In my previous post, focused on the daily life of the Whisnant family at 44 South French Broad Avenue from about 1910 into the early 1920s, I noted that–owning to their complexity–three episodes would be held for a subsequent post.
This is that post, and the episodes are:
- The Asheville Street Railway strike of 1913. I treat it at some length here because it was Asheville’s first real strike, and Asbury voted for and participated in it.
- The flood of July 1916. I treat it briefly here because it has been commented upon (usually briefly) many times before (e.g., here), because I dealt with it in three earlier posts (here, here, and here), and because Anthony Sadler’s Appalachian State University M.A. thesis, which analyzes it far more thoroughly than anyone previously has, is soon to be available online.
- The influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, in which Asbury and Ella’s youngest child–my father, then four years old–almost died. Also treated at length here.
“Power and Traction” Companies: A Turbulent New Industry
At some point in the year 1912, the Asheville Board of Trade issued a thirty-six page brochure cataloguing the manifold attractions offered to tourists, conventioneers, and prospective investors by “America’s Beauty Spot in the Land of the Sky”: picturesque surroundings, natural resources, electric power, abundant pure water, elegant hotels, sparkling recreational facilties, churches of every faith, and–lest it be overlooked, uniquely advantageous labor conditions. “Owing to the milder climate and cheaper products,” the Board promised,
farm labor is much less expensive in thie section than in the North or West. . . . This labor is at present mostly untrained, but is susceptible to intelligent training, and is easily controlled and satisfied. Strikes are unknown, and with reasonable care and training the same class of work can be done here at a much lower price than farther North.
It sounded like a good deal, but the Board’s promise was soon to be upended by the city’s (unionized) streetcar conductors and motormen.
The early history of streetcars in (and beyond) Asheville has been written about enough (most completely for Asheville in Trolleys in the Land of the Sky) that I needn’t repeat it here. To place the 1913 strike by Asheville street railway employees in context, a timeline is sufficient:
1820s: First omnibus (trackless “carriage for all”) lines established in major cities
1830s: Horsecars appear; by 1880s, 400+ companies hauling nearly two million passengers/year
1881: North Carolina General Assembly charters street railway companies for Raleigh and Asheville
1882: First electric streetcar, South Bend, Indiana
1883: In its list of “Needed Improvements,” Asheville city directory urged that “A street railway from the depot to the center of the city . . . would pay handsomely in Asheville.”
1886 (July): Asheville Street Railway Company organized
1886 (November 1): Ordinance by Board of Aldermen allows Asheville Street Railway Company to build a “single-track” railway
1889 (February): First electric streetcar run in Asheville
1892 (September): Amalgamated Association of Street [after 1903: and Electric] Railway Employees of America (A.A. of S. & E.R.E. of A) organized
1895: Streetcar strikes begin in U.S. cities; by 1913, major ones had occurred in Brooklyn, Cleveland, St. Louis, San Francisco, Pensacola and Indianapolis. Some were violent.
1889: General Electric (successor to Edison’s Electric Illuminating Company of 1880) formed expressly to buy up and capitalize upon small early electricity-generating entities. Began buying up traction and power companies nationwide.
As Trolleys in the Land of the Sky sketches the period, the following few years were turbulent.
1905: GE formed subsidiary Electric Bond and Share Company to sell GE-acquired companies.
1908: Electric Bond and Share bought Asheville and Raleigh companies and combined them as Carolina Power & Light Company (CP&L).
1908 (perhaps earlier): Asheville street railway employees organized as Div. 128 of the street railway employees’ union (A.A. of S. & E.R.E. of A).
1913 (spring): CP&L’s Asheville unit, operated out of Raleigh, became Asheville Electric Company, the local “power and traction company” which both supplied electric power and operated Asheville’s street railway system.
Big Strike in a Small System
In April of 1913, when Div. 128 opened negotiations with Asheville Electric for a new contract, Asheville’s system was still small. Even at peak (1915) size, it operated only forty-three cars on eighteen miles of track.
