The Force of a Train
John Bradshaw knew the dangers of being a railroad foreman and, later, the superintendent of bridges and buildings on the Seaboard Air Line Railway. It did not save him. He first felt ill aboard an incoming train on Saturday, October 5, 1918. From the Jackson Street Depot, the most direct path home would have taken Bradshaw east on Finn Street and Brannan Avenue to his wife and daughter at 420 Barlow Street. "He reached home," the Americus Times-Recorder reported, "and shortly after summoned a physician, his illness growing steadily worse until death relieved his sufferings." The Americus Undertaking Company, on the first floor of the Allison Building, prepared his body for transportation. At noon on Monday, October 7, an outgoing train took his body for burial to North Carolina. The death hinted at what was to come.
Railroad Schedules, Americus Times Recorder, October 4, 1918.
No official death record exists for Bradshaw and the Times-Recorder did not call it influenza. This is not surprising. Until the first week of October, the local newspaper paid little attention to the pandemic. "It is nothing more nor less than 'la grippe,' as the French call it," the paper stated, "or plain, old-fashioned 'grip,' as we are used to hearing it named." While the Times-Recorder admitted the influenza was spreading on military bases, writers downplayed the risk to civilian populations.
Officers at Souther Field, a new air base built during World War I, took the first local steps to slow the spread of the disease. Souther Field represented the newest branch of the U.S. military. Beginning in late spring of 1918, 25 new cadets in the air corps reported there each week until the fall. In early October, officers attempted to shield cadets from the disease by limiting their exposure to the local population. "Until further notice," the post announced one day before Bradshaw fell ill, "none of the soldiers or officers at Souther Field will be permitted to go to any places of public assembly, such as picture shows, theatres, dances, etc." Late the next day, authorities clarified that the order did not restrict airmen from attending church. The clarification appeared the same Sunday morning Bradshaw died.
Multiple factors motivated newspapers to downplay influenza. A new Sedition Act during World War I criminalized criticism of the U.S. government. Newspapers faced political and legal pressure to avoid printing information that could damage morale in the military or the country's war efforts. For months in the fall of 1918 and the winter of 1919, many newspapers in the United States reported that the disease was under control as if repeating it again and again would make it so.
The 1919 home of John Bradshaw, 420 Barlow Street, February 2021.
The severity of influenza may also have motivated local, state, and national newspapers to double-down on euphemism. The same newspapers depicted murders, car accidents, and self-inflicted deaths in graphic detail often softened influenza. The description of Bradshaw's rapid decline may not have immediately registered to readers as influenza, but it fits a pattern of cases elsewhere in the country. Many patients died of secondary infections after weeks of illness. Other victims, like Bradshaw, succumbed to the strange disease in a matter of hours.
Seaboard Air Line Railway Depot postcard, Americus, Ga., ca. 1900.
This disease, as historian John Barry describes in The Great Influenza, traumatized victims and survivors, including doctors, nurses, and caregivers. From Camp Devens in Boston, Massachusetts, Dr. Roy Grist described how quickly some patients died. It could take only a couple hours for a patient who entered his hospital with mild symptoms to begin showing blue spots on the face from ear to ear. This was called cyanosis and it meant the patient's lungs were not properly transferring oxygen to the blood. For Grist, the blue spots signaled that it was "only a matter of a few hours until death comes." In addition to sweating and chills, influenza victims also suffered nose bleeds and delirium. These were not "heroic" military deaths and influenza was not the military sacrifice the U.S. government asked the nation to shoulder. Perhaps it is no wonder that the real disease rarely made it into the paper.
The 1919 home of Paschal Markette's parents, February 2021.
Note: a version of this page appeared as an article in the Americus Times-Recorder on April 27, 2022.