It’s Been Awhile (Time Flies)

It’s been a busy year which means I have found myself “behind schedule” a LOT, blog posts included.  So, here’s a synopsis of what I’ve been up to, especially writing-wise.  Given my busy schedule, my new motto is “Better Late Than Half-Baked”.

I started off 2021 with what I thought would begin perhaps a two-issue series entitled, “From Whence We Came:  Appalachia”.  Little did I know what was in store.  It was an ambitious project and, as it turns out, couldn’t be accomplished in two issues.  I just finished the FOURTH (and final!) issue of this interesting and informative series.  Here’s a synopsis of each issue’s highlights and a link to purchase or subscribe:

  • Part 1:  This issue featured a cover depicting Daniel Boone leading settlers over the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky.  This issue featured a “Mining Genealogical Gold” column which highlighted the history and resources for finding ancestors who settled in the Appalachian regions of Kentucky, Tennessee, North and South Carolina.  “Hurrah for the Ladies:  The Confederate Women of East Tennessee” was a fascinating article to research and write.  East Tennessee was a unique place to be during the Civil War — more voted against secession than voting for it, and after the Union Army took over early in the war, it made for an interesting way of life for “the other side”, in particular the Confederate-sympathizing women.  The issue included book reviews and a fascinating “Family History Toolbox”.  The issue wrapped up with a genealogical mystery — just how old was John Shell.  Everyone knew when he died, but when exactly was he born?  January-February 2021 issue available here.
  • Part 2:  This issue featured a “Mining Genealogical Gold” column which highlighted the history and resources for finding ancestors who settled in the Appalachian region of Virginia and West Virginia (which lies entirely in Appalachia).  Also included were a couple of articles which featured a bit of Kentucky history — one from the early twentieth century (“Moonlight School:  Teaching ABC’s to Mountain Moonshiners”) and another from the Depression area (“Book Lady, we’ve been waiting for you!”).  I have been wanting to write an article on the so-called Melungeons for some time and I finally got around to it — “Melungeons: a very strange people (who made moonshine whiskey)”.  A great story about a much maligned and misunderstood people.  March-April 2021 issue available here.
  • Part 3:  This issue featured a “Mining Genealogical Gold” column which highlighted the history and resources for finding ancestors who settled in the Appalachian region of Georgia and Alabama.  This one was of particular interest to me since I have ancestors who settled in this part of Alabama.  This issue also featured yet another article I’ve been meaning to write for some time.  This one, set in the Depression era, is entitled “Moving Mattie”.  It’s the story of one woman’s defiance when Franklin Roosevelt and one of his many “alphabet soup” agencies decided to flood the land she and and family lived on.  After coming across the records documenting her scrap with the government some time ago, I knew I had to write about Mattie Randolph’s plight.  May-June 2021 issue available here.
  • Part 4 (The End!):  This issue was a wrap-up of the series and featured three extensive articles which I wasn’t able to squeeze in earlier.  Another “Appalachian Way” article features everything from folk medicine, folk magic and granny witches to snake handlers and child brides.  A second article — “Appalachian Feuds (between people not named Hatfield or McCoy)” — features two long and bloody Kentucky feuds.  An article entitled “Oh, The Stories I Find!” features what I call a “December-May” marriage which began making headlines in 1946.  What a character was Mattie Lyons Large Sprouse!  July-August 2021 issue available here.

I have a special offer with these four extensive Appalachian issues.  Subscribe before the next issue comes out (October 31) and you’ll get all four issues.  Subscription options are available to fit any budget:  Need help subscribing?  Contact me for assistance:

Looking Ahead

The next two issues are shaping up.  The September-October issue will be another “Un-Shelved” issue, similar to a couple of 2020 issues when I featured a number of articles that were previously “shelved” because I couldn’t squeeze them in (or I was too far behind schedule!).  Plans are to include an article from last year’s two-issue New Mexico series, entitled “Tales From the Bootheel and Beyond:  The Ghost Towns and Storied History of Southwestern New Mexico”.  An “OK, I Give Up… what is it?” column will feature some obsolete terminology I’ve come across in researching family history.  Should be a fascinating article!

The last issue of 2021 will be an ambitious one covering what became known as “Manifest Destiny”, a phrase coined by John O’Sullivan and executed by President James K. Polk (and beyond).  Some historians view it as a way for 1840s-era Democrats to justify the Mexican-American War.  That war was in fact central to the whole concept of Manifest Destiny and this issue will also feature an article about finding resources for Mexican-American War ancestors.

All of which means I will be busy from now until the end of the year with not only writing but genealogical research for clients.  Say a prayer for me!

Sharon Hall, Publisher & Editor, Digging History Magazine

About those courthouse fires . . .

The bane (one of many, I might add) of genealogists everywhere is the brick wall known as the “courthouse fire destroyed my ancestor’s (whatever) record”.  While many of these fires occurred during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I was reminded again after seeing a headline this morning about a fire at a historic court house in Mason County, Texas.  While today the county’s records are stored “off-site”, it is a reminder that sometimes we have to find other ways to find the records we need.  No doubt, many fires were nefariously set by arsonists in days gone by.

Last year the first issue of 2020 (2020 being a census year) highlighted the census.  It was a massive issue filled with not only what you’ll find in census records dating back to 1790, but the stories behind them.  Here’s the Jan-Feb 2020 Table of Contents.  As you can see it contains other stories of interest to both lovers of history and genealogy.  Besides the articles related to the census, my favorite one of this issue was “OK, I give up . . . what is it?  Did My Ancestors Ever Violate Intercourse(!) Laws?”.  Purchase the January-February 2020 issue in the magazine store or better yet become a subscriber!

