Near the beginning of the 20th century the world encountered a disease of epidemic proportions. Europe was in the throes of World War I and the United States was preparing to send thousands to face an enemy that was like none that had been encountered before. They didn't realize there was another enemy waiting in the wings that would kill 675,000 Americans before it faded from the world stage.
A Family Portrait
When I was a little girl I loved to sit and look at my grandmother's picture album for hours on end. She would tell me the names of the people found in those mysterious, sometimes faded, black and white photos. There were some that were sepia toned and some that looked like they had been colored by pencil in a beautiful pastel.
My grandmother had two sisters who lived fairly close to her in Texas and they visited one another often. They had a baby brother living in Oklahoma and they all doted on him. He was clearly special to them. At the time I lived with my grandmother in Mineral Wells, Texas, these were the only four still living out of this fairly large family. There were 13 children born to my great-grandmother between 1889 and 1914.
But back to those faded photographs - as Grandma talked to me about the people staring back at us, I could hear the nostalgia in her voice and see her mind going back and back into her childhood and days past, revisiting some far away time and place.
One of Grandma's oldest sisters, Lucy, died on December 30, 1918. She was far away from her family in Texas and Oklahoma, but spent the last days with her husband whom she had been married to for ten years. I had always assumed the couple were practically newlyweds when Lucy died.
Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919
Lucy was a victim of the Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, which "...killed more people than World War I at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351. Known as 'Spanish Flu' or 'La Grippe' the influenza of 1918-1919 was a global disaster."
"An estimated 675,000 Americans died of influenza during the pandemic, ten times as many as in the world war. Of the U.S. soldiers who died in Europe, half of them fell to the influenza virus and not to the enemy (Deseret News)." "An estimated 43,000 servicemen mobilized for WWI died of influenza (Crosby)."
Lucy's story is one of many that tell how this horrific influenza affected people worldwide.
I have always been fascinated with Lucy's story because as a child I used to read and reread two letters that my grandmother had in a box for safekeeping. Of course, time passed and I had forgotten about Lucy and her letter. Years later, I happened to run across that letter along with another one stuck between the pages of an old McGuffey's Third Reader that had belonged to my great-grandmother when she was a girl in Brock, Texas.
I had already begun to research the family and when I found the letters I was thrilled. The first letter was from an excited but tired Lucy to her parents in Millsap, Texas. She had taken the train to Hammond, Oklahoma, to meet her husband, Conley. They were on their way to Sandpoint, Idaho. I am sharing it here as it was written.
Dear folks. I got here all right. Conley meat me at Hammond. We are at a hotel now don't guess we will leave here untill Monday. Mrs. Cowart daughter is sick. don't know when she will be able to start. What time did you get home last night. Will write again soon. our sale brought $1,077.51. Ans soon and back it to Sandpoint, Idaho. Conley and Lucy
Lucy's parents received the following letter from Lucy Cowart shortly after the first of the year, 1919.
Mrs H V Puckett
Dear friend it is with a sad sad heart one that is broken - broken to tell you that we laid your darling at rest with our darling boys all in one lot and at the same time, Jan. Sat 4 at 3 o'clock. Lucy died Dec 30 and my little darling baby went home Dec 31, and my two boys went New Year's day. O you can't know how hard it was to give up three at once and a true friend, too. All that loving hands could do was done. Lucy looked so sweet and my boys looked so sweet. they all looked like they was asleep and so they were in the arms of our saviour. We can't understand why the Lord does these things but he will make all clear some day. Well Conley is better he has had a clost call. They think he will get well. We got Lillie letter today but can't read it to Conley yet. Well Dear friends, your Darling casket was pure white all four caskets was alike. They was covered in pretty flowers. I will close. write soon.
from Lucys friend and yours
More Questions and Answers
I had so many questions - why did Lucy and Conley go to Sandpoint, Idaho, who were the Cowarts, and how and where had Lucy died? The letters answered some of my questions but left many more unanswered.
In my research for various family lines I had placed a query on one of the RootsWeb.com surname lists for the name Puckett. I actually placed Lucy and Mrs. Cowart's letters on the forum and asked if anyone had any information that might help in my search.
A very nice young man (out of the blue - I might add) wrote to me offering to go to the Bonner County Historical Society Museum in Sandpoint, Idaho and look for an obituary for Lucy. He sent me a copy of the newspaper article published in the Pend Oreille Review on January 3, 1919.
He had found what was to me a goldmine. It wasn't large, but it had a wealth of information and went a long way toward answering my questions.
The local Sandpoint newspaper had reported on the deaths and a reporter had written about the families and their struggles since moving across the country from Oklahoma to a place that was foreign to them.