As a member of the union, Asbury had a good bit at stake. He was in his thirteenth year of employment as a conductor–with a narrow set of skills and experience that suggested no other obvious work opportunity. Stable, continuous work was essential, since he had a wife and two children (a three year-old and a two month-old) to support.
Despite its nearly exclusive reputation as a tourist mecca, Asheville was also an industrial city with many industrial jobs, but most were not attractive. Asheville Cotton (earlier, C. E. Graham) Mills had been there since 1893, but cotton mill wages were notoriously poor ($5.00 to $9.00 per week for men, said the Board of Trade brochure), and living conditions in the Chicken Hill mill village, a half-mile from 44 South French Broad, were not attractive.
Asbury’s wages were also modest. At 21 1/2 cents per hour, he would have taken home about $12.00 per week for a nine-plus hour day, six days a week. No doubt somewhat more than a cotton mill hand would have made at the time, but still barely a living wage.
The 1913 negotiations in Asheville (and the strike that ensued) fit a common pattern within the industry. Within a three-year period, there had been twenty-two street railway strikes and six lockouts–one in 1909, seventeen in 1910, and ten in 1911. Since Asheville had never had one during its twenty-four years of operation, it was about due for one.
Motorman and Conductor reported that Division 128 workers presented their wage request on April 19. Despite intercession by national union Vice President George Keenan, workers became deadlocked with the company, and the company refused arbitration.
On the Saturday the 26th, workers assembled at Central Methodist Church, voted to strike, and walked out at noon after informing the company that the cars were “on their way to the [car] barns.”
The company confidently declared that it would operate the cars with office employees and street workers,” but those who tried it were withdrawn that evening. “This action,” reported the Atlanta Constitution on Sunday morning, “followed successful attempts on the part of a mob of boys and young men to cut the trolley ropes of the cars.” Undaunted, the company promised that “sufficient men to operate the entire system” would arrive on Monday (the 28th).
On Monday, however, the Asheville Gazette-News was less hopeful. Saturday night and Sunday had brought “scenes of disorder” among strike sympathizers, and no negotiations were under way despite talks between the union’s strike director George Keenan, Division 128 representatives and the mayor.
Adding to the tension, the Gazette-News continued, “a score” of strikebreakers had arrived from New Jersey on Sunday. Exiting quietly from the train in Biltmore, they seem to (accounts differ) have gotten into carriages and automobiles and headed toward the streetcar barn. Meanwhile, a quietly hostile crowd of 1000, many wearing”We Walk” buttons awaited them at the Asheville depot. When the train pulled into the depot minus the strikebreakers, the crowd piled into their own carriages and autos and headed uptown. They overtook the strikebreaker caravan on South Main Street, hooting, jeering and calling them “dirty scabs.” “It looked,” the Gazette-News continued, “as if a riot might be precipitated” if the imported men tried to take the streetcars out.
A full-scale confrontation took place at the Langren Hotel, where rooms had been booked.
Shouts of “Drag them out, the dirty scabs” welled up. Resisted by only a single police officer, the crowd surged to the top of hotel steps before other police arrived and shoved them back down. The mayor cautioned that he “would not be responsible” for what happened if the strikebreakers tried to operate the cars.
No doubt fearing bad press and reduced patronage for their spanking new hotel if an ugly event took place on its steps, the Langren’s managers gave notice “that the men [accompanied by a street railway official] would have to get out at once.” Their concern was understandable, given that the Langren had been open for less than a year, replacing the old Buck Hotel, built in 1825 as a drover’s inn. A modern fireproof structure built of reinforced concrete, the Langren catered to businessmen instead of the tourists who preferred the older Battery Park (1886).
Failing to find another hotel or boarding house that would take the men, the company tried to get cots for them, but failed at that, too. Company officials “came to a hasty conclusion,” observed the Gazette-News, “that it would be wise to send the men away.” They came out under police guard (one had been arrested for carrying a pistol inside the hotel) and boarded the 7:00 p.m. train. At the station, a few were reportedly “ill used” by some members of the crowd.
