By Lauren Stepp
In November 1918, Edna Breedlove Clampitt welcomed her brother Wade, home from the army, to their isolated cabin in the Smoky Mountains of Swain County. Joyful and innocent, the family cooked special meals and reveled in his presence. But soon enough, it was clear Wade had not returned alone.
“By mid–December, the whole family was terribly ill,” writes Debbie Crane, a descendant of Clampitt. “They ached. Their throats hurt. They coughed and coughed.”
In the wake of WWI, the Spanish Lady grasped her fingers around Western North Carolina and refused to lessen her grip. “My grandmother described one terrible night when the whole family sounded as if they were all drowning,” Crane continues. “In the morning, Ida [her great-grandmother] and two-year-old Woodrow were dead. The newborn, named Paul, died days later.”
Nearly a century separates the 1918 influenza epidemic and our current pandemic. And though there are certainly differences between the two viruses, our “human response” is similar, says Anne Chesky Smith, executive director of the Western North Carolina Historical Association (WNCHA).
WNCHA culled newspaper clippings, advertisements, ephemera, photographs and oral history to produce 1918 vs. 2020, an exhibit that juxtaposes the early 20th-century epidemic and our present-day response to coronavirus. Since the in-person exhibit is currently closed to visitors, a digital iteration is available online.
A “scroll” through the exhibit is chilling. Reports from 1918 depict patients bleeding from their eyes and soldiers dark blue from oxygen deprivation. The American Red Cross converted the old Asheville high school building on Woodfin Street into a 100-bed hospital for whites and The Masonic Temple into an annex for blacks.
But the virus did not discriminate. Even Benjamin Harrison Wolfe, brother of literary icon Thomas Wolfe, fell victim at just 25 years old. Look Homeward, Angel immortalizes his death with the harrowing passing of character Ben Gant. Wolfe writes, “Ben drew upon the air in a long and powerful respiration; his gray eyes opened. Filled with a terrible vision of all life in the one moment, he seemed to rise forward bodilessly from his pillows without support—a flame, a light, a glory—joined at length in death to the dark spirit who had brooded upon each footstep of his lonely adventure on earth; and, casting the fierce sword of his glance with utter and final comprehension upon the room haunted with its gray pageantry of cheap loves and dull consciences and on all those uncertain mummers of waste and confusion fading now from the bright window of his eyes, he passed instantly, scornful and unafraid, as he had lived, into the shades of death.”
Stories like these, however horrific, “help us go beyond the statistics and really see the true impact of the epidemic on individuals and families,” says Smith. But more chilling are the stark similarities between then and now. Craving normalcy, citizens of yesteryear protested mask requirements and demanded officials ease restrictions. Businesses and schools were soon permitted to welcome customers and students. And in Asheville, after a two-month hiatus, churches reopened their pews on November 24, 1918. The only caveat? No singing.
Despite hymn-less services, cases surged. On December 1, 1918, The Sunday Citizen revealed that 32 new cases were reported within the previous 24 hours.
Today, as our state begins reopening, there is the ever-looming threat of history repeating itself—of relaxed mandates contributing to a second wave of COVID-19. But we need not look any further than an influenza prevention advertisement published in the October 18 edition of Illustrated Current News for pragmatism during these uncertain times. First and foremost, the ad suggests to “avoid those that cough and sneeze” and “stay at home if you have a cold.” But of equal significance, the ad encourages readers to “avoid worry, fear and fatigue.”
For more information, visit WNCHistory.org.