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Epidemics are nothing new here

By Walter Geiger A review of issues of the Barnesville News-Gazette from October, 1918 revealed an epidemic of Spanish flu was plaguing the area to the extent classes at Gordon Institute were suspended. There were also multiple obituaries at the time listing flu or pneumonia arising from the flu as the cause of death. Here is the Oct. 17, 1918 front page report of the suspension of classes at Gordon in the flowery, run-on sentence writing style of the era: Gordon Institute suspended last Friday for two weeks on account of the influenza epidemic which has the country in its grip, the announcement of the suspension coming somewhat as a surprise to the citizens of the community. The students assembled at school that morning and the announcement was made by Dr. E.T. Holmes, president. The suspension was largely a precautionary measure. There had, however, been a number of cases of the disease here among the students and among the people of the city. Dr. Holmes was receiving daily inquiries from the parents scattered over the state and nearly all of them expressed anxiety over the situation. After fully considering the matter Dr. Holmes and the school authorities decided that the wisest course lay in suspending and thus avoiding what might perhaps result in disaster, which move is heartily commended by the patrons of the school and the citizens generally. Dr. Holmes hopes to resume operations within two weeks at the outside, but this will depend, of course, on the course of events. It is sincerely hoped that Gordon and Barnesville will escape the serious epidemic which has prevailed in many other places. Barnesville’s city fathers were equally concerned and banned all public gatherings (sound familiar?), including church services. This story appeared on page two of the same edition: Mayor B.M. Turner and the Health Board of the city last Saturday issued an order forbidding all public gatherings until further notice, due to the influenza epidemic which prevails throughout the country. That included, of course, all Sunday School and church services, and therefore there was no service in the city last Sunday. This action was deemed advisable and was endorsed largely by the public in the effort to prevent any serious conditions arising as a result of the disease. There have been a number of cases in the city but nothing like the number which has been reported in many places throughout the country and it is to be sincerely hoped that the action of the mayor and health authorities here will save the people of the community from any epidemic of the disease. The ban was lifted by mayor Turner some two weeks later. There were other similarities to the current COVID-19 tedium. U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue issued a long statement which warned of ‘droplet infection’. In that era before political correctness, he made it clear the epidemic began in Spain and King Alfonso of Spain had died of the flu in a previous outbreak. The scam artists of the day also emerged with tonics and elixirs they claimed would save lives. The most popular was Tanlac, available at Anderson’s drug store and capable of healing miracles. There are multiple scams out there today though they are much more sophisticated. For the entire month of September, 2018 there were no deaths or obituaries in the newspaper. In October there were a bunch, including two men killed in action in France as WWI was winding down. Deaths in the black community were not reported unless they were crime-related so we can assume the death toll was even higher than what was recorded. Apparently some people felt there was a stigma attached to dying of flu and their notices indicated they died after a sudden illness preceded by bronchial or respiratory issues. We see the same today with COVID-19. I have yet to read an obit that listed coronavirus as the cause of death. Those reported as dying of flu in Oct. 1918 were Mrs. Tom Lifsey, John Sims, John Wilson, Mrs. J.R. Moore, Lee Middlebrooks, Col. E.C. Armistead, Grady Sullivan, Lt. Lewis Killian and J.A. Perdue. I wonder if social distancing and good dose of Tanlac along with masks and gloves may have saved them. (Note: In 1918, there was no Lamar County. The News-Gazette was the legal organ for Pike County which included Barnesville, Zebulon and the surrounding area.)

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