Asheville Archives: How wishful thinking helped spread the 1918 influenza

PRAY THEY DON’T SING: In late November 1918, after nearly two months without services, city health officer Dr. Carl V. Reynolds allowed churches to reopen, despite the continued emergence of new influenza cases. As a precaution, Reynolds requested that church leaders omit singing from their services. This photo, circa 1910, shows a group of local congregants. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville

On Nov. 10, 1918, a headline in The Asheville Citizen‘s editorial section declared: “An epidemic conquered.” Evidence, the paper wrote, suggested overall cases of influenza were declining in the city. Within another week, the paper supposed, local health authorities would begin “the lifting of the various safeguards which have caused much inconvenience, it is true, but which, nevertheless, saved the community from the ravages of the scourge that has swept the world.”

By Nov. 14, the paper’s previous optimism all but crumbled when 41 new cases were discovered within a 24-hour period. “This report was discouraging to the city health authorities, who had hoped that with the steady decrease in the number of new cases … schools, churches and motion picture houses might be opened next week,” The Asheville Citizen wrote.

Though the majority of Buncombe County’s influenza cases occurred in Asheville, residents in the county’s rural areas were impacted as well. On Nov. 21, 1918, the paper reported a total of 1,652 cases and 42 deaths outside the city; meanwhile, Asheville saw 4,129 cases and 120 deaths within the same two-month period. Regardless of lower county numbers, the paper wrote “that conditions in some of the townships are now worse than at any time since the epidemic started.”

Despite this sudden increase in rural cases, the latest city numbers showed a decline. On Nov. 22, with only 13 reported illnesses within the previous 24 hours, The Asheville Citizen announced that Dr. Carl V. Reynolds, the city’s health officer, would allow churches to reopen on Nov. 24. “The health officer stated that if no bad results follow the Sunday church opening the schools and motion picture houses will be allowed to resume operations in a few days,” the paper added.

That Sunday, as congregants prepared for their first service in nearly two months, city officials urged worshippers to remain cautious. “Dr. Reynolds called attention to the fact that disease germs may be carried in the nose and mouth of a person apparently well,” The Sunday Citizen reported. “He stated that he wished to call attention to the probability that germs may be scattered by general singing in church and to ask that this feature of the services be omitted today.”

In the same article, it was announced that schools would reopen the following Wednesday.

With restrictions loosened, influenza spread. On Dec. 1, 1918, The Sunday Citizen revealed that 32 new cases were reported within the previous 24 hours. The article continued:

“The health department states that the increase in the number of cases is undoubtedly due to the numerous gatherings and meetings of various kinds that were held this last week. When it was announced that churches, schools and theatres would reopen, the board states that the majority of the people took it for granted that all epidemic danger had passed and governed themselves accordingly. The health officials said little last night but they looked grave.”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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18 thoughts on “Asheville Archives: How wishful thinking helped spread the 1918 influenza

  1. JL Stevens

    Dear Mr. Calder,

    Thank you for this amazing article, which should help open the eyes of those who are so eager to return to their previous lives too early.

    The flu of 1918 was called out as just an epidemic, whereas COVID-19 is a pandemic.

    I am a small business operator, and I believe reopening the state too early would be a grave mistake. I would much rather have my family and friends safe than an active, healthy bank account.

    Please consider sending the link to your article to the governor, so hopefully he too will see how detrimental early reopening will be for everyone.

    • Phillip C Williams

      Mr. Stevens, Whatever the 1918 flu was “called” it in fact WAS a true pandemic. Life didn’t slow down much. The world was embroiled in a war, and trains and troopships crisscrossed oceans and continents, and Army camps were filled with men living in cramped quarters – eating, bathing, training and sleeping together. A little perspective is always useful – so far this virus has infected 2,561,044 and killed 177,200 world wide out of a population of 7.8 billion, as opposed to the 1918 tally of dead was 50 million out of a world population of 1.8 billion… short, there are few legitimate parallels between COVID-19 and the Spanish flu.

      • bsummers

        How about this one?

        To maintain morale, World War I censors minimized early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. Newspapers were free to report the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain, such as the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII, and these stories created a false impression of Spain as especially hard hit. This gave rise to the name Spanish flu.

        Just like today, certain world leaders found reason to hide the truth from people, and that probably led to more deaths than need be. Thanks, Donald Trump!

      • JL Stevens

        Mr. Williams,
        You are correct, a little perspective IS always useful. As a FEMALE business owner in a world that still automatically assumes only men are intelligent enough to have an opinion , I can see that you missed my point of view entirely.