FYI, there is a great promotion currently running for subscriptions and a chance to win you very own custom-designed family history chart (worth up to $350).  Magazine samples are available for free if you’d like to review first.  The current promotion ends on Valentine’s Day, February 14, so the clock is ticking!

Have a great day . . , someday it will be history!

Family History: How Much is it Worth to Preserve it?

I wear many hats — publishing (writing, editing and graphic design) Digging History Magazine, researching family history for clients (and myself!) and helping clients preserve their research by creating custom-designed family history charts.

When I display my charts at conferences (or share this link:, people are awed at how stunning they look.  Then, they want to know how much it costs to have their very own chart designed.  They really want it, but like most anything related to dedicated genealogical research, it costs something.

I always have a hard time answering that question.  I don’t mean to waffle — it’s just that the cost is dependent on how much history is being documented (I charge by the hour).  Another factor — I always start with the same blank “canvas”, but each chart is unique by design because each client’s family history is different.  I absolutely LOVE doing these charts!  I learn a lot of history, sometimes picking up stories I might tell in the pages of Digging History Magazine someday.  I wish I could do them for free, but a girl’s gotta eat and pay bills!

That being said, prices normally range anywhere from $300 to $350, with some going a bit over due to content and/or extra research required to ensure dates, names, etc. are accurate.  Most charts depict at least 6 or 7 generations, while in some cases I can depict as many as 9 generations (includes children, grandchildren and maybe grandchildren).  Just so you know — not everyone fills up each and every box on their chart.  It still makes a stunning chart, and if you later discover who your third great grandmother was, we can update and reprint.

Like I said, I wish I could do them for free, but that’s neither wise nor feasible.   If you really, really want a chart, however, we can always budget it out with an automatic monthly payment until the project is complete.  You choose the amount and time table.


You can check out this special promotion which ends on February 14 — a chance to win your very own custom-designed family history chart:

I hope you’ll check out the Special Promotion (hurry  …. it won’t be long until it expires!).  If you have questions, please feel free to contact me at

Sharon Hall, Publisher & Editor, Digging History Magazine


Digging History Magazine – September-October 2020 Issue

The latest issue of Digging History Magazine features Part II of a series of articles on one of my favorite places:  New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.  Although I originally planned one big issue, time got away from me, and thus the two-part series.

This issue includes extensively-researched articles, including an update of one of the first “Tombstone Tuesday” blog articles:

When conducting genealogical research it’s beneficial to know just where our ancestors settled, but why. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, many came for their health.

It was a dreadful, wasting disease – afflicting young and old, rich and poor. Sometimes called “the great white plague”, it was more commonly referred to as “consumption” or by its scientific name, “tuberculosis”, coined in 1834 by Johann Schonlein. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries New Mexico would become the place where consumptives, or “lungers” as they were colloquially called, came to “chase the cure” for this then-incurable disease.

One of the best aspects of publishing entire issues which focus on a single state is finding the stories, pictures and records which tell the real story. Last year I learned so much about the great states of Colorado and Kansas by digging around for some unique records, like the Colorado State Hospital records which told the stories of hundreds of people through newspaper snippets, or the Kansas Registration Affidavits of Alien Enemies obtained at the height of World War I.

As genealogists it’s important to find records, but don’t forget the stories you might uncover! I hope the resources highlighted in this article will inspire you to explore New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment. I’ll start with the most common records genealogists tend to begin their search.

You might have noticed that I like to choose alliterative titles for my articles. The premise of this article began late last year when I received an email regarding a blog article I published in May 2014. It is one of the most commented-on articles at the blog – some visitors thanking me for the article and a few who wanted to “put in their two cents worth”. Family feuds are like that. Everyone has their own opinion about which side was right and which was wrong.

In this case it was known as the Spikes-Gholson feud. While the feud started years before in East Texas, it was later carried forward to West Texas and then into what would one day be Quay County, New Mexico. The email’s author, Kate, had come across the article and was intrigued because it mentioned an ancestor – a missing one. Henry Hawkins was the ringleader of a gang of bandits known as the “Mesa Hawks” and he was likely acquainted with the Spikes family.

Not only is this article an overview of the early days of Quay County, New Mexico, it’s what I like to call (genealogically speaking) an “adventure in research”.

This updated article was first published on November 5, 2013 as one of the early “Tombstone Tuesday” posts at the Digging History blog. The column would become my favorite each week to research and write. However, since then I’ve honed my research skills considerably and have access to newspaper archives unavailable to me at the time. It was an article left dangling with no information as to how Adolphus E. Sipe had died since there was only a 1909 date. In addition, some of the information provided at Find-A-Grave has since been removed. An update, with additional research and local history, is definitely in order – I actually missed quite a bit of this family’s history (gave up?). Text highlighted in blue indicates mistaken assumptions from the original article, followed by the result of new research.

Plus, “Essential Tools for the Successful Family History Researcher” and “May I Recommend” (book reviews). This issue is on sale here:

A subscription is always the best deal with three budget-minded options:

Upcoming Issue:  The last issue of 2020 will feature the Spanish-American War — stories, book reviews, tips for finding records, and more!


Digging History Magazine – July-August 2020 Issue

The latest issue of Digging History Magazine features Part I of a series of articles on one of my favorite places:  New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.  Although I originally planned one big issue, time got away from me and Part II will be featured in the upcoming September-October issue.

This issue includes two extensively-researched articles and an update of one of the most popular “Tombstone Tuesday” blog articles:

I have only traveled through Colfax County on my way to Colorado or heading south to Albuquerque, usually stopping in Raton, the county seat. As you’ll see there’s so much more to Colfax County – its storied history and more than a few ghost towns. One of these days I want to go and really explore!

There really isn’t any way to write about New Mexico history without including one of the ways people made their way to the state. “Coming to New Mexico The Fred Harvey Way” is both a history of the iconic Harvey Houses and Harvey Girls, but also contains a generous dollop of New Mexico history made in the railroad towns across the state.

