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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with James and Nannie Pharis, December 5, 1978; January 8 and 30, 1979. Interview H-0039. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Impact of the 1918 flu epidemic on Spray, North Carolina

James and Nannie Pharis describe the impact of the 1918 flu epidemic on Spray, North Carolina. In particular, Pharis describes how her sister succumbed during the epidemic. Additionally, they focus on how the community reacted and which people seemed most susceptible.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with James and Nannie Pharis, December 5, 1978; January 8 and 30, 1979. Interview H-0039. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ALLEN TULLOS:
Do you remember this flu epidemic back in 1918?
NANNIE PHARIS:
Oh, yes. I lost one sister.
ALLEN TULLOS:
Did you get it, either of you?
NANNIE PHARIS:
No, I didn't take it. The doctor told us to eat onions and drink whiskey. I didn't do that, though. I ate onions.
JAMES PHARIS:
And wear asafetida, did you ever hear of asafetida?
NANNIE PHARIS:
I wouldn't have none in the house. That's the stinkingest stuff I ever smelled. Go to wash your shirts and smell it on the collar. They said you could avoid contagious diseases by wearing that stuff.
JAMES PHARIS:
Well, we didn't have it and we done O.K.
NANNIE PHARIS:
When I went into the house, they called me that morning. She had a little baby in the casket. I went in and it was a little girl. She already had a little girl two years old. She wasn't but twenty-two herself, married young. I walked in and the doctor done something like that on my nose and he told me not to drink after her and not to sit in the room much. When I walked in her room, she knew everything. She said "Nannie, did you see my little baby?" Yes, I did. She says, "Oh, it would have broke my heart, just killed me if it had been a little boy." She wanted a little boy. That was the last thing she ever said. He come in and give her a shot. You had to give them a shot, they'd have spasms before they'd die. She stayed quiet until she died. Most of them had to hold them on the bed. Along towards the last they had these shots they could give. Kind of paralyzed them. That's what he said.
JAMES PHARIS:
That epidemic happened in the worst part of Prohibition.
NANNIE PHARIS:
World War I.
JAMES PHARIS:
Prohibition was the strictest thing. You couldn't hardly get liquor under no circumstances right at that time. Doctors was all worried to death that people dying everywhere. He says, "We don't know what to do. The only thing I can tell you to do, if you can get any whiskey, get it and drink it. That's the only thing that we know what to do."
NANNIE PHARIS:
That was happening in World War I. And they was hauling soldiers in trucks, by the truckload, to take them and bury them and take care of them. That's where it started, in camp, in the army.
ALLEN TULLOS:
Did you lose any other relatives?
NANNIE PHARIS:
I lost several aunts and cousins.
ALLEN TULLOS:
What did people think of all that?
NANNIE PHARIS:
Well, I'll tell you. Every woman that was pregnant died that taken that flu, that influenza. I had a sister-in-law die, and my sister died. And then I had several cousins die.
JAMES PHARIS:
Another thing about it: people that die, the very stoutest of people. We had a fireman at the place I worked. I used to go out to the boilerroom and smoke a cigarette. Me and him were pretty good friends. One day I went out there and they said he was sick. And I went out the next day and they said he was dead. They died just that quick with it.
NANNIE PHARIS:
And the man across the street did the same thing with it. Died overnight. Walking around in his yard the day before.
ALLEN TULLOS:
People must have been pretty afraid.
JAMES PHARIS:
People were scared to death then.
NANNIE PHARIS:
We was just a nervous wreck. It was a terrible time.
JAMES PHARIS:
Whole families would get down with it and you couldn't get nobody to go there and wait on them. Hard to get anybody to go. My daddy went and took care of a family somewhere. I don't think he ever taken it, though.
NANNIE PHARIS:
A lot of folks got over it, they didn't die. Every woman who was pregnant who taken that, died. Every one. And if you had any kind of disease, heart disease, and taken it, they didn't get over it. They died. I mean they was laying out dead. Undertakers. That was a horrible time.
JAMES PHARIS:
Sometimes they'd get up, walking around, and drop dead.
NANNIE PHARIS:
Yes. Well, it sure did thin out the population at that time.
JAMES PHARIS:
I never did hear how many people died of that in the United States.
NANNIE PHARIS:
Thousands in camps in the army died with it. That was the most pathetic thing. It started in the camps. Haul the soldiers out by the truckload. I don't know what they done with them.
JAMES PHARIS:
Right after they fought a war, went into that.
ALLEN TULLOS:
Did they have any special rules around here about going places, traveling? Did businesses close up for a while?
NANNIE PHARIS:
No, the businesses didn't close up. But they advised you not to visit these people that had it because it was contagious.
ALLEN TULLOS:
Did the mill close?
NANNIE PHARIS:
No, the mill didn't close. Because they come after me while I was working and told me my sister was seriously ill and the doctor called them and said there wasn't no chance for them. My sister had just got out of the hospital. So I got off of work and went and stayed with her until she died. That was a heartbreaking thing. The circle was broken then in the family.