The strikers deplored the Langren confrontation, and renewed their call for an “orderly” process. But on Saturday night, a crowd of several hundred gathered at the Square, yanked a few trolley poles from wires, and milled around in a rather holiday mood. Police, sensing a “judicial calm,” took no action. A few uniformed “streetcar men” were spotted in the crowd, but they took no part. Whether Asbury was present, I do not know. His meticulously kept time books, which might shed light upon that question, are not available to me.
The next day (the 29th), the Constitution added that there were rumors that another “squad of sixty-six strike-breakers” were on their way from Salisbury, and that “a mob of three or four hundred men and boys quickly formed on Pack Square, many of them, it is reported, armed.”
Newspaper accounts do not make clear how many men (on either side) might have been armed, but an item among Asbury’s possessions suggests that at least he thought it wise
to arm himself. As previous posts indicate, he had long owned and used guns for hunting. But this time he bought a .38 Smith & Wesson pearl-handled revolver.
Manufacturing and patent data inscribed on the barrel show that it was manufactured at Smith & Wesson’s Springfield MA factory after September 14, 1909 (the last of three inscribed patent dates), nearly ten years after Asbury came to Asheville.
From the serial number (47XXX) and other design details I supplied, Smith & Wesson company historian Roy Jinks identified the gun as a .38 caliber S&W 5-shot, top-break, automatic eject, perfected-action pistol manufactured sometime in 1912-13–near the time of the strike. It seems reasonable to me to assume
(in the absence of a purchase receipt) that that was probably the moment when–and the strike the reason why–Asbury bought it.
In any case, gun violence apparently never erupted. After the Salisbury strikebreaker rumor proved false, the “mob” (as the newspapers called it) dispersed. The strikers petitioned city aldermen to decree that cars were not to be operated “by men not familiar with the streets of the city,” and asked again for arbitration.
By Wednesday (the 30th), the Gazette-News published Div. 128’s statement on “our side of the controversy.” It deprecated “any violence, injury, disorder, or bloodshed” and promised to accept “any fair plan of arbitration,” to continue to work as “peaceable and law-abiding citizens.” The statement included a table of wage ranges by years employed in cities less than or equal to the size of Asheville (between 17 and 42,000). Beginning wages were lowest in Elmira NY (17 cts/hr) and the highest maximum was in Butte MT (45 cts). Asheville Street Railway’s profits had risen steadily during the four years ending with 1912, the men pointed out, but the cost of living in Asheville had risen 40% during the past seven years, and wages were up only 1.5 cts/hr. The company said they couldn’t afford the requested increase, but their own North Carolina Corporation Commission report showed that to be false.
In what may have been an afternoon edition, the Gazette-News ran another long headline:
Details too extensive to repeat here followed: the company said it would send out four streetcars, and expected “no trouble” because the authorities will “have affairs well in hand” if a “lawless element” tries to start trouble. A citizen petition revealed “concern” about the situation, with scabs a central focus.
Just in case of trouble, the chief of police began “swearing in special officers.” Apprehension was widespread. An accompanying editorial asked rhetorically, “Why delay?” in settling the strike.
Why, indeed? The company’s bland assurances that, whatever ensued, they and the police could handle it rang hollow the next day when “the city is quiet” was superseded by “MOB VIOLENCE” in large type, followed by “No Signs of Disorder” in small type. Since the union was still on strike, the cars were operated by thirty scabs hauled up from Salisbury and moved into the city under police escort.
The article itself offered more evidence of the former than of the latter: angry crowds of 200-700 people (not a single striker among them) forming and re-forming around the city, bricks and stones through car barn windows, shots fired in the building, seven arrests, police “unable to clear the streets,” “special [citizen] officers” commissioned, rumors of large quantities of liquor shipped in, company officials declaring themselves “practically terrorized by young hoodlums,” but four scab-operated cars making runs for about eight hours (each protected by four to eight officers).
Meanwhile, as ten scab-operated cars rolled, Governor Locke Craig was on his way to Asheville, citizens were reluctant to be deputized, power transmission lines were attacked, and there was talk of calling out the militia.