This article was featured several years ago in a “Tombstone Tuesday” article. Since then several comments have been made by Corn family members and descendants. This article will refresh the original with more information about Corn family origins.

Also included in this issue:  New Mexico history book reviews and Family History Tool Box:  Essential Tools for the Successful Family Researcher.

Exciting News!

Digging History is now offering a special benefit for one-year recurring Digging History Magazine subscribers.  It’s called “BOG20” — buy a one-year recurring subscription and receive 20% off a custom-designed family history chart (no expiration — whenever you’re ready as long as you’re still a subscriber).  Purchase an annual recurring subscription here and receive the latest issue:

Please let me know if you have questions or need assistance signing up for a subscription:  Thanks for stopping by!


Digging History Magazine: May-June 2020

This issue of Digging History Magazine is themed (again) as “Un-Shelved”, stories which, for one reason or another, were pushed back from their original planned publication.  Included in this issue are three articles which have been extensively researched (in addition to regular columns (May I Recommend and Essential Tools for the Successful Family Researcher).  The first two articles are geared toward both genealogy and history — the twisted kind:

Untangling the Web of Twisted History:  Family Stories, Inheritance Scams and Internet Speculation:  One of my favorite maxims – “genealogy is not for the faint of heart” – is the underlying premise of this article (actually, pretty much the entire issue!), a collection of challenges I’ve run across in my “research adventures” in pursuit of my own family history or that of my clients. Genealogy is fraught with challenges and the all-too-often need to untangle twisted history, but untangle I must (or at least try!) – whether it’s a client with family lore they wish to prove (or disprove) to scaling brick walls built on years of misleading information via either genealogical fraud, inheritance scams or Internet speculation.

Don’t Be Hornswoggled!  Although no one seems to know the origin of the word, we hope most people know when they’ve been “hornswoggled”. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case in the age of modern genealogical research. It just isn’t the spread of Internet speculation, however. Some of the most dubious “documentation” comes from long-ago published (purported) works of history.

Not long after the “Buchanan Bubble” burst, a controversy arose following the publication of a distinguished-sounding historical work known as The Horn Papers. Almost anyone who saw the substantial three volumes entitled The Horn Papers: Early Westward Movement on the Monongahela and Upper Ohio, 1765-1795 lying on a library table probably accepted them as an unusually impressive collection of data on local history. The respectable bulk of the books the discreet gold lettering of the title on the back cover, given no hint of the furor excited by their publication. Everything about their external appearance is reassuringly undramatic.

Genealogists have, for better or worse, come to depend on these types of books as sources – perhaps not “gospel” but a source nonetheless.  Caveat Investigator.

American Self-Portrait: The Federal Writers’ Project:  When President Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1932 America’s social and economic structures were teetering on the brink of collapse. No one would dispute something drastic had to be done in order to pull the country out of the Great Depression. Whether or not some of his programs actually made a difference in the long run is still debated to this day. There are those who believe some of his programs unnecessarily drew out the process of recovery. However, one program certainly had an impact which still resonates today, especially for historians and genealogists.

The term “self-portrait” often evokes crude images of a self-sketched personage. It might not be pretty, but it’s how we see ourselves. It is what it is – and so it was with one very important Work Progress Administration (WPA) project conducted in Depression-era America. Since most of Roosevelt’s program were known by an alphabet soup of acronyms, let’s use “FWP” for The Federal Writers’ Project. Collections such as this one are a perfect example of how history and genealogy intersect – know your history, know (more about) your ancestors.

This issue is available in the magazine store as a single-issue purchase:


Available as your first issue when you sign up for a subscription (choose the option which best fits your budget):

Since it’s the census . . .

While many Americans are focused on COVID-19 and preventing its spread, it’s important to remember this is also a census year.  By now most of us have received mail and email notices about the opportunity to complete the short questionnaire online.  If you can do so, please fill it out — it’s important, as have been all the censuses taken since 1790.

The current issue of Digging History Magazine is themed “Since it’s the census” with articles and anecdotal stories from the current publicly available censuses (1790-1940).  You might think these stories about a bunch of tick marks and statistics would be rather dry . . . and you would be wrong!  This issue of over 140 pages is packed with stories like these three from the 1930 census (God Bless the census takers!):

Farm Lands for Over Mile and Half Covered With Black Crude Oil

Those who plumb the earth for wealth of oil and gas fled from their riches here today when a giant and unconquered gusher imperiled lives and property, belching inflammable oil and gas for miles around.

A small army of oil workers, farmers, and nearby residents evacuated the area like refugees fleeing ravages of war.
Oil and gas, spewed by the gusher over and above every living thing, overwhelmed the section.
Guards and details of workmen, risking their lives against even the striking of a match in the danger zone, fought to prevent what could be disaster.

Oil was thrown like a dark waterspout high into the air. It fell in black blotches or in a malignant, smelly spray for miles around.

Cheers of suddenly enriched men became warning shouts of peril. . .

Since it happened on April 1, would their newfound wealth be enumerated? Perhaps not, as “one hundred wells, representing uncounted wealth, were halted in their wealth getting while men stood aghast by the thought of peril.”87
God bless census takers! They never knew what knocking on someone’s door would bring, especially (among other trying enumerator experiences) that of a Yiddish-speaking immigrant in Brooklyn :

The life of a census enumerator could hardly be termed a bed of roses. If you think it fun to pry into the secret lives of your neighbors around the corner, to find out when papa last worked and how old mama is, harken to the trials of an average census enumerator who stepped blithely forth at 10 o’clock this morning, to begin the big task of counting Uncle Sam’s children. . .

