1918 funeral home ledger shows pandemic history

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — It’s hard for Virginia Kerr Zoller to tell grieving families that only 10 mourners can come to a funeral at Kerr Brothers on Main Street these days.

But if she needs a reminder of why these quarantine restrictions and distancing rules for COVID-19 are in place, all she has to do is look at the black leather ledger that holds records of everyone Kerr Brothers buried in 1918. Nearly every yellowed page between the fall of 1918 and spring of 1919 records the pandemic of Spanish flu and resulting pneumonia that gripped the world.

“Influenza, 24 years old, a store clerk,” she said, thumbing through the pages. “Influenza, four years old; influenza eight years old; pneumonia, 18; 18 years old, a carpenter; 65, influenza and pneumonia.

“Seeing this makes it very clear that we’re doing the right thing right now,” she said. “No one likes it and it’s hard, but we’re doing this for the right reasons.”

The 1918 ledger is bigger than the others; it records a time when Lexington, and the rest of Kentucky, was in a similar lockdown as we are today. Nearly 15,000 people died statewide, according to historian Nancy Baird.

“On October 7, 1918, the board ordered that all places of amusement, all schools, and all churches throughout the state be closed until further notice,” Baird wrote in a story for Kentucky Humanities in 2016. “Kentuckians were urged to remain at home and refrain from traveling, paying social calls, entertaining friends, or attending weddings and funerals. Most of the state’s colleges and universities also canceled classes and athletic activities.”

Terry Birdwhistell doesn’t need reminders to stay home either. His paternal grandmother, Leila Phillips Birdwhistell, was a 21-year-old wife on an Anderson County farm, pregnant with her second child. She got the flu, lost her baby and the ability to have any more.

“I was always curious why my father was an only child on a farm, when people had lots of children,” said Birdwhistell, senior oral historian at the University of Kentucky, who’s now working from home. “The 1918 flu hit younger people worse. It just shows you, the fact that they lived in the middle of nowhere and she got it out there should remind people to stay indoors.”

In Lexington, the virus really started to spread with 17 cases in three families, said Stuart Sanders of the Kentucky Historical Society.

On Oct. 10, according to newspaper accounts, the first death was 47-year-old William Wade; the second a 14-year-old Francis Arnet. By Oct. 12, there were 193 cases.

According to Baird, Kentucky’s flu rates were spread by soldiers moving across the state getting trained to go to World War I. At UK, the still young state flagship university trained soldiers at Buell Armory, which is still there today.

But by Oct. 11, 1918, UK was closed down and Buell Armory was turned into a hospital run by the Red Cross to treat the sick. Healthy soldiers were sent out Paris Pike to the Lexington Country Club, according to the Lexington History Museum.

Frank McVey had been named UK president just the year before; in Dec. 1918, he reported to the Board of Trustees that UK was closed for a month; there were about 400 cases of flu in the hospital, but only seven people had died. Lexington had two other hospitals: St. Joseph opened in 1877 on Linden Walk, near Maxwell Street, but by 1918 was on Second Street, what’s now Connie Griffith Manor, and Good Samaritan, which was on South Limestone.

UK Chandler Hospital didn’t yet exist, something remarked upon by one of the UK trustees named V.C. Gilbert who said at the December meeting: “The University should have a hospital, and I am of the opinion that steps should be taken as soon as possible to arrange for a hospital for university purposes.”

As it happened, UK didn’t get a hospital until 1962; it now serves as the biggest one in Kentucky and is preparing for an influx of COVID-19 patients as the surge of infections gets closer. The UK hospital currently has nine cases.


In his book “Lexington: Heart of the Bluegrass,” historian John Wright says that Fayette County ended up with at least 1,000 flu cases with about 51 deaths, although it’s not clear how many deaths were ascribed to pneumonia that actually started with flu. In 1920, Fayette’s population was just 41,534.

Today, that population is 321,949 and as of April 1, Fayette County has had 116 cases of COVID-19 so far, with two deaths.

Back at Kerr Brothers, Zoller said they have not yet received anyone who has died from COVID-19, but like many front-line or “essential” employers, she’s running low on protective equipment that her employees use to pick up bodies from hospitals or for embalming.

It’s terribly sad to tell people they can’t mourn together, but it’s the right thing.

“We’re not seeing the effects yet, and I hope that if we keep doing what we’re supposed to, we won’t,” she said.

History also teaches us it’s important not to stop too soon. Kentucky saw another bump in Spanish flu the next fall after restrictions had been relaxed.

Historian Nancy Baird, who researched so much about the Spanish flu, said it has struck her is how much has changed and yet how little.

“What I think is interesting is that 100 years have passed,” she said, “and when you consider all the discoveries of medical science in that 100 years, all the things we’ve conquered, and yet we can’t find a cure for the common cold.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the famous quote goes. Two years ago, Stuart Sanders wrote what might be called a prescient or frankly prophetic column in the Herald-Leader titled: “Kentucky must learn lessons from deadly 1918 pandemic.”

Sanders’ own grandfather in Louisville had been orphaned by the flu in a state where flu vaccination rates have declined.

“When preparing for the next pandemic,” Sanders wrote, “authorities should take heed of the words of an official with the Kentucky Red Cross, who worked during the 1918-1920 pandemic: “Let us organize our forces so perfectly that a recurrence of this, or any other epidemic, will never find us so unprepared,” she wrote in 1919. “The only solution to the problem … is to organize our health forces better and to teach the people to care for themselves and their families.”

Sanders ended the column with advice that we haven’t heeded, especially at the federal level, although Kentucky is learning fast.

“It is not if we will be stricken with another flu pandemic, but when. Historical knowledge is power …”


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