too and started combin’ my hair. He wanted to know what I was up to. I’d already taken care of Mama and Pauline. They’re both still in bed and not stirring. I told him I was goin’ down and help this undertaker embalm this woman. He was very upset about it, thought it was absolutely terrible for me to have to do, but he didn’t try to stop me.
Mrs. Hildeberry and myself bathed her and put clothes and things laid out and left her there. It was about dark when the undertaker finally got there. He set up all his paraphernalia. Papa’s been by to check how I was doin’ and went away no happier than when he came. The undertaker and I got busy and we embalmed her. Just a crude-set up, I suppose, to make her so they could ship her. He got finished and cleared up all his things and left. Fascinating! Was to me anyway. The undertaker seemed almost as dead on his feet as the daughter on the table before him. Said he had two more to do.
The casket wasn’t gonna come out till the next morning. I got her all dressed and all ready except for her hair. She had beautiful hair. The mother wanted it combed a certain way. At that time everybody wore side-combs in their hair, so I combed her hair just as near the way I could the way her mother wanted it. But when I started puttin’ those combs in her hair. The teeth of those combs scratchin’ against that cold dead head— well, I got it finished, but I come nearer passin’ out with those combs than I did durin’ the whole embalmin’ process. Somehow those comb teeth gratin’ against that hard, dead, head… By that time some of the family had come and were makin’ arrangements for shippin’. That was the end of it for me. I went on from there to doin’ somethin’ else, anything else, for somebody else.
The flu epidemic went on. People who hadn’t died, were gettin’ better. Just my luck, I went to bed with another bout of it, though not too bad this time. I didn’t stay in bed but a few days, maybe a week. Oh, of course I run a terrible fever and was out of my mind for a while. The doctor said, “Just drink soups and a lot of liquid,” and that was about all they did for you. You just felt so helpless. “Do I get liquor, doctor, like last time?” He looked at me and smiled, “Right after you get married twice.” Pauline had gotten up in the meantime, like Papa. But Papa got a setback of some kind. It wasn’t flu but a terrible cold of some kind. He climbed back in bed, grumbling. “If it’s not one damned thing, it’s two!” One of the few times I ever heard my daddy swear.
With all this, Mama wasn’t doin’ near as well as we wanted her to do. “I tell you what,” the doctor prescribed, “What Mrs. Jernigan needs is some eggnogs to pick up her strength. Whiskey might help too, but all could be got in Hopewell, flu got it all!” Doctor was right. So Papa, with this terrible cold, got his clothes on, went and caught the streetcar to Richmond, bought a fifth of liquor, and brought it home. We made eggnogs for Mama— take a couple of eggs, beat ‘em up, and put so much whiskey in it, and beat it up again. Had no cream or vanilla, just a grind of nutmeg, maybe a little pepper. We fed these to her. Slowly she began to pick up. Mama got alright. Truth be told, we were all gettin’ on our feet again, neighbors and all were gettin’ on their feet again. Nobody said much about what had gone on, just got on with our lives. There was a lot of cleanin’ up to do. And grievin’. Probably didn’t want to admit, to each other, or to ourselves, just how close we— the living— came. Jix was heavy in the air, no need to stir it up. Besides, “There was a war on!” was said, at times with a half-wry smile, as though we needed to be told.
After that terrible flu we went on through that followin’ summer and year, and finally the Armistice was signed on 11/11/11, November 11th, 1918, at eleven AM. When the news came they pulled the wildcat whistle that they had at the chemical plant, and tied it down. It went for three solid hours and you could hear that thing for miles and miles. Everybody did. Everybody ran out into the streets— hugged, kissed, smilin’, dancin’, shot guns, and lifted glasses. We did too, joined the street crowds, then came home. Papa sat on the porch, smoking and thinking, the way he did. He understood the war was what held the plant together. After the Armistice was signed the plant just fell apart, more or less, sooner than later. Immediately the company started lettin’ people go right and left, closin’ it down. Papa stayed on doin’ that until sometime in that winter or early spring of 1919.Print This Post