Enumerator Flees

With her big yellow folder under her arm, Mrs. Hewitt set forth in the early morning breezes to canvass her route in the upper Bedford section. The first number on her list was the flat over a corner store, the family on the first floor was not at home. The mother and two little girls came out on the second floor landing. The mother spoke no English, but she fell on the neck of the census enumerator. She mumbled something to one of the little girls in Jewish. The child invited us in.
The door was opened and we were already inside before we noticed the big sign on the door, announcing in bright red letters that there is scarlet fever in the house.

“I have children of my own, I’d better come back next week,” called the census enumerator, as she hurried downstairs.
“Aren’t you going to take the sign off the door, so we can go out to play,” one of the little girls begged, tears running down her dark cheeks.

The little family had mistaken the census enumerator for the Health Department nurse. . .

The 1930 census was taken after the October 1929 stock market crash.  Stories from this census are heart-wrenching, perhaps not unlike what some of our fellow citizens might be facing today:

No Work for Six Months

In another house in the same row, there was a Jewish family of five where no one had worked in six months. The father, who fortunately owned the house, was a carpenter by trade and he had not had a job in a year. His daughter, a girl of 29 and a widow since she was 22, had been laid off by a Fulton street department store, where she was a salesgirl, six months ago. The son, who followed his father’s trade, could not get any work either.

Both children were born in Glasgow, Scotland, where their parents had gone from Poland and remained for three years, saving for enough money to come to the Promised Land. . .

Just a small sampling of stories extracted from census records (with, I might add, a tremendous amount of research to bring the stories to readers).  Another extensive article is dedicated to the 1880 census, one which genealogists refer to as a “mother lode”…. oh, the stories I found from this important census!

The January-February issue is on sale in the magazine store (click the link).  Subscriptions are the best way to ensure you don’t miss an issue and I offer three budget-minded options (recurring until you let me know you’d like to cancel):  3-month, 6-month and one-year.  A new “trial” subscription, a non-recurring one is now available here.  Give it a try for a year and I’ll send you a  no obligation offer to become a regular, recurring subscriber in one year.  As a bonus, the trial subscription offers the opportunity for you to choose two issues from the archives.  That’s 8 issues for the very special price of $24.

Have questions?  Contact me directly:  For information on the 2020 census, complete with operational updates:

Be safe and well,

Sharon Hall, Editor/Publisher/Writer/Research/Graphic Designer of Digging History Magazine

Ways to Go in Days of Old: Which was worse?

As anecdotal stories begin to emerge in the midst of a worldwide crackdown on the virus known as COVID-19, I am currently working on an article for the upcoming issue of Digging History Magazine under the column title: “Ways to Go in Days of Old”.   After reading a particularly compelling account of one family’s struggle to maintain during this crisis (the father is quite ill, cared for by his wife and 16-year old daughter), the thought crossed my mind:  is the current crisis worse than what our ancestors faced?

In terms of genealogical research this regular column is meant to provide an important historical perspective as to how our ancestors dealt with all manner of misfortune, pestilence and disease.  It is one of my favorite columns to write.  Past issues featuring this column include (click the date to review the issue and purchase if interested):

November 2018 – This issue featured an extensive article on the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.  The issue is largely dedicated to World War I and finding records surrounding that volatile period of history.  Did you have ancestors of German heritage?  Stories abound as to how the United States viewed them as potential security threats (and there are records to prove it!).  On sale for $2.99 (regularly $5.99).

March-April 2019 – The “Way to Go in Days of Old” column in this issue was personal as I recounted the story of my third  great-grandmother’s Civil War Widow’s Pension Application following the death of her husband, Francis DuPee, in a Fort Beaufort, South Carolina field hospital.  This type of story is oft-repeated for many a Civil War soldier who died not from battle wounds, but from rampant disease.

May-June 2019 – This “Ways to go in Days of Old (Of Collar and Corset)” article has a twist — Victorian fashion saved and Victorian fashion killed (a two-part series).  Another favorite column, “OK, I Give Up, What is It?”, is an extensive look at how villages, small towns and large cities dealt with pestilence throughout early American history.

September-October 2019 – The “Ways to (Fashionably) Go in Days of Old” article concludes with a look at how some men met their untimely, yet fashionable, demise.

The upcoming issue which will be out on or before April 15 (crossing my fingers, given all the delays experienced this time around) features an article:  “Ways to Go in Days of Old:  Death by Pimple”.  Today, we have Dr. Pimple Popper to advise us as to how to deal with the age-old scourge of pimples.  Our ancestors, however, weren’t so fortunate as their attempts at self-treatment sometimes turned deadly.

Subscriptions are the best (and most economical) way to get your history fix (with a tie-in to genealogical research).  There are three options to fit every budget (one-year, six-month and quarterly).  Please note these regular subscriptions are automatically recurring until you tell me you wish to cancel.

Not sure if you want to commit long-term?  Digging History is offering a trial one-year subscription for the special price of $24.00 with absolutely no obligation to re-subscribe.  Check it out here.  Included in this offer is the added bonus of two free issues from the archives (your choice).  I’d love to have you as a subscriber, even if it’s only for one year!

Be safe and well during this unusual and historic season,

Sharon Hall, Editor and Publisher, Digging History Magazine

A Look Back: A Pandemic Story Worth Remembering (Blue as Huckleberries and Spitting Blood)

As the world has rapidly changed in the past few days I couldn’t help but remember another pandemic.  Whether the one we’re dealing with now will turn out to be as devastating (I seriously doubt it and certainly hope and pray not!) remains to be seen.  With modern technology — both in terms of medical and mass communication — historians will likely record a different account for our current crisis versus the one which faced the world in 1918.  Interestingly, however, the 1918 pandemic also had a suspected Chinese connection.  History does have a way of repeating itself, doesn’t it?

