"The Dread Disease"
In 1918, the Spanish flu caused illness, death and fear in all corners of Montgomery County.
William Reuben Jr., representing the third generation of the Pumphrey Funeral Home family, went “from house to house with an embalming buggy equipped with instruments, embalming fluid and an operating table,” according to a company history. “Large farm wagons followed, leaving caskets at the home of the flu victims…. Because of the large number of deaths, funerals were performed only when there was a break in the embalming.”
Some county residents died elsewhere. Edward Carroll Cissell, 22, of Rockville, was stationed at Camp (now Fort) Meade, where, The New York Times reported on Sept. 27, 1918, “Influenza is increasing.” Virginia Douglas Thomas, daughter of Maj. and Mrs. George M. Thomas of Rockville, succumbed in Baltimore at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she had been training to be a nurse. She was “taken sick while performing her duties and died a few hours later,” the Sentinel said. “Miss Thomas was a young lady of bright and happy disposition.”
First-term County Commissioner Nathan H. Metzger died at his home in Poolesville on Oct. 11, a week after coming down with the flu “and pneumonia quickly developed,” the Post reported. He was 41 and single.
State Sen. J. Dawson Williams, 36, died a few days later at his home in Kensington “of pneumonia following influenza.” Opined The Baltimore Sun: “In all the heavy toll taken of our people these last few weeks by the scourge of influenza, there has been no death crueler.… Still in his youth, blessed with success and with rich promise; possessed of that quality of ability which expands with the passing years; and imbued with the noblest of ideals, he was assuredly one of the men to whom Maryland looked for high service in the years to come.” The body was barely cold before three other Democrats were vying for his seat.
Eustacia Boyle Hardesty, 20, died at her parents’ home, The Forest, near Rockville, of pneumonia brought on by the flu on Oct. 22. She was described in the Post as active in war work with the Red Cross. The year before, she had graduated with honors from the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington.
After the Rev. Rowland P. Wagner, pastor of the Rockville Baptist Church, caught the flu, several churches, including his, canceled services “because of the prevalence of influenza, which has assumed alarming proportions in the county,” the Post said. After Rockville churches had closed for two consecutive Sabbaths, the ministers issued a call to prayer. “The dread disease ravages our homes ‘Over Here,’ snatching away some of the best of our much-needed citizenship,” the ministers said, referring to Over There, the hit song by George M. Cohan about U.S. soldiers fighting in Europe.
Closed for three weeks, Rockville High School reopened on Oct. 28, along with several other county schools that had shut down to stop the spread of the disease. This seemed to signal a return to normalcy, and it was followed on Nov. 11, 1918 by the armistice that ended World War I, another reason to rejoice.
Yet, just when the epidemic seemed to be subsiding, it resumed in December. The Post reported: “Influenza is again rampant in Montgomery County, reports indicating it is probably more prevalent, particularly in the Rockville, Poolesville, Clarksburg and Unity neighborhoods, than during the first outbreak. The number of cases is daily increasing and the people of the county are much exercised.”
Schools in Poolesville and Clarksburg closed. With more than 200 new cases reported in and around Rockville, officials closed Rockville High School on Dec. 13 until after the Christmas holiday. After extended closings, all county schools reopened on Jan. 13. Right after Christmas, four more deaths were reported in the county. These included William H. Nicholson, 27, and his wife, Easton, of Olney, who left two children behind.
“The influenza is again prevalent in this county,” the Sentinel reported in early January. “There are said to be as many as two hundred cases in the neighborhood of Sandy Spring.” When Howard Clark, 36, chief probation officer of Washington’s juvenile court, died of the disease at his Kensington home, “the court adjourned for two days out of respect for the deceased official,” the Sentinel reported.
Noting the deaths of four more residents, the Post reported on Jan. 7, 1919: “The death toll from influenza and complications continues heavy in Montgomery County.” On Jan. 11, the head of the Montgomery chapter of the Red Cross pleaded with its branches and auxiliaries to, “inasmuch as the war work has practically ceased, devote themselves to relieving the distress caused by the epidemic of influenza now in many sections of the county.” The Rockville branch immediately deployed 100 to the task, and other Red Cross organizations in the county pledged to help, as well.
Then, on Feb. 19, Uriah Waters, 33, a Damascus farmer, succumbed to typhoid fever, from which he had been ill for several weeks following the flu. He left a wife and three children.
And that seemed to be the end of it…except that, in January 1920 there were fears of a new epidemic. One doctor in Rockville had 20 flu patients, “and it is estimated that there are several hundred cases in the county,” the Post reported. But this time, at least, no deaths were reported.
By February 1923, a single flu death (that of Arthur Linthicum, a Travilah merchant) at Montgomery General led the Post’s county news roundup but didn’t merit its own headline.
Eugene L. Meyer, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, is a contributing editor for Bethesda Magazine.