History: Pandemic Strikes Corsicana in 1918

By Dana Stubbs – Special to the Navarro County Gazette

America was deeply involved in the War in Europe by mid-1918. Every United States citizen had been touched by the crisis, whether by saying good-bye as loved ones headed for the front, or working to raise funds for the cause. It was an exhausting time. 

Locally, Navarro County had been hard at work on several major projects. The city leaders spent much time and effort over 1916 and 1917 to ensure the Exall Highway project went through the county; that meant the possibility of progress and wealth for many residents. Just to think of the idea of a paved highway that stretched all the way from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico put dollar signs in some eyes. 

The Beaton family was attempting to build a much needed new state-of-the-art hotel in the downtown district. The air force kept some Corsicana residents busy at the Corsicana Country Club where the flyboys practiced at the “landing place” with their planes. Then there were the workers at the canteen downtown Corsicana who kept things ready when the airmen came to visit. 

Fathers worked longer hours, and mothers changed their menus to adapt food saving efforts for the war cause. School children no longer played after homework as they worked in the community gardens planting, hoeing and weeding or for the Red Cross after school.

The nation as a whole had been working so hard that on March 30, 1918, for the first time in American history, daylight savings time was enforced. Germany and their allies had started daylight savings in 1916 as a means to save coal for their war effort. The chief benefit of the new time plan for the United States was said to be for national health. The extra daylight should have been devoted to recreation and getting to bed earlier. Yes, it conserved coal, oil, and gas, but that was just a byproduct of the plan.

1917 seemed like only a dream, when there were ballgames and circuses coming through town.

Eight circuses came through Corsicana in 1917, but in 1918, most had been abolished due to the war and the influenza epidemic. The war effort had taken over the everyday life of the American citizen. The newspapers were full of the descriptions of battles in Europe with some local loved one’s letters home sprinkled throughout the pages… and something about a strange virus called Spanish Influenza….

But, that was far away from the east Texas black-land prairies. And the local people needed a break, if just for a day, so they could forget the challenges of war time living.

Wednesday, October 2, 1918, Navarro County closed the business houses and the schools down for a day off so the children could attend the spectacular Barnum and Bailey Circus. Because of its grand reputation, this circus was allowed to stay open until October, 1918. Everyone in Navarro County was encouraged to attend to let loose and enjoy the big parade that marched through downtown. 

Hundreds of residents watched the bright shiny green, red, and gold barred wagons filled with all sorts of weird voices of the desert and jungle as they traveled up Beaton street. Lions, tigers, bears, elephants, and horses were all decked out in colors of the rainbow as they amazed the audience.The hilarious clowns with their stunts and tricks put everyone in stitches. It was truly a good day in Corsicana. 

It was estimated that over two thousand residents enjoyed themselves. That night as they tucked their babies in bed everyone had a renewed outlook on life. Tomorrow, their focus would be back on the war effort, but that night they slept with joy in their hearts.

The incubation for the Spanish Influenza was four to five days and on October 7th, several cases of the disease were diagnosed in Corsicana and several other communities throughout Navarro County. 

On October 8th, Dr. Burnet, the health officer of Corsicana, recommended to the Corsicana mayor, school board, and churches, just as a precaution, they should consider closing their doors. 

On Wednesday, October 9th, the schools were closed. As people tried to carry on business as usual they began going home early with symptoms of influenza. Businesses such as Dyers Department Store and Wooley Plumbing closed for the lack of employees. 

As J. H. Wooley put it: “On account of my being sick and with prospects of being confined to my home for several days, I have closed my shop.” 

By the end of the first week of the epidemic, theatres, restaurants, and all public meetings were closed down. The P&S hospital and pest houses filled up, and First Baptist Church consented to let the hospital use their mission church located across the street so it was fitted out with single beds.

Not only was influenza carried by the circuses, but the disease had spread throughout the country as soldier boys contracted the disease, then were sent home taking the virus with them. Healthy soldiers boarded ships by the thousands going to the front or bases only to arrive with every person aboard deathly ill. 

One doctor aboard a certain ship had every one to wear a mask in hopes to save lives. That was the first time since the pandemic started that a ship arrived at its destination with only 50 cases of the sickness out of the 5000 that traveled on the boat. The doctor contributed the mask for keeping the men well. 

One doctor in California campaigned to have a city ordinance that required everyone to wear a mask. One day when his employee arrived at work, she found a homemade bomb at the office door, this was in October 1918.

In Corsicana, the doctors were just trying to stay alive as they kept everyone as healthy as they could. Several doctors contracted the influenza. Dr. T. A. Miller barely escaped the disease with his life. Dr. W. D. Fountain had been out on a call when on his way home in the wee hours of the morning he suffered a nervous breakdown. 

As the hospital nurses became ill, volunteers took their place until they were attacked by the bug then more volunteers were called. When the telephone company employees were overtaken by the influenza, it made a great hardship on everyone because as the sickness spread phone calls increased to loved ones and it was impossible to call the doctor. Pharmacies were so hard hit they could not produce the medicine needed.

For weeks the streets of Corsicana were silent, not because the people were told to “self-quarantine” but because the people were all sick or dying. Every household was touched by the virus. Some families lost up to five members. Expecting mothers lost their babies as well as their own lives. The stories go on and on.

The killer was not Spanish Influenza, but rather pneumonia. Many death certificates list the cause of death as pneumonia that followed the Spanish Influenza.

By the end of October, the survivors were reopening their businesses. The sick lists contained not only the names of those who were sick, but also names of those who had recovered. 

Corsicana prepared to open the schools, churches, and theatres during the first weeks of November. People were returning to work, but not before they had buried over three hundred Navarro County residents who died in October 1918.

Categories: History