On May 2, with the Governor in town accompanied by his Adjutant General, 1800 people gathered in the city auditorium to press for arbitration, which the union had been asking for since before the strike started. A resolution praised both the motormen and conductors (“the manhood of our native mountain country”) and the company (“a great pride of our city and country”), and proposed an arbitration plan. The Governor, for his part, sought a peaceful resolution and assured the crowd that the special officers (by then numbering above fifty) were able to handle the situation. Straddling the union/no union line, he asserted that the company was “free to operate those cars with any men it may choose,” but that “we do not want to give up our old motormen and conductors.” In the streets, word was that the scab-operated cars were carrying increasing numbers of passengers.
In a meeting that began that afternoon and ran into the late evening, the strike was settled. The union had asked for a minimum of 20 cents per hour for new men and 25 cents for the third and later years. The new rate was set at 19 cents (first year), 20 (second), 23 (third), and 25 (fourth and thereafter, and the cars rolled on their regular schedule the following morning. At these new rates, for a nine plus hour day, Asbury would have brought home just under $14.00 for a six-day week, and a new worker about $10.50.
Division 128’s president said that there never had been “the slightest ill will” between men and the company, and that every man pledged to give “the same unswerving loyalty, the same conscientiousness, and the same hard work” as always. A Citizen editorial praising the settlement said there was “glory enough for all” and “a spirit of optimism all over the city.” The whole process, they said, “augurs well for the continued prosperity of the city.”
That logic, while perhaps sound in the long run, did not hint that some businesses had endeavored to turn a profit out of the strike itself.
While the strike was still very much in progress and strike sympathizers were sporting “We Walk” buttons, the Racket Store appropriated “We Walk” for their shoe and clothing advertisement.
Meanwhile Bon Marché, a somewhat more upscale department store, tried it both ways: On May 1, while the strike was still going on, they ran an advertisement for “striking specials,” and the day after it ended they ran a follow-up ad that tapped into customers’ relief that it was over.
The Asheville Socialist Local had a very different take on the strike–“the first real strike in
the history of Asheville,” they called it in their weekly column in the Gazette-News on the day the strike was settled. “Under present conditions,” they said,
[any] corporation can ignore any demands made by its employees, however reasonable. If its employees strike, it can replace them with scabs, and in case of trouble, call to its aid every officer of the law in the city, every able-bodied man if necessary, and the national guard. The laws are made for the capitalists.
The workers’ demands were so modest, they continued, that they should have been granted immediately, and their behavior during the strike had turned out to be beyond reproach. “Municipal ownership of the street railway” in Asheville, in the Socialists’ view, “would have made the present strike impossible.”
Looking forward, they urged that Asheville establish an industrial school, provide free books and lunches to school children, supply “free water to all women who take in washing for a living,” establish a farmer’s market, buy back any public facilities it does not already own, and institute an eight-hour day and union wages for all city employees.
Asbury’s perspective fell somewhere between the Socialist one and the major newspapers’ “glory enough for all” euphoria. He had a wife and two children, so being out of work for a week was no small matter. But he was also a loyal union man, and the strike had raised his pay by about sixteen percent. When his third child was born about fourteen months later, he and Ella named him John Keenan. The line of John Whisnants reached back into the eighteenth century, but Keenan was new–bestowed in honor of George Keenan, Third Vice President of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America, who had come from his home Division 282 (Rochester NY) to direct the Asheville strike.
The Flood of 1916
As I noted at the beginning of this post, I have commented upon some aspects of the 1916 flood several times in earlier posts. I return to it here only to provide a few key details, and to sketch its impact upon the Whisnant family. Since their home at 44 South French Broad Avenue was situated about 200 feet above the river, the flood did not affect them in that way. The effects that touched them derived from Asbury’s employment with the street railway system, which was severely damaged.
As Forster Sondley pointed out in his 1922 history of Asheville and Buncombe County, there had been a few floods (“freshets,” as they were sometimes called early on) around the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers that bordered Asheville since the 1790s. In 1852, one had taken out bridges on these rivers and their tributaries, and there was a much larger one in 1876.
