During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, our maternal grandfather (Walter Mahan Jackson, Sr.) served as a nurse tending to flu victims at Georgetown College (in Georgetown, Ky.), where he was a student 1916-1920.
Walter Mahan Jackson, Sr. (Georgetown College Yearbook-1920)
Below is the text of a remarkable letter that he wrote to his older sister (Edna Pearl Jackson Overstreet) during the night of October 8, 1918.
It’s long and at times rambling. But given the current COVID-19 crisis, I thought it would make interesting reading.
Mom also remembered seeing a picture of her father in his nurse’s uniform. But we’ve never found or seen that photo.
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Letter from Walter Mahan Jackson, Sr. to his sister Edna Pearl Jackson Overstreet. Dated “Oct. 9: 1918”. Handwritten in pencil on Georgetown College stationary. (Transcribed (as is, including errors) by his grandson, Michael Ross, on March 8, 2020.
Please burn this letter as soon as it reaches you, for more than one reason. I got your letters all in due time and should have answered before now but I have been rather busy and so torn up I have hardly had either time or inclination to write any thing. Possibly I should not write this letter and mail it to you, as you will find later on, but I am doing so. As the folks haven’t the least idea what I am doing they cannot tell you. Also I implore you say not a word to them. If worst comes to worst they will find it out in plenty of time.
From what goes before I guess you have noticed there is something unusual going on. You are right. For my writing table I have a cracker box perched on my lap. My cushion seat consists of a little fold up chair, straight as to its back and hard as to its bottom. I am H…(??) with space as the parlor, reception hall, and living room are all three crowded into one kitchen of an old dwelling place. Old trunks are piled high on my left side as I sit facing two windows. To my back is a door on the left, and shelves, on the right, and other such kitchen decorations. At my right side is a kitchen stove giving forth its warmth day and night, giving the bare(??) room its all and trying to make the fore(??) room comfortable rooms to live in.
The clock strikes, and OH! It peals forth but one lonely note. A restless, lonesome, dog barks across the way as though all was not right in his world. A train passes by and as the echoes of the wheels rumble through the still crisp air, they seem to indicate they are in a hurry to pass on; pass on more quickly still. The frost settles to the earth quietly and there lies flat as though it feared it would be destroyed if it raised its head. The stars nervously bat not an eye but their attention is drawn to something. What is that something? God only knows.
And what am I doing? I am trying to do what I hope I will be doing when Gabriel shall place one foot on land and one foot in the sea and shall call forth through that ever bearing(??) trumpet “Time shall be no more.” And what is that I desire to be doing? Easying (sic) some our pain and try to do a little good and help other spend spend (sic) their brief sp…d(??) of existence more pleasantly.
Am I dreaming? AH! If but I were dreaming only. Dreaming? No! When I hear the groans of pain breaking the still silence and the deep coughs I hear to the left of me, behind me, and over me, make me fully realize that I am not dream(sic) but am actually living a nightmare. Just now as I write some one calls for my humble assistance and I drop everything to go and find a fellow with a bleeding nose caused by a high fever.
What is it all? It all is this! Sunday morning Georgetown College woke up in the grasp of the Spanish “flu.” Although the variety we have here is rather mild sixty of the students have fell victims to this plague. There are only a few cases among the girls and even those that are sick are not serious. So for even the boys have not been very dangerously ill although many have sufficient unspeakable pain. Monday morning things looked bad and school closed down by order of the State. The college put the worst 18 cases, among the boys, in a house off by themselves. I am living with those 18 boys and am nursing them day and night. The doctor calls three or four times a day. Our food is brought to us. I fix the boys and then eat myself. Last night it was between 10:30 and 11 before I had a chance to eat supper.
I have had a shot in the arm and gargle my throat rather frequently and take other precautions but if I escape having this stuff it will be a miracle. I have been right here in the house since Monday forenoon and if I hold out until Thursday or Friday I will be doing good. My day is coming of course, but I hope to do a little good before it gets around. Before each meal all 18 get their hands and faces washed. Yesterday each man got a bath. Monday night I got three hours sleep. …(??)… I curled up on top of a trunk before the stove and slept about an hour and half each time. Now it is 2:30 and I have not closed my eyes and do not expect to all night as I have been good and busy and expect I will be so the rest of the night. It is time for me to make another round so I will stop for the time being.