The November 2018 issue of Digging History Magazine was dedicated to articles focused on World War I — the Spanish-Flu, finding records from World War I, and more.  This issue is on sale at a reduced price of $2.99 (half-off the normal price of $5.99 per single issue).  In the meantime, here’s the article from this issue, entitled “Pandemic!  On the Home Front:  Blue as Huckleberries and Spitting Blood”:

SPRING 1918: War headlines were intense enough by the spring of 1918 – the world was reeling from a war unlike any other in the history of the world. Soon – very soon – the world would be reeling from a different kind of war.
War costs were mounting. The United States government was propagating propaganda at a frenetic pace. Liberty Bonds. Victory Gardens. Our Boys Need SOX Knit Your Bit. Uncle Sam Wants You.

As a result, Americans were increasingly caught up in the war effort and, as it turned out, would soon unknowingly begin propagating an insidious virus known as “Spanish Flu” or “Spanish Lady” across the country. As the virulent strain made its way around the world in three successive waves it would prove to be more deadly than The Black Death – or The Great War itself.

Even today, one hundred years later, no one is certain beyond all doubt the source of the virulent strain known as Spanish Flu. Years of research, exhuming bodies of victims, extracting organ and tissue samples and debating the various theories have revealed at least three possible flash points, however.

At first the most obvious answer seemed to be the abysmal trenches of France – soldiers in close quarters, the stress of war, cold and damp weather all magnified the potential for rapidly spreading disease.

In March 1918 forty-eight soldiers died at Camp Funston (Kansas). Medical officers were certain the outbreak of influenza, which they feared would lead to the spread of pneumonia, was caused by dust storms in the area.


Despite spreading oil around the camp to keep dust from blowing around, soldiers were still falling victim to influenza. Many had also been given anti-typhoid serum. At one night’s retreat several soldiers had suddenly fallen unconscious, yet doctors didn’t believe it was anything too serious.  Today some surmise the pandemic may have begun in the American Midwest, spreading from birds and farm animals and eventually infecting humans.

Following years of extensive research one well-regarded Canadian historian, Mark Osborne Humphries, strongly believes the more likely ground zero location of Spanish Flu actually occurred in November 1917 in a northern Chinese province near the Great Wall of China. The evidence seemed more certain after Humphries found archival evidence indicating Chinese scientists identified their country’s 1917 strain as being identical to the one which would become widely known as Spanish Flu, although it may have been a less virulent strain in the beginning.

While hundreds were affected it appears at some point as the initial strain spread globally it mutated into the more virulent strain responsible for millions of deaths worldwide by the time it had run its lethal course. As serious as the situation was poised to become, much like Camp Funston medical officers, most didn’t seem too concerned that they were seeing anything but the normal “garden variety” of influenza which came around every year like clockwork. For months newspapers overflowed with advertisements for remedies to either ward off or cure any number of maladies, including influenza.

Another reason why Humphries strongly suspects the China connection is the fact Chinese Labor Corps workers (about 25,000) were sent across Canada in route to Europe about the time of the outbreak in their own country. The French and British, desperate to free their soldiers for frontline duty, ordered the Chinese workers sent to southern England and France.

The workers were carried across Canada in sealed railroad cars, and by the time they reached camps where they would await deployment to England and France, about 3,000 were quarantined. The reason they had been transported in sealed cars was due to anti-Chinese sentiments. Doctors who treated the quarantined workers gave them castor oil for their sore throats, attributing their illness to the stereotypically “lazy nature” of Chinese race.2

After the workers arrived in France hundreds would die as a result of respiratory illness. Interestingly, however, the Chinese laborers who continued to work in France for the duration of the war (and especially during the height of the pandemic in the autumn of 1918), appeared to have been immune as no additional outbreaks of respiratory illness occurred among their ranks. Apparently, the milder strain had immunized them against the more virulent one, much like today’s yearly flu shots are designed to work.

Given this possible explanation for the source (China), why is it still referred to as “Spanish Flu”? That’s a good question since Spain has never been considered one of the possible ground zero locations. The term most likely came into wide use after King Alfonso XIII of Spain, along with many of his fellow Spaniards, fell victim to the influenza which had mutated by the spring of 1918 into the more virulent strain.

It wasn’t, however, that Spain was particularly hard hit. Other countries were seeing mounting numbers of cases. Yet, if one looks today at newspaper archives from that time period you will note how little was mentioned about the potential seriousness or the possibility of a widespread epidemic. British and American doctors speculated in medical journals since newspapers at the time were not permitted to print stories that might engender widespread panic.

Spain, however, was a neutral nation during World War I and the Spanish press had no such restrictions. The term “Spanish Influenza” or “Spanish Flu” was in wide use by June 1918, yet ridiculed by The Times of London in a pithy column:


Everybody thinks of it as the “Spanish” influenza to-day. The man in the street, having been taught by that plagosus orbilius, war, to take a keener interest in foreign affairs, discussed the news of the epidemic which spread with such surprising rapidity through Spain a few weeks ago, and cheerfully anticipated its arrival here. He is sometimes inclined to believe it is really a form of pro-German influence – the “unseen hand” is popularly supposed to be carrying test-tubes containing cultures of all the bacilli known to science, and many as yet unknown. In 1889-10, however, it was the “Russian” influenza, because in those far-off days Russia was a land of melodramatic mysteries for most of us, and therefore, the likeliest birthplace of a swift and strange disease, “the ghost of the Plague,” as it was imaginatively defined.3

Yes, The Times opined, the illness came on suddenly and unexpectedly, “the change from what seemed comfortable good health to feverish incompetence being achieved melodramatically”, but a hot water bottle, bed rest and quinine would seem the best cure. Europe, after all, had historically seen far worse epidemics.