        • Phillip C Williams

          Beg your pardon, Ma’am. I don’t know many women who go by their first and middle initials – If I had known you were a female and said something like “Now, now, little lady…this is men’s talk” then you could rightly accuse me of automatic assumptions about your opinion as it relates to your sex.

          I am not at all sure how I “missed” your point of view. I didn’t overlook it or dismiss it – I simply disagreed with it. Can we not disagree on something and discuss it, rather than make vague accusations??.

          • JL Stevens

            Mr. Williams,
            Accusations and assumptions aside, yes , I can agree that we disagree on the topic of the article.
            As I understood, the article was about how the flu epidemic affected Asheville, especially after the early reopening of certain services/businesses/freedoms had been temporarily suspended to lessen the effects of the flu.
            As stated in the article, “With the restrictions loosened, influenza spread.”
            I hardly believe that it will be a far fetched parallel to what will happen if our government decides to reopen our state too early.

          • Phillip C Williams

            I don’t disagree with the idea that opening too much too soon because of wishful thinking could be a bad idea. I don’t disagree with that at all.

            I mainly disagree with your statement that “The flu of 1918 was called out as just an epidemic, whereas COVID-19 is a pandemic.” I believe the 1918 Flu was very much a “pandemic”.

            I don’t make many parallels between it and the current situation. Statistics show that it caused many more casualties in a smaller population. And it affected young, healthy people at a higher rate than COVID-19 appears to.

      • Peter Robbins

        Here’s a lesson we can learn from the Spanish Flu: It’s a huge risk to relax social-distancing measures prematurely because there might be a second wave.

        But of course that’s ancient history. With the very stable geniuses we have leading us today, I’m sure we won’t repeat a mistake like that.

  2. Bruce Johnson

    I would like to hear the rest of the history Beyond the Dec 1 date. How many more cases total, what was the curve after that, how long before new measures came in, and when were all or most measures lifted? What’s the rest of the story? :)

    There are safe ways that biz and industries can start opening up even now. Like taking steps to maintain distancing and wiping surfaces. Even takeout is still allowed and we have limited the new cases already.


    • Thomas Calder

      Thanks Bruce. It hasn’t been explicitly stated, but this is an ongoing series. Next week’s Asheville Archives will continue to examine how our local community dealt with the 1918 influenza in the early days of 1919. I’ll be continuing research beyond that as well. Thanks for the comment and questions.

    • bsummers

      The difference this pandemic is that we have a segment of the population, both locally and nationally, who have a motivation beyond health or the economy to move quickly. The upcoming election, and the fortunes of one candidate, the incumbent, could hang in the balance. Mr. Trump and those around him think that jumpstarting the economy is crucial to his re-election chances, regardless of whether that’s the best choice from a health standpoint.

      Additionally, there are people who don’t believe that COVID-19 is a legitimate threat at all. They’ve swallowed misinformation about the disease being some sort of hoax, and they demonstrate that they aren’t fooled by ignoring social-distancing and mask-wearing, etc. All it would take for another outbreak to happen is for a sizable number of people to go back to work, and spread the infection through their ignorance. This is also tied to Trump, who on one hand says that he agrees with the caution espoused by the health pros around him, but then gets on twitter and says the exact opposite.

      Given these things, I think we’re better served to err on the side of caution. At the very least, listen to the guidelines Trump’s admin have put out for states re-opening – two weeks of downward case occurrence, full and adequate testing in place, and a robust contact tracing program to curb any resurgence. If you actually follow those, we are a looooooonnnnggg way from re-opening.

      • Bruce Johnson

        I don’t believe we serve ourselves well when we mix politics in any crisis where our leaders need to make crucial decisions. Their decisions need to be based on facts, data, and solid mitigation strategies. There will always be ignorance somewhere In our midst but the rest of us need to act and speak with wisdom and intelligence. I hope we can keep politics at bay as long as possible, to get through this as soon as possible.

    • Phillip C Williams

      I didn’t take issue with what words were used in 1918. My question was directed at your statement “The flu of 1918 was called out as just an epidemic, whereas COVID-19 is a pandemic” I took it to mean that you thought the 1918 flu was “just an epidemic” whereas C19 is a “pandemic”. If I misunderstood or misread, my apologies.

    • Phillip C Williams

      My apologies if I took your statement out of context or misread it. I thought you were suggesting that the current situation is a pandemic and the Spanish Flu was not.

  3. Jason W

    Why aren’t people talking about the Polio epidemics of the ’50’s which had similar effects on the economy due to closures and quarantines?

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