Back again. I sure have seen a few different kinds of folks in the last couple of days and also a good deal of suffering. It seems the worst cases we have are among the freshmen some of them are young and a(sic) scared to death as well as being pretty sick. Some of the kids who have never been sick before without their Momma’s,(sic) make things pretty hard. There is one kid who I can not pass by without he just has to be rubed(sic) or patted or something of the kind.
Last night some guy suffered so he threw a fit. Another one got up to use a mug and fainted in the middle of the floor. Some one is bleeding most all the time and if it isn’t one thing it is another. Many throw up on all occasions while others pull equally weird(??) stunts. Several are getting better now while others are not doing so good. Most are resting fairly well while others have not closed their eyes yet.
The odors I have to deal with are equal to any gas mask. In the day time I have a negro man to carry out mug and pans where fellows have thrown up but at night I have all that to do myself. Even the breath of several fellows nearly ruin my stomach every time I smell it. Well I could write a good deal more about what happens around here but as my brain is not as clear as it could be, I will make things short.
I have been rejected for the S.A.T.C.(1) and also for the draft. I went to Dr. Leigh(2) the other morning and told him to get me in some branch of the army just as soon as he could. The mere fact that I have been rejected will make it a little difficult for me to get in anywhere but I think surely I can get in the Chemical Warfare Service, I hope to be in the army and away from here in two weeks. I have not said anything to the folks and hope you will not. I am not going home, however, until I am either in the army or the war is over.
I have an offer to a job in Cuba with a big sugar concern paying about $2,000 a year and living expenses; board and room. If I can not get in the army I may take that up. I certainly am undecided about what I can do and what I am going to do.
If I am not sick I am going on a sort of a week end houseparty Saturday. One of the girls is going to take me and two other girls home with her Saturday. The girl lives in Harrodsburg, knows Dude(3) and several other such points. One of the other girls going is a rather good friend of mine and I like all of them real well. I certainly hope nothing happens to our plans.
Sis, I got that five dollars you sent me soon after I got over here and I want to thank you for it. I was ashamed to spend it but it did come in so handy I could hardly help it. However, I wanted(??) to see that you get it back before the year is over. I will be glad when I get so I can tend to my self and not have to ask anyone for anything. If it had not been for my knees(??) (no fault of my own) I would be all right now. I expect to be fixed up pretty well anyway before long.
Dr. Leigh and I have been working on a smoke bomb for the past two or three weeks. As yet we have hit upon nothing entirely satisfactorily but have several promising ideas. I hope we may get something fixed up before long.
The other day I had a small explosion. A very small amount of stuff let go in my hand. It ripped up my left thumb a good deal and my middle finger on the right hand but both are nearly healed now.
Mother came over Saturday before last and as David(4) was rather sick she took him back with her. He could neither enter college or the S.A.T.C. and why she ever sent him over in the first place is more than I can see. Some folks have their own ideas about things, and sometimes they are very hard to change.
I am not planning on seeing N. Dak.(5) Christmas. I do not know what I am going to do tomorrow – much less Christmas.
Saturday we had a football game here and we beat the tar out of one of the army camps. I guess this sick business will call off most of our games for awhile. I declare this year has been one thing after another.
You know now why I said burn this up. It may carry a germ and I do not want the babies(6) or the rest of you to go through with what I have seen a few folks do around here. Write me when you can. I suppose you had better send it in care of the College …(??)… house as this is about what I am in.
Love to all,
(1) – S.A.T.C = Student Army Training Corps
(2) – Dr. Townes Randolph Leigh, the chemistry prof with whom grandpa was working on smoke/fog screen technologies for hiding naval vessels at sea from German submarines.
(3) – “Dude” is Walter’s aunt, Lucy Lee Mahan Spilman
(4) – David is Walter’s younger brother, David William Jackson (1901-1945).
(5) – Edna lived in Enderlin, North Dakota, at that time.
(6) – Edna’s children, Kathryn and Brack Jr., would have been 5 and nearly 3 years old, respectively, when this letter was written.
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Here are two articles from the Georgetown Times. The first (left) was published on Oct. 9, 1918, the day Grandpa wrote his letter. It says that while there are some 50 cases of “colds,” none are thought to be influenza. Yet the sick have been removed to the Jameson House, where they are attended by Miss Lambert, superintendent of the hospital. Note also the eight tips on “How to Keep Flue-less,” most of which look remarkably similar to today’s recommendations.
The second (below), published on Oct. 30, 1918, said Grandpa had just been released from the hospital. So it seems that he eventually got sick with this flu, too.