I retyped the newspaper article and as the gentleman sending it to me said, "The newspaper from which it was originally copied must have had a wrinkle down thru the left side that hid one or more letters in each line. However, most words can be inferred from the remaining letters."
January 3, 1919
Pend Oreille Review
Bonner County, Sandpoint, Idaho
THREE IN FAMILY
SUCCUMB TO FLU
FOUR DEATHS IN GROUP OF OKLAHOMA LANDSEEKERS OCCUR IN A WEEK.
Two Youths Among The Stricken.
Sad Story Accompanies the Arrival of New Families in a Strange Country.
The harrowing experience of losing three sons within three days, two of them within seven hours of each other, has been the misfortune this week of Mr. And Mrs. J.J. Cowart, a middle-aged couple who arrived in the city with a party of Oklahoma homeseekers two weeks ago yesterday. The deaths occurred at the Red Cross flu hospital in the K.P. building. The first dead was that of the couple's year-old son, Joseph Lloyd, which occurred Tuesday morning. On Wednesday morning at 9 o'clock the 16-year-old son, Martin Carden, died and at 4 o'clock in the afternoon the 18-year-old son, Peter Augustus, succumbed.
The Cowarts were members of a party of three families of homeseekers who left Strong City, Okla., coming directly here. The families were those of Mr. Cowart, consisting of his wife and seven children, that of his daughter and son-in-law, Mr. And Mrs. And___ Hyman, and a third family, Mr. And Mrs. C.T. Rhoten, neighbors in the Oklahoma country. Cowart was an old friend of W.A. Berry, who two years ago bought 160 acres in the Pack River country. Berry, after settling here, went back to Oklahoma and his old neighbors decided, with crop failures in Oklahoma twice succes____ly, they would come to Bonner County. They sold out their land and belongings and came on, anticipating purchasing farm land upon their arrival.
Mr. And Mrs. Rhoten were taken with the influenza the second day out on their journey and upon arrival here the Cowart baby and some of the other children in the Cowart family were sick. Cowart first got a furnished house in rear of the Jack Ada___ building and on Monday, December 22, rented the house at 431 Pine ______. The sons, Martin and Peter, came over the Great Northern with a load of household goods and they arrived at the same time that the three families got here over the Northern Pacific, December 19. Mr. and Mrs. Rhoten and the members of the Cowart family were removed to the flu hospital Christmas week. The two Cowart youths took heavy colds while unloading the car and they soon joined the other members of the family with severe cases, and were also removed to the hospital. Mr. And Mrs. Hyman escaped attack and Mr. And Mrs. Cowart were not sick with the disease.
By the time Mrs. Rhoten appeared at the hospital she was very low and she expired Monday evening. Rhoten was so low at one time his life was despaired of but at last accounts he was holding his own. The Cowart children died as noted above.
The bodies are all at the Brower undertaking rooms and there will be a joint funeral for the four victims held from the Brower undertaking rooms at 3 o'clock tomorrow afternoon. Rev. W.N. Byars will conduct the services.
"The party seemed to be all high-class people," said T.L. Greer, of the H____bird land department. "On his arrival, Mr. Cowart and the older boys were in the office. They were rather thinly clad, I thought, and I advised Mr. Cowart to get rubbers and not run around in the snow without protection. He said he had rubbers with his effects. They said it did not seem as cold here as the winter weather they were accustomed to in Oklahoma. No doubt the boys, who got here with bad colds as a result of sleeping en-route in the boxcar in which they were not allowed to build a fire, were in bad condition when they arrived. They went right to work unpacking the next day after the evening of their arrival and they were soon down. None of the party seemed to realize that great care should have accompanied their change of climate in midwinter."
The said circumstance of the four deaths caused a great deal of local interest. Every effort was made to save the lives of the victims at the Red Cross hospital. The four surviving children of the Cowart family have all been down with the disease which proved fatal to their three brothers. The two older brothers died in adjoining cots.
I found out later that Lucy's husband, Conley, lived another 36 years after Lucy's death. He died in 1954 at the age of sixty-two. I corresponded with one of his grandchildren after finding his obituary online. He had remarried and had a family and had a happy and wonderful life. I'm sure he must have thought often of that girl he had left in Sandpoint, Idaho. Knowing three of her sisters as I did, I like to think she was a happy, loving, thoughtful friend and wife. I know her sisters loved her deeply and one of them shared with her daughter that the last time she saw Lucy she was waving goodbye from the platform of the passenger train she had boarded in Millsap on that cold December day in 1918.
Deseret News, "On the Eve of Peace in WWI Influenza Cast Shadow of Death," http://www.desnews.com/cen/hst/01260133.htm
Crosby, Alfred, America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) p. 1-69