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West Virginia

State officials in West Charleston first reported the presence of the disease on September 27th. A week later, ninety-four cases and two deaths were officially reported; the actual number of cases and deaths was probably much higher. By the second week of October, the epidemic had peaked, with the highest number of cases being reported.

Black and white image of nine children ranging in age from about 1 to 16 years leaning against the side of a building, some carrying school books.
1921. The Mullens children (and some neighbors) ready for school in Charleston, West Virginia. At the height of the pandemic authorities closed schools and other public gathering places to limit the spread of the disease. [Credit: The Library of Congress]

In Berkeley County, even the fate of criminals was altered by the pandemic. James Horvatt who was alleged to have forged a forty dollar check was brought to trial before the county court on September 27th, just as influenza was entering the state. While in jail awaiting trial, Horvatt had contracted influenza from a fellow prisoner, Robert Smith. On the day Horvatt was brought to trial, Smith died from influenza. Horvatt himself was very ill from the disease. However, when offered a continuance, he refused to take it. Instead, Horvatt went to trial and the disease spread among those who were in the courtroom that day. Three lawyers who engaged in proceedings that day contracted influenza and died three days after Horvatt's trial was concluded. Three more people, the judge, the county clerk and the assistant prosecuting attorney in the Horvatt case, along with their immediate families all conctracted the disease and came close to death. In reaction, the local paper in Martinsburg published some advice on how to deal with influenza: "Don't Worry, Stop Talking about it, Stop Thinking about it, Avoid People who have it."

Black and white image of a group of men and boys, some carrying buckets, waiting outside of a building for rations to be distributed.
c1920. Striking miners drawing rations, West Virginia. Coal mining regions of the state were especially hard hit by the pandemic. [Credit: The Library of Congress]

From Leon, H.W. Greenlee wrote to his son who was serving in France, "there is so much influenza that we get uneasy about it when any one feels a little bad."

West Virginia University was closed during the epidemic and a fraternity house on campus was turned into an emergency hospital. In Morgantown, theaters and churches were closed and public meetings banned.

At the West Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Romney, about two hundred pupils and employees were stricken. The school hospital and dormitories were filled with the sick. Several nurses became ill and were admitted to the hospital as patients. Teachers and local residents stepped in and served as nurses, caring for influenza patients. Later, two Red Cross nurses came from Parkersburg to assist in the crisis.

The disease hit coal mining areas harder than other regions. By October, so many West Virginians were either ill themselves or caring for those suffering from inluenza that a local committee estimated that only 20% of people were able to attend to their normal duties. Only two mail carriers, for example, were available in Martinsburg. Grave diggers there also found themselves overwhelmed. For several weeks, the diggers found themselves facing a backlog of at least two dozen graves which needed to be dug each day.

Governor Cornwell asked for assistance from the Public Health Service and four medical interns were sent from the University of Maryland. Despite this help, most West Virginians had no contact with trained health practitioners during the pandemic.

Home remedies were widespread. Alcohol, onion plasters, the eating of raw onions, and even drinking hot lemonade to induce perspiration were recommended. None of these treatments were effective.

The disease peaked in the state during the fall. It remained prevalent, however, throughout the state during the winter and spring of 1919.

A year after the pandemic had ended, memories and concerns about another flu outbreak lingered. In a dramatic shift from previous years, any and all suspected cases of influenza were immediately reported to the authorities. When an outbreak occurred in Pruntytown, the state health commissioner, S.L. Jepson, wrote to the Surgeon General, saying "I think it proper to inform you that I have just had a report from the Superintendent of a State Reform School for Boys located at Pruntytown." The Superintendent stated that he had over a hundred cases of influenza among the boys in the institution. Jepson added, that "three or four of these cases the report states are complicated with pneumonia, but all the cases are doing well and the prospect is that there will be no mortality. this is the first local outbreak of influenza that has been reported in the State and we have had good reason to believe that the State would escape an invasion of the disease this winter. However, this report leads me to think that the danger period is not yet passed." Jepson's concerns were not warranted as the influenza season of 1919-1920 was less severe than that of 1918-1919.

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