A U. S. Forest Service Report of 2008 presents illuminating data on rainfall at nearby western North Carolina locations fifteen years before the flood of 1916:
During August, 1901, the total rainfall for the month at Flat Rock was 30 inches; at Highlands, 30 inches; at Hendersonville, 26 inches; at Horse Cove, 26 inches; at Paterson, 24 inches, and at Marion, 21 inches.
The 1916 flood was far larger than any earlier one. Between July 11 and 16, two tropical hurricanes, a week of torrential rains (eight to eighteen inches in some WNC locations) on
already saturated ground drove the Swannanoa and French Broad rivers far above flood stage.
Farmers’ fields flooded. Upstream dams broke. Bridges and dams washed away, and landslides took out roads and railway lines.
Power stations were knocked out. Raging waters destroyed countless homes, as well as factories and businesses along the riverfront. Power and communications stayed out for days, and travel ranged from impossible to perilous. Dozens of people died, and there was massive economic loss.
Trolleys in the Land of the Sky sketches the impact of the flood upon the street railway. When the power went out, crews operating cars on the lower-elevation lines (in Biltmore, for example) had to abandon them wherever they stood.
The Southern Railway Depot on low-lying Depot Street flooded, and the Riverside Park-related street railway car barn located was swept down the river.
Social unrest deriving from the flood included looting, and resulted (according to Trolleys in the Land of the Sky) in the deputizing of some street railway conductors and motormen. Presumably Asbury Whisnant, as a sixteen-year veteran employee, was one of them. If so, his .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver probably was in his pocket holster. Lacking access to Asbury’s time books, I have no idea how many days of work he may have missed.
Fortunately the center of the city lay high above the river, but the industrial area along its banks was devastated, and remained so for years. The Riverside Park trolley line was abandoned, and the Montford Avenue line was cut short on the lower end.
Meanwhile, the ‘twenties boom that lay just around the bend acted as a new torrent that swept most memories of the flood away. It was, after all (it seems to have been generally agreed), an unforeseeable “act of God” that one could only accept and strive to move beyond.
Fortunately, Anthony Sadler’s forthcoming thesis will take a broader, more sophisticated and contextualized view of the flood. the climatological history of the Appalachian region; Asheville as a modern urban-industrial city with connections to the global economy, rather than as an “isolated,” picturesque and magical “Land of the Sky”; race and gender dynamics within the flood relief committees; the martial law situation after the flood hit, and resulting shifts in the local economy.
The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1920
Googling influenza produces 49.9 million results. The 1918-1920 Spanish flu pandemic sickened between 20 and 40 percent of the world’s entire population. Recent estimates (higher than earlier ones) are that perhaps 50 to 100 million people died (675,000 of them in the U.S.).
An excellent portal for the pandemic is flu.gov and its United States and North Carolina subsections, all of which contain extensive resource links. Here I am concerned with Asheville’s encounter with the pandemic.
The Pandemic in Asheville
Asheville recorded its first influenza case on September 28, 1918. It raged through the city, and conditions did not return to normal until February 7, 1919. Two months later, city Health officer C. V. Reynolds reflected in a succinct report that although city officials and medical personnel were
aware that there had been outbreaks in 1833, 1836, 1847, and 1889, and had been “forewarned” of this “fast approaching epidemic . . . [that] was assuming vast proportions, coming to us as fast as travel could bring it,” they could do no more than “stand immobilized . . . awaiting our fate in almost utter helplessness.
On October 3, newspapers reported that the pandemic had spread to forty-three states.
The flu.gov site for North Carolina says that from late September until early November 1918, Raleigh, Wilmington, and Fayetteville reported serious outbreaks, and state officials urged localities throughout the state to ban public meetings and close schools.
By October 8 (a little more than a week after the first Asheville case appeared), health officer Reynolds recalled, there were 115 new cases per day. Handbills went out to every house and business in the city. Officials considered a quarantine, but thought it could provide only “a false idea of protection.” Headquarters for a relief committee were set up in City Hall, and two hospitals (one for whites, one for “colored”) were opened, as was an emergency kitchen.