The following month a Dutch newspaper opined that Germany’s severe outbreak (resulting in numerous deaths daily) was actually caused by hunger. The German potato ration has been severely curtailed, and thus undernourishment was surely the cause.4

In mid-August New Yorkers were pooh-poohing the notion of a potential epidemic as well:

Spanish influenza is said to be here, but some doctors call it merely mild pneumonia. These cynics seem to think Spain has never originated anything, not even a disease, since Don Quixote.5

That week a Dutch steamship arrived in New York carrying “a large number of passengers suffering from so-called “Spanish” influenza and a record of five third-class passengers buried at sea”.6  Health officials issued cautions, but were not particularly alarmed (yet):

    IF YOU MUST KISS, KISS VIA KERCHIEF, IS WARNING:  Otherwise You May Get Spanish Influenza, or It Will Get You, Board of Health Tells the Amorously Inclined

Further self-denial was urged upon New Yorkers yesterday as a result of the possibility that Spanish influenza may make its appearance here. Dr. Royal S. Copeland, Commissioner of Health, officially advised again kissing, “except through a handkerchief.” Although perhaps distasteful to some devotees of the sport, it was explained in this connection that the precaution would be found both simple and effective as a means of evading disease.

It is the view of the Health Department authorities that the “handkerchief kiss” – there is no objection to the most diaphanous of silk – should be brought into vogue at once, despite the fact that all the suspected cases of Spanish influenza thus far under observation have turned out to be simple, old fashioned article. . . “There is nothing to be alarmed about so far as I can see,” Dr. Copeland declared.7

Alarming or not, the worst – the deadly second wave – was yet to come.

The situation between mid-August to mid-September was fluid. Cases in New York were reportedly mild and Health Commissioner Copeland was officially discounting the possibility of an epidemic. That was Friday, September 13. Two days later a large outbreak was reported at Camp Deven in Brockton, Massachusetts – two thousand cases.

By Tuesday, September 17 Copeland had declared influenza and pneumonia as reportable diseases, although he still did not want to call it the Spanish Influenza which was hitting Boston and other areas of the country. An epidemic was drawing closer, however, as Camp Upton on Long Island was closed the same day. At Camp Upton the situation was fluid as well, reporting one day influenza was under control and the next more closures.

Even as deaths began to be reported Copeland cautioned against hasty diagnosis. However, by the end of September a rash of cases had manifested – almost 700 in a 48-hour period. One family in Flatbush was stricken and the mother had just died.

Meanwhile, the situation in Massachusetts was out of control. Lieutenant Governor Calvin Coolidge appealed to Woodrow Wilson and governors of nearby states to respond via telegram:

Massachusetts urgently in need of additional doctors and nurses to check growing epidemic of influenza. Our doctors and nurses are being thoroughly mobilized and worked to the limit. Many cases can receive no attention whatever. Hospitals are full, but arrangements can be made for outside facilities. Earnestly solicit your influence in obtaining for us this needed assistance in any way you can.8

Meanwhile, Commissioner Copeland was sure what New York was dealing with wasn’t Spanish influenza, but rather “a peculiar form of pneumonia of an epidemic type.”9  Again, however, he saw nothing alarming even though the number of cases were beginning to tick upwards. The man was either clueless, overly cautious or an extraordinary optimist.

By the last day of September a hospital train sent from Baltimore was headed to Boston, equipped with forty beds to care for influenza victims. The number of cases had risen, alarmingly so, to possibly as many as 85,000. The city of Quincy was particularly hard hit.

Finally, on the first day of October (and as it turned out, October would the deadliest month across the nation), Copeland admitted “there was an increase in the number of Spanish influenza cases” – 836 in a 24-hour period, “reaching epidemic proportions. However, he said, that so far there was no reason to be alarmed, as all means were being taken to safeguard the public.”10

In the first few days of October the number of cases continued to climb in New York City, Boston and Philadelphia. Philadelphia schools were closed, the Hog Island Shipyard was impacted and young doctors were urged to come to the City of Brotherly Love. Public gatherings were prohibited, including churches and saloons.

The New York City Health Department had their inspectors out in force, policing railway stations. On October 4, 135 men were summoned to court – “charged with spitting on public thoroughfares.” The court magistrate fined them each $1 and told them to be careful and aid authorities who were trying to keep the epidemic from getting out of control.

“It is cheaper and cleaner to use a handkerchief”, said Magistrate Groehl in the Washington Heights Court this morning, as he fined nine delinquents $5 each and one $10, with the alternative of one day, for spitting in the subway. One of the aggressors was an east-side doctor and another a subway guard.11

In Quincy, Massachusetts officials had discovered milk may have been spreading the disease. Health officials found filthy conditions in cow barns and cows being milked by people seriously ill with influenza. In some places where the milk was strained in kitchen sinks, sick children were laying around on mattresses.12

It was becoming clearer this sickness wasn’t the garden-variety influenza everyone hoped it would be. Reports began showing up in newspapers regarding victims stricken one day and a day (or less) later they had died. Keeping track of deaths and where to house the bodies until enough coffins could be located – these were the serious issues facing city government, health officials and undertakers.

Camp Upton was overwhelmed with a mounting number of cases among young soldiers. For some inexplicable reason this particular strain of influenza was most dangerous to the young and heretofore healthy. One woman, mother of eleven children, had received word one day that her son was stricken at Camp Upton. The following day a telegram arrived announcing his death. However, when she opened the coffin, the body was not that of her son.

In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia had been overwhelmed as were many other ports along the eastern seaboard. Officials had been dealing with the epidemic for several days as it spread across the state, hopeful it would soon begin waning. That was Page 1 of the Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia) on October 9. Page 2, however, told a different story.


The father, mother and daughter of one family had all died and were scheduled to be buried in the same grave. This would be the case for scores of victims as cemeteries were filling up.

