As I left you at the last post, I had mentioned the devastation of the 1918 Flu epidemic bringing to life the legend of the Dead Wagon. Kentucky passed a state law prohibiting public funerals, and schools closed during the outbreak. In the month of October 1918, there were more than 5,000 deaths in the state of Kentucky. My great-grandmother and her son were among those casualties.
Across the world this pandemic attacked more than a billion people. Between 20 and 40 million people died. More than 500,000 of those died in the U.S. alone, more than the casualties of U.S. soldiers in all the wars of the 20th century. This pandemic struck America in three waves, from March 1918 to March 1919.
The first wave hit in March 1918. In Kentucky, influenza and the attendant pneumonia deaths ran from 500- 600 deaths a month between January and April, then dropped. It was hardly noticed in the atmosphere of World War I. Flu was not uncommon, but soon this virus would mutate into a monster.
Flu viruses are very unstable, and undergo transformation when introduced to the animal population. Sometimes there are only minor alterations, but the 1918 Flu was a Frankenstein monster. The mutated virus appears to have originated somewhere near Fort Riley, Kansas, where U.S. soldiers were being shipped overseas to join the fight. Once there, in crowded barracks and trenches, soldiers began to sicken and die. The revamped virus came back to America with returning soldiers.
The second wave’s first appearance in Kentucky came in Bowling Green on September 22, 1918, when a group of soldiers was welcomed back home. Physicians noted that those between the ages of 20 and 40 were the hardest hit. On September 30, six days after the celebration for the soldiers, the Kentucky State Board of Health encouraged any “patriotic” people who seemed to have symptoms of the flu to isolate themselves.
On October 4, U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue advised communities to close down all public institutions where the flu had struck. On October 6, the Kentucky state board issued a proclamation closing all places of amusement and places of assembly. October was the deadliest month in the nation’s history. In Kentucky, 5,201 deaths were reported, attributed to influenza and its resulting pneumonia.
According to officials, this second, and worst wave of the 1918 flu ended in December. But it wasn’t over. The third wave lasted from February through March 1919. In Kentucky, there was no break between waves.
From molecular pathology, they have concluded that the 1918 flu strain had a touch of both swine and bird viruses. It was suggested the avian virus infected the pigs, combining with swine flu, and perhaps a human virus as well. Even with all the research, no one is sure why the 1918 pandemic was so lethal. Nor have they figured out how to prevent a repeat.
On a closing note, in the early 1920s, it was common in the New Salem neighborhood for the young men to get together on evenings and play cards, play musical instruments, or sit around the fires and talk. Thy gossiped, talked of old times, and very often told ghost stories to pass the time.
Thus one evening, our young hero, Crawford Davidson, had been invited down the road apiece from his home to pass the night with his friends in such a fashion. Now Crawford was, in later years, the owner of the farm that sat on Old Salem Church Road, when the back lane at New Salem Cemetery was open, and connected with the Hollow Road.
Crawford Davidson’s mother was Matilda Hicks, who was a sister to Lecta Meek, Jame’s Meek’s second wife. James Meek was my great great grandfather, and the father of Mallie Meek Dugard, who is the tragic victim of the 1918 flu.
Now, on Crawford’s visit that evening, in the 1920s, at a young and impressionable age, barely out of his teens, his cronies and he carried on their scary tales until the wee hours of morning. The host of this party offered Crawford the use of his chaise to finish out the night, as Crawford had a distance to walk on the old country lane that led up to the New Salem Church and Cemetery. The local youths were all scared of the tales of the Dead Wagon coming along to pick them up, and generally went in pairs, but Crawford was the only one in that direction, and none had the fortitude to go with him.
Crawford was of the mind that the dead couldn’t hurt you, only the living, and he didn’t wish to seem cowardly to his friends, so he stretched up on his toes and puffed out his chest and announced he needed no one to hold his hand and see him home. He picked up his hat, dusted it off, and dropped it jauntily on his head. He lifted his coat up, dusted it off, folded it up, and draped it across his arm. The night air was slightly cool, but he forewent the jacket to take in the fresh air and remain alert on his way out Salem Lane.
He made good time on his return home, and had gotten all the way to Bishop Meek’s farm when he heard a distant tinkling noise coming from the direction of the church, which was still more than a mile away. He stopped walking and he caught his breath to listen. Yes, that was the rattle of wagon wheels, and he could hear horses’ hooves. He stood there in the road just listening to the approach.
When he realized the wagon was getting closer he panicked. He distinctly remembered the tales earlier that evening the boys had told about the hauntings at New Salem Church, and how they had all heard the Dead Wagon on the lane near the church in the dead of night. He was a logical man, but all intelligence fled him at the moment. He was still a distance from home, and he did not want to be seen by anyone, standing in the middle of the road, recovering from the terror he was feeling at that very moment.
He looked around him frantically, and noticed the ditch on the right side of the road looked pretty deep, and as there had been no recent rain, he dove right in. He realized with a sigh that the wagon was almost in hailing distance and closing in fast. He laid pressed to the ground to make sure whoever the driver was, they wouldn’t see his hair sticking up. As he had dived into the ditch, his hat had come off and lay close to his hand for retrieval.
After several moments of suspense, Crawford realized that the sounds of the wagon had stopped, and he cocked his head to listen. A sense of foreboding fell over the young man when he heard a horse snort right above his head. His curiosity getting the better of him, he crawled up to the edge of the road and peered over the embankment. The entity on the wagon seat was all hunkered down in the early morning air, and a hat shadowed the features of a possible face.
In the dark, Crawford couldn’t see anything, and he shivered once. There was a chuckle, and then a match lit, which was used to light a cigarette in the man’s mouth. Before blowing out the match, John Miller Dugard tilted his head up and looked laughingly in the young man’s face.
“Nice night we’re having. isn’t it, Crawford?”
“Fine time to bring my tobacco in early. Supposed to sell it at the warehouse when they open this morning. Wanted to be there early. You alright out here?”
“Oh, Yessir! Been out here many times. Been up the road apiece to a friends. Just headed home. You have a good night, Sir!”
“Oh, you, too, Crawford, and don’t forget your hat, son. Man shouldn’t go nowhere without his hat.”
“OH, Yessir! Thank you, Sir!”