Textile towns across the state–where diet and health were not good and working in cotton lint-laden air compromised pulmonary function (byssinosis)–were especially hard hit. A nurse who visited Cramerton (1906; between Charlotte and Gastonia) reported that the influenza wave
struck suddenly, spent itself quickly in a burning three-day fever, often leaving its victim dead. The people lost faith in the remedies they had relied on all their lives, and they became frantic. Some of them locked themselves in their house, and refused to open the door for anyone. . . . Merchants nailed bars across their doors, and served the customers one-at-a-time at the doorway. We found whole families stricken, with none able to help the others.
Everywhere, the list of closings lengthened: churches, social functions, soda fountains, stores, tobacco warehouses–virtually all public gatherings. Temporary hospitals opened wherever there was space.
Treatments amounted to rudimentary home- or patent-remedy guesswork: alcohol (of the drinking variety), calomel (a chloride of mercury, long used as a laxative, disinfectant and treatment for syphilis), sulphur in your shoes, and chicken soup. Patent medicine advertisements tended to claim that–the best potion, pill or nostrum in hand, influenza could be headed off or cured.
Thomas N. Kenyon, purveyor of Klondon’s Catarrhal Jelly, promised to “make it easy for folks to get this relief,” offering a money-back guarantee on a thirty-cent tube.
Another newspaper ad reminded people that “a six-foot column of Good, Pure Asheville Air” made Goode & Barbee’s Pharmacy “the most thoroughly ventilated drug store in the south.”
The Bootery advised patrons that “Catching cold by wearing worn out shoes causes much of the sickness we are having here now,” and admonished them that its “good leather” shoes and boots would reduce risk:
And as always, patent medicine magnate E. W. Grove, who had made his fortune on Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic (it wasn’t tasteless, users agreed, but the sugar and lemon syrup helped), had his eye on the main (influenza-delivered) chance.
Grove moved to Asheville in 1900, and five years before the influenza arrived had opened his grand rockpile-esque Grove Park Inn.
This time he pushed another profitable item in his product line, Bromo-Quinine (“Used by every Civilized Nation”):
The influenza wave crested (no credit to the potions, pills and nostrums) on October 19th with 212 cases, falling to 77 cases a week later and to eleven on November 11–the day of the World War I armistice. Despite official warnings against public celebrations, they occurred anyway, spiking cases to 55 three days later. Case numbers fell slightly thereafter, but Christmas shopping crowds spiked them again to 35 per day, and New Year’s revelry drove them back up to 30.
By February 7, 1919, city health officer Reynolds reported, conditions were normal again. There had been 4,774 cases (3,888 among whites and 886 among blacks). Out of 30,000 Asheville residents, about 16% had been stricken and 101 (3.3%) had died (87 whites and 14 blacks).
One of those who died was Thomas Wolfe’s brother Ben. Wolfe’s dramatic and many times commented upon account of Ben’s death appeared in chapter 35 of his novel Look Homeward, Angel (1929). Interested readers may consult Charles De Paolo’s Pandemic Influenza in Fiction (2014), which has a nice précis of Wolfe’s treatment of Ben’s death.
What I have to add here (having no idea whether it has ever been reproduced elsewhere) is the October 20, 1918 Asheville Citizen-Times article on Ben’s death at age twenty-six from post-influenza pneumonia. “An Asheville boy who made good in newspaper circles,” they called him. Just out of high school, “cheerful and even-tempered” Ben took a job in the Citizen‘s business department. He later moved to the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, and then back to Asheville when the war began, hoping to overcome a physical disability and be able to enlist. Within a few weeks he came down with influenza, and then only days later with deadly pneumonia. Because the health department would not allow indoor funerals, Ben was buried in an open-air service at Riverside Cemetery. His adoring younger brother Tom was a student at UNC Chapel Hill.
Influenza in the Whisnant Family, and “The Other Room”
The influenza hit the Whisnant family hard when their four year-old son John (my father) came down with it. For days–which he spent mostly isolated in a seldom-used room, they didn’t know whether he would live or die.