A doctor and nurse at St. Joseph’s hospital had died trying to save others.

A woman died within twenty-four hours after the husband she had cared for passed away.


Undertakers and grave diggers were overwhelmed, unable to keep up with the demand. Prisoners from the Camden, New Jersey jail were brought in to “help relieve funeral stress.”

Hospitals were filled to capacity, opening new wards and still they came.

Twelve female employees of the Victor Talking Machine Company were being temporarily assigned to train and work as hospital volunteers.

INFLUENZA GAINS IN STATE:  Believe Crest of Epidemic Has Not Yet Been Reached

While Philadelphia cases may have been waning, areas like Lancaster and Harrisburg were still experiencing new cases and more deaths.

Several short death notices were published on page 2 – all had died of influenza.13

On October 5 The Philadelphia Inquirer published a one-page warning in bold lettering – a crisis had arrived. The epidemic was imperiling the success of the Fourth Liberty Loan. Elaborate parades had been the vehicle for rallying the public to support the war effort (by funding it, actually, via Liberty Bond). These parades were no doubt the brainchild of Wilson’s chief propagandist, George Creel. On September 28 Philadelphia hosted a parade for the Fourth Liberty Loan as crowds lined both sides of Broad Street.

Thousands of parade-goers were infected and bodies began piling up – literally. The city morgue only held 36 bodies, yet within a few days hundreds of bodies had arrived. Five hundred bodies were placed in five private mortuaries (without embalming or refrigeration), yet by the end of October when the epidemic was all but over in the city, only about two hundred had been buried thus far. Despite a citywide quarantine, almost 12,000 had died, the hardest-hit city in the United States.14

One Philadelphia mortuary run by the Donohue family had been in business for twenty years and had always maintained meticulous funeral and burial records. Earlier that year records were neat and orderly, listing funeral details, where the deceased was buried and so on. The family later noted:

But when you got to October 1918, the ledgers became sloppy and confused; things are crossed out, scribbled in borders. Information is scant and all out of chronological order – it’s nearly impossible to keep track of what’s going on, it’s just page and page of tragedy and turmoil. Sometimes we got paid. Sometimes we didn’t. Usually, we buried people we knew. Other times, we buried strangers. One entry reads: ‘A girl.’ Another says ‘A Polish woman.’ Another ‘A Polish man and his baby.’ Someone must have asked us to take care of these people and it was just the decent thing to do. We had a responsibility to make sure things were done in a proper, moral, dignified manner. Scribbled at the bottom of the ledger, below the entry for the ‘girl,’ is ‘This girl was buried in the trench.’ This girl was one addition to the trench. I guess we had nowhere else to put her.15

New York City was experiencing much the same with hospitals at capacity. At Bellvue in Manhattan victims were dying in beds, in corridors, on stretchers lining the hallways. Children were placed three to a bed. Housekeeping employees had fled in fear; clean linens were in short supply.

Doctors and nurses had no scheduled rounds, instead rotating in and out twenty-four hours a day. Patients were arriving in unprecedented numbers, all with the same disturbing symptoms – and not just the typical aches and pains accompanied by fever, but “torrential nosebleeds, explosive hemorrhaging, air-hunger and cyanosis.” No wonder one doctor at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Washington Heights was heard to remark, “They’re blue as huckleberries and spitting blood.”16

As the epidemic spread westward to cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland and pushing back into the Midwest, conditions eased up along the eastern seaboard. Conditions were bad enough, although not as devastating as had been experienced in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Still, bodies piled up as coffins, undertakers and grave diggers were in short supply.

In Indianapolis an emergency order was issued by the War Industries Board:


It was an unusual demand, yet with bodies accumulating at alarming rates, coffin manufacturers were being asked to “make only the simpler forms of coffins at present.”17

Public health officials across the country were banning public funerals in an effort to keep the epidemic from spreading. It didn’t matter whether the person had died from influenza or some other cause. In Arkansas undertakers who chose to defy the ban would be prosecuted. In early December, after much of the second wave had passed, Salt Lake City was still banning public funerals although the epidemic had peaked in early November.

Apocalyptic scenes from a different source had occurred in Minnesota on October 10-12 when fire swept through the northern part of the state, destroying entire towns. The area had already been impacted by the epidemic and worsened when refugees were housed in emergency shelters. Even if allowed to hold a public funeral the bodies had been burned beyond recognition. One newspaper referred to it as a “holocaust”. It is still the worst natural disaster in Minnesota with 450 deaths.

One of the more enduring images of the pandemic was the one depicted on the cover this month’s issue – the face mask. In truth the mask provided very little protection since the virus could easily pass through the thin, gauzy fabric, yet many cities passed emergency ordinances compelling their citizenry to don a face mask or face a fine.

While most San Franciscans followed the city’s face mask directive, several were charged with disturbing the peace and fined $5.00 – or jail time. On October 28 a deputy health officer shot a man for his refusal to don a mask. In the City-by-the-Bay, fashion mattered as some women wore veils, hanging loose below the chin and not such a “disturbing and flattening effect upon certain types of female beauty as has the mask that is tied under the mouth close to the chin.” The San Francisco Chronicle called the use of these innovative masks “wonderful attempts to blend the arts of beauty and prophylaxis”.18

Still, forcing the public to don masks in order to stem the spread of epidemic influenza had its drawbacks for at least one San Franciscan. On the evening of October 28, taxi cab driver W.S. Tickner was attacked, beaten and robbed by three “masked” men.

