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A Closer Look at the Victims of Washington, DC’s 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

A deep dive into the stories of the victims of the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic in Washington, DC. Learn about the families affected and the heroic efforts of charities to save the children who were left behind.
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I was researching a couple of stories and I came across an article that was so sad that I had to share it with you. It’s from the Washington Times on October 19th, 1918.

The world was in the middle of the greatest pandemic in the history of the planet. Between 50 and 100 million people fell victim to the deadly virus. The citizens of Washington shared in this epic tragedy and the innocent victims were often children.

If they didn’t catch the flu themselves, certainly someone in their family would. Sadly, a common case was the parents getting the flu and dying, leaving the child without one or both parents.

Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C., during the influenza pandemic of 1918.
Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington during the influenza pandemic of 1918

Below is the somber article from the Times.

A new problem–what to do for the children made orphans by the Spanish influenza epidemic–is facing Washington today.

Scores of children have lost their parents as a result of the epidemic, and the orphan problem thus presented is more difficult today perhaps than ever before in the history of the National Capital.

Virtually every charitable and humanitarian agency in the District that may take a hand in the work of aiding these fatherless and motherless boys and girls is working day and night, but all are finding the task too big.

An appeal for women to work as “mothers” was issued today by one of these agencies, the Gospel Mission, 214 John Marshall place northwest.

“We can save a score of little lives if a few motherly women will volunteer to help us,” said Superintendent H. W. Kline of the mission today. “Four women, at least, are needed to help us in this project.”

The Associated Charities report an average of four phone calls per hour from 8 in the morning until 6 o’clock in the evening, asking for help in cases where one parent or both have died of influenza and aid of some sort is needed for children.

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Miss Cecil B. Norton, general secretary of the community centers, who has organized a committee of helpers to visit the homes and attend to influenza sufferers who cannot get professional nurses, reports that the orphan problem is the most serious confronting her workers.

While in some cases both father and mother are dead and the children are in obvious need of help, in every case investigated by The Times where one parent is living, he or she is unwilling to give up even one of the children.

One of the most pitiful cases is that of the eight children of Mr. and Mrs. William Bowles, 1125 Sixth street northwest. The mother died last Sunday and the father Wednesday afternoon of the influenza. No help is needed for these children, as John Bowles, the father’s brother, has shouldered the responsibility of caring for the orphans.

Mrs. Modena Burns, 2927 Eleventh street northwest, mother of seven little children, died of pneumonia following influenza last Friday, Her seven children, all of whom had the influenza in turn, are Marion, ten years old; James, nine; Modena, seven; Robert Burns, five; Dorothy, four; Ruth, three; and Mildred, one. Their father, James Burns, Washington lunchroom, 1227 Pennsylvania avenue is looking for some one to aid him in caring for the children.

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The Bowles family story is so tragic with the mother dying on Sunday and the father a few days later. I can’t even imagine the shock and grief those poor children must have suffered.

I wanted to dig a little more into the stories of the victims. Unfortunately, as per usual, there is very little available. Modena was the only person mentioned in the article for whom I could dig up a U.S. Census record. Looking at her name makes the tragedy a little more real.

The 1910 U.S. Census has her living at 1032 6th St. NW with her husband James and their young children Marion and James. She was born in 1890 and, at the time, the pair had only been married for three years, with James being 14 years her elder.

Modena Burns 1910 U.S. Census
Modena Burns 1910 U.S. Census

The story goes on to list countless Washingtonians that died from the Spanish flu, leaving behind three, four or up to five children. A particularly sad one — I can’t really quantify and compare how awful they are — was this one of Jeannett Virginia Payne.

Mrs. Julian Payne, thirty-four years old, wife of Julian Payne, Pennsylvania railroad conductor, left five children–Carl, eleven years old; Melvin, seven; Stanley, five; Lois, four, and Frances, two–when she died last Monday. Relatives will furnish a home for the children.

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Remember that the world was still in the throes of World War I and below, I found her husband’s Draft Registration Card. It was only a month prior, on September 12th. The pair lived at 717 6th St. SW with their children. Little did the married couple know that the risk of Julian’s death in the trenches of Europe was the least of their worries.

Julian Payne's World War I Draft Registration Card (Ancestry.com)
Julian Payne’s World War I Draft Registration Card (Ancestry.com)

In the United States, over half a million people died as a result of the Spanish flu, with many of those being men serving in the military. Below is a photograph (courtesy of Shorpy) from the Walter Reed Army Hospital.

Walter Reed Army Hospital flu ward circa 1919 (Shorpy)
Walter Reed Army Hospital flu ward circa 1919 (Shorpy)
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Enjoy daily

Ghosts of DC stories.