The trauma of that experience, I have long thought (but of course cannot prove), wounded him psychically in permanent ways. When I interviewed him in 1986 (at age 72), it was clear that a particularly salient part of his then sixty-seven plus year-old memories was of lying in a bed behind a closed room door, listening to his parents whisper with the doctor about his possibly fatal condition.
That closed door, he told me, led to “what we called the other room.”
[It was] really surprising [that we had it], because we needed the room, but it was kept for company’s sake, you might say. . . . [Daddy’s] brothers would come; [Mother’s] sisters came on a few occasions. Mother’s niece, Ella Austin came to Asheville to work on the telephone switchboard. . . . And she had that room. And then her sister was there, Kate. . . . [S]eems to me like it was 2-3 years . . . a long time. . . . Otherwise, it wasn’t used. The shades weren’t even pulled up.
His sisters added that the family didn’t want to entertain or have company
in the bedroom in which we lived and slept. [So it] was more of a living room / bedroom combination–the parlor bedroom, they called it. We had a beautiful velvet tuft couch in there. One of those old fashioned ones, you don’t see them now. But a beautiful thing, sat under the window.
To this description my father then added a crucial detail: “I remember when anybody was sick, . . . they always put them in the other room.” So he was put there. And within a few days, as it frequently did, influenza progressed to pneumonia.
Still struggling after many years to understand why Asbury and Ella decided to put their four year-old into the “other room” / “parlor bedroom,” Bertha said
I don’t know whether it was where they could care for him better, or whether they separated him from the rest of us because it was pneumonia. And it seems to me like they got some help to come; seems like there was a nurse. I’m almost sure they did–a nurse who came in, and helped take care of him.
I remember a white uniform, and I remember her getting down on her hands and knees and scrubbing the hearth and building a fire in the fireplace. How long she stayed, I don’t know. But I can see her today just as good as I could see her that day. There was grave concern as to whether he would, you know, live or die.
And how did the he feel about being in there? To him “the other room” conveyed resonances of isolation (from the family), of despair and terror (that he was dying), of being quarantined as a mortal danger to others around him, of guilt (that he was “causing” the family this trouble), and of fear (that these resonances added up somehow to his not being loved or protected any more).
Not all of this was exaggerated, by any means. Both of the other children had influenza as well, Bertha recalled, and health officials were warning against any association with influenza victims. And her brother John was “very, very ill.” “I just don’t know,” she said,
how long he was in there sick–whether that was two or three weeks, or four weeks, or what, that that sickness lasted. But it was a very severe time throughout the country for a lot of families.
Azile added other ominous details:
His temperature went up to 104, over 104, and he was black–his lips were black, his tongue was black. And they had called the doctor back, and he said that John was bad off. I don’t know what they did for him, but I suppose they did things to try to bring the temperature down with water.
They were also using mustard plasters (either homemade or from the pharmacy), Azile recalled. What were those supposed to do, I asked her.
Well, they draw the circulation to your chest area, and they would relax the constriction and the swelling from the hard breathing and the mucus, and bring about a measure of healing. That was part of the treatment–a real big thick, juicy mustard plaster. And it done good.
For the time, Azile was correct: mustard plasters had been used for centuries as a natural way of generating heat (much as heating pads do now) to treat chest congestion and other conditions.
But the situation was beyond mustard plasters. There was, Bertha recalled,
a sense of, I’d guess you’d call it foreboding, in the house. You could feel it, and my mother had brought some chicken soup to my bed, and was feeding me, because I was sick, too.
And I remember she stood there, and the tears were just rolling down her cheeks. And I asked her what was the matter, and she said John was so sick. And it frightened me. And I don’t know how long that particular crisis lasted, but it seemed like he just hovered between life and death there for maybe it was two days, or three days.
But then his temperature did break one afternoon, Azile said, “and he began to pull out of it.” “You could feel the difference in the atmosphere,” Bertha added.
Then one morning I remember my mother saying “John’s better.”
But he had been sick so long, Azile added,
that it took a little while, a week or two, to get back on his feet. I remember they were afraid he would have to learn to walk again.
But walk again he did, and he lived for seventy-five years after that.