In El Paso, Texas a makeshift hospital was opened at a school. R. J. Pritchard of the El Paso Times provided a stark description – which no doubt was repeated thousands and thousands of times around the world – of poor Mexican immigrants in the last stages of pneumonia:

Fifty-one Mexican men, women and babies lay gasping in the improvised wards of the emergency hospital at Aoy school last night. Brought in from the squalor of homes in the Mexican quarter of town, many of them in the last stages of pneumonia, all of them suffering from lack of proper medical attention and comforts, the patients were transferred to the comparative comfort and care of a hospital equal in almost every respect to any in the city. . . Mexicans of every age, and in every stage of the disease, lay tossing on canvas army cots in the throes of acute pneumonia, or else lay still, with faces upturned to the ceiling, eyes glassy, and only their heaving chests and whistling breath betraying the extent of their agony.

Here lay a grizzled Mexican, tossing from side to side, his body in constant motion as he groaned perpetually for breath. Beside him on the next cot lay a small babe, hardly more than two months old, its brown hands clenched on the coverlet and its tiny black head motionless upon the pillow . . .

On one cot a young mother, not more than 18 years old, sat upright, clasping in her arms with a convulsive grip a three months’ old child. Careless of her own exposure, which might mean her death, the maternal spirit dominated her being to the exclusion of all else, as she fondled her cough-racked babe.19

Spanish influenza was certainly no respecter of persons. While a great number of those succumbing to the disease were poor immigrants, it was just as likely to strike those who were well-to-do or famous. In California actress Lillian Gish had a brush with death. In Chicago a teenager who went by the nickname “Diz” had convinced his parents to allow him to train as an ambulance driver. After he became ill he was sent home to recover. He later became the world’s most famous animator, better known as Walt Disney.

Earlier in the year a wealthy immigrant entrepreneur who had made his fortune during the Yukon gold rush, operating restaurants and boarding houses (some say brothels). On May 29, 1918 he was out walking with his son in New York City when he was suddenly stricken ill. Frederick Trump, grandfather of Donald Trump, died the following day as one of the early victims of the 1918 pandemic.

According to The History Channel web site, as many as 675,000 Americans died as a result of influenza. As staggering and devastating a number as that would seem to be, the worldwide toll may have been as high as 50 million.20   At the time an effective means of vaccinating the populace at large against these kinds of outbreaks had yet to be developed as scientists were still learning about how disease spread in the first place, and how to effectively treat bacterial and viral infections.

Wearing a mask or turning to folk remedies and patent medicines was, of course, wholly inadequate, but medical science was simply not advanced enough to address the overwhelming impact of the pandemic. Still, purveyors of patent medicines (“quack medicine” being a more accurate term) made a fortune selling their “miracle cures” to a fearful and too-often gullible populace.

While one Philadelphia laboratory was selling “Influenza Insurance” in the form of their “Paw Paw Pills”, and druggists were selling “Smo-ko” tobaccoless cigarettes (for 20 cents a box), the life insurance industry was selling product as well. One Brooklyn agency was offering double indemnity for Spanish influenza. By the end of the pandemic several million dollars would be paid out in claims. The federal government claimed it would eventually pay out a whopping $170 million to settle the claims of soldiers who had died of influenza.

For some Spanish influenza pushed them to the brink of insanity, enough to either attempt to or succeed in taking their own life. While today it is a well-known fact that influenza and pneumonia can lead to delirium, it may not have been understood in 1918. In Brooklyn, a 29 year-old Austrian man had been ill for several days. After pneumonia developed, the stage when many victims turned blue (cyanotic), he became delirious and leapt out a third story window before his brother could stop him. He died after being impaled on an iron picket fence.21

The commander of Camp Grant, near Rockford, Illinois, was so distraught over the number of recent deaths (500) that he shot himself in the head.22  In mid-November a Hanover, Pennsylvania man slashed his throat in an attempted suicide carried out on the front steps of a Russian church.23  In Suffolk, England a man, who along with his entire family, was suffering from influenza killed his family and then himself in the most gruesome way – a neighbor found the man’s body hanging in the bedroom and “the bodies of the other three persons, whose heads were smashed with a chopper and who were stabbed with a bayonet.”24  Spanish influenza was a horrible disease which drove more than a few completely over the edge.

America already had a tuberculosis crisis before the pandemic as an estimated one million Americans were afflicted. In early December reports were coming in from Spain and England which pointed to an alarming increase in tubercular patients following a bout of influenza. American doctors warned people to be aware of the possibilities and to take the necessary precautions, including avoiding the urge to self-diagnose. The Surgeon General also advised against the use of remedies sold by “unscrupulous patent medicine fakers.”25

After cessation of hostilities U.S. soldiers began returning home and may have precipitated the pandemic’s third wave during the winter and spring of 1919. During the first few days of January several hundred more cases were reported in San Francisco and over one hundred deaths. New York City feared another severe outbreak when over seven hundred cases were reported resulting in 67 deaths.

The disease was still rampant overseas, Paris in particular, as world leaders gathered at the Versailles Peace Conference in April to officially negotiate the war’s end. Historians debate whether Woodrow Wilson collapsed at the conference as a victim of influenza or was suffering debilitation stemming from a history of strokes.

The 1918-1919 Spanish Influenza Pandemic was a world-wide disaster, the likes of which the world had never seen before nor since (thankfully). It would take another twenty years before the first flu virus was successfully developed by Jonas Salk and Thomas Francis in 1938.

The vaccine came none too soon as another world-wide war was looming. United States soldiers received vaccinations and, unlike their World War I counterparts, were better protected against influenza.

This is an example of the insightful articles you’ll find in every issue of Digging History Magazine.  As you can see, the articles I write now are significantly longer and more detailed than previous blog articles.  This is why a digital publication (PDF) works better.  It’s more work (WAY more), thus the reason why I ask for payment.  Single issue purchase is available here,  Subscriptions are the best deal — choose from one-year, semi-annual and quarterly or try our new “trial subscription” with a no-obligation-to-renew price.



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