Death can strike anytime, and in 1918 it struck hard.
The Flu Pandemic of 1918 killed millions of people across the world. Ambrose Jarvis, my great-great grandfather, was probably one of its victims.
On Ambrose’s death certificate, the cause of death is illegible. Like so many records from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the writing is hurried and sloppy. Some of the words are arcane. In the image below, you can see what the attending doctor (whose name is thoroughly illegible) wrote as the cause of death. It could be influenza. Or it could be “LaGrippe”–another word used at the time to describe the flu. Or it could be almost anything.
Whether Ambrose died of the flu or something else entirely may be hidden in those forever indecipherable strokes of the pen.
But the facts are beyond doubt:
- The 1918 flu killed more people in a year than the Black Death did in a century during the Middle Ages; it killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has in twenty-four years.
- Most of the deaths occurred from September to December 1918.
- Clay County, Kentucky is solidly Appalachian in culture–medical resources in 1918 were poor if not non-existent.
One final fact is clear: Ambrose’s death touched many lives. He lived his whole life in Clay County, Kentucky. He had sixteen children by two different wives. Below is a picture of a few of his kids with him and his wife Sallie, taken in 1917. The fourth from the left, standing in the back, is my great-grandmother, Elizabeth (Jarvis) Cottongim.
Elizabeth was 24 when the picture was taken. Surely it was one of the last pictures of her with her father. Less than four months after he died–on April 11, 1919–she married Joseph Cottongim, also of Clay County. How badly was Ambrose missed that day?
By April 1919, the world was beginning to deal with the flu pandemic. Protective and preventative measures were in place. People’s attention turned to the peace talks in Paris. Over nine million soldiers had died in the Great War; at least six million other men, women and children had lost their lives because of the war and the disease and destruction it spread. According to President Wilson, 1919 was to be the beginning of a new age when peace and prosperity would reign.
The doctors, scientists, sanitation experts and public health officers squelched the flu pandemic; President Wilson, Prime Minister George and Prime Minister Clemenceau brought an end to the world war. Death was slowed for a time, but despite everyone’s efforts more diseases would come, more wars would follow.
Death can strike anytime, sometimes it hits harder than others.