The (Possibly) Lifelong Fallout
These days, one might call what came out of this four year-old’s disorienting and terrifying experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Mayo Clinic’s list of causes includes going through “an event of actual or threatened death.” The probability of developing PTSD may be affected by inherited mental health risks, temperament, or brain chemistry. Symptoms may include distressing memories of the event, emotional distress or physical reactions to reminders of the event, avoidances, and cognitive and mood impacts.
Diagnosis at a distance of a century is of course impossible given the fragmentary (and second- or third-hand) evidence. But the object here is not diagnosis, but rather to understand some lifelong behaviors one of whose generative life experiences might plausibly have been this near-death experience.
My father was a very intelligent, physically strong, hard-working, productive, creative, inventive and in many ways loving man. The good things I saw in him, learned from him, and carry within myself are many and profound. In later posts, I will comment more upon them.
But here I am concerned with the (what at least seems to me likely) fallout from his days lying in “the other room,” hearing others whisper outside the door that he “might not make it.” The fear that Bertha recalled within herself was no doubt far less than the four year-old felt behind the door.
The nub of it was that–at least as I observed (he was in his mid-twenties when I was born)–in later life my father (and his sister Bertha as well) suffered from chronic pulmonary impairment (asthma) as well as a diffuse and ever-shifting array of other bodily symptoms that manifested as persistent hypochondria.
He was hardly ever (at least for long) asymptomatic. Time and again, year after year, he doctor-shopped as symptoms migrated through various body parts and systems, or as he found a doctor more likely to write prescriptions. Consequently, he took an amazing array of prescription medications–refilling every one he could, as many times as possible.
A favorite was the bronchodilator epinephrine (a.k.a., adrenaline) by spray and injection. He walked the floors (thermometer frequently in mouth), moaned, and issued countless melodramatic requests for aid. On into the 1950s, my mother made, and slid into the oven to pre-heat, countless mustard plasters (still available at Amazon; a Garrison Keillor monologue on them here; plenty of DIY instructions online).
In any case, how–and how much–did it matter whether he was hypochondriacal or not? His suffering, exaggerated or not, was real to him as he experienced it. In a later era, he might have been given an anti-anxiety medication, but at
the time his options were limited. Personally, I just hated to see him so negatively affected, cycling through it again and again, spending so much time and energy trying to deal with it, or find reliable relief from it. For my mother, it meant caring for him like the former nurse his mother (and the hired one who floated noiselessly around “the other room”) had done.
Meanwhile, his family responsibilities, his work, his interest and involvement in so many things, demanded that he push on, regardless.
Asheville Board of Aldermen, “Ordinance Granting the [Authority?] to the Asheville Street Railway Company” (November 1, 1886), Pack Memorial Public Library; Asheville Gazette-News (April 26-May3, 1913); Asheville Board of Aldermen, Asheville, North Carolina: America’s Beauty Spot in the Land of the Sky (1912); Atlanta Constitution (April-May 1913); David C. Bailey, Joseph M. Canfield, Harold E. Cox, Trolleys in the Land of the Sky: Street Railways of Asheville, N.C. and Vicinity (2000); Baltimore Sun (April-May 1913); John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (2004); flu.gov, Pandemic Flu History”; Charles De Paolo, Pandemic Influenza in Fiction (2014) Neufeld, Portrait of the Past: Asheville’s Langren Hotel, Asheville Citizen-Times June 19, 2014; Street Railway Journal (1884-1908); Motorman and Conductor; NCpedia, “North Carolina and Influenza“; PBS/American Experience, The Forgotten Plague; C. V. Reynolds, “Influenza Experience Gained from Epidemic in Asheville” (April 1919); DePaul Sadler, “River of Sorrow in the Land of the Sky: Flood in Asheville, 1916” paper presented to the Society of Appalachian Historians (2015); Estelle M. Stewart (ed.), Handbook of American Trade-Unions (1936); Walter R. Turner, Development of Streetcar Systems in North Carolina [2002?]; David E. Whisnant, Recorded interviews with Azile Boone, Bertha Whisnant, and John K. Whisnant, 1984-1986; Wikipedia, “Influenza Pandemic.”