"The many friends of the deceased were grieved and shocked to learn Monday of the death of Miss Cora Davis, of Palma Sola, at Camp Gordon, Ga., of Spanish influenza." - Sarasota Times
It was Oct. 6, 1918, and Cora Belle Davis, a 25-year-old volunteer nurse, was returning home in a casket as the area's first known casualty from a worldwide flu pandemic. No one who lived through 1918 likely will forget just how deadly influenza can be.
This year's flu season, predicted to be severe, pales in comparison. As of Friday, 93 children have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the 1918 flu epidemic, 675,000 Americans died. Global estimates place the total as high as 100 million.
Southwest Florida, sparsely developed and removed from population centers back then, was among the least-affected areas of the country. But the impact was still felt, and some here still remember the deadly year.
"I was about 6 years old," said Leo Wotitzky, a widely known Punta Gorda lawyer. "My mother got the flu and my dad decided the safest thing to do was take me and my brother, Frank, to my aunt Laura Stewart's house on the other side of Punta Gorda.
"We stayed there, I don't know how long. Mother got well, but she was pretty sick."
Cleda Hatfield, a resident of South Port Square condominiums in Port Charlotte, was about 15 when the epidemic struck her community of Winslow, Ind.
"I remember it was really bad in our town," she said. "My mother and dad both had the flu. They were sick for several days, but survived.
"We had an old coal stove for heating our house," she continued. "My parents had me stay in the room with the stove and sprinkle sulfur on it to protect me and my little sister from the flu."
It apparently worked, she said. Neither caught the flu.
Wotitzky remembers a common Southern method of avoiding the flu.
"What I recall most about the flu was the bag of asafetida people wore around their necks. It stunk like hell. It was supposed to keep the flu away ... nobody could get near you because you smelled so awful.
"I fussed so much about them putting one of those stinking sacks of seeds around my neck that they didn't."
Wotitzky couldn't recall a specific person in Punta Gorda dying of the 1918 flu. Neither can local historian U.S. Cleveland, born the year after the epidemic.
"We did lose some of our boys who were in the service to the flu," Cleveland said.
Indeed, the flu virus first appeared at Camp Funston, Kan., on March 11, 1918, according to information in the book, "Influenza 1918 -- The Worst Epidemic in American History." Early that morning, a company cook named Albert Mitchell reported to the infirmary with a low-grade fever, mild sore throat, headache and muscle aches. A doctor recommended bed rest.
By noon, 107 soldiers in the camp were ill. Within two days, the camp had 522 felled by flu. Many lay near death from pneumonia. And the spread of the virus was under way.
It struck hardest those living in crowded conditions -- servicemen and prisoners. Some on death row died of flu before they could be executed.
So virulent was the virus that within seven days, every state in the union had victims.
World War I was under way when the flu broke out, and the transport of soldiers exported the disease. In March, 84,000 American "doughboys" set out for Europe, followed by 118,000 the next month.
Spain caught the flu in March. France was hit in April. Africa and South America in May. Virtually every corner of the world was struck:
* Sixty percent of the Eskimo population died in Nome, Alaska.
* Luxury liners arrived in New York with 7 percent of embarked passengers dead.
* Half of America's dead soldiers died of influenza.
The 1918 flu killed more people in 20 weeks than AIDS has killed in 20 years; more people in a year than the plagues of the Middle Ages killed in a century.
If a similar virus struck America today with the same 2 percent death rate, it would kill more people in a year than die from heart disease, cancers, strokes, chronic pulmonary disease, AIDS and Alzheimer's combined. In all, about 1.5 million Americans would die.
Death came in hours
Death came quickly for those who died in 1918. Victims often awoke feeling as if they were coming down with a cold. By noon, their body was turning purplish. By nightfall, they were dead.
A news report said four women played bridge one night; the next night three were dead from the flu.
The 1918 virus is believed to have been a mutant strain, harbored in birds, passed to swine and from there to humans. It's a common path for flu. Both the Asian flu virus of 1957 and the Hong Kong flu of 1968 mutated from birds to pigs to people.
Inside the human body, the mutated flu virus moved quickly to the lungs and turned cells there into reproduction factories for its own kind. As lung cells died, hemorrhaging began. Within the span of a day, a victim drowned, suffocated in his or her fluid.
Sufferers said their body felt as if they were being beaten with a baseball bat. And they appeared bruised, due to hemorrhaging. The 1918 influenza earned the nickname "Purple Death."
Isacc Starr was a third-year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania in 1918 when he was called to attend to victims. He left a diary:
"As their lungs filled ... the patients became short of breath and increasingly cyanotic. After gasping for several hours, they became delirious and incontinent, and many died struggling to clear their airways of a blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed from their nose and mouth. It was a dreadful business."
Strangely, the 1918 flu strain disproportionately struck those age 20 to 40.
Scared to death
"Everybody was scared to death," says Anne Casey of Port Charlotte. "Those were very trying times." She was 14 during the epidemic, living in Worcester, Mass.
"Quite a few people were dying," she recalls. "Both me and my sister caught the flu. Mother was very careful about it. She quarantined the two of us in one room by ourselves. I remember she made little white cotton sacks and filled them with camphor to ward off the virus. She pinned those little sacks to our underwear."
Casey remembers a priest in the neighborhood, a man who administered last rites to victims. Her mother asked the priest "to stop by our house and give my sister and I his blessing."
The priest came by. But he wouldn't enter the home.
"He gave us a blessing through the window from out on the sidewalk," Casey says.
Life had changed.
Children skipped rope on city streets, chanting, "I had a little bird, its name was Enza. I opened the window, and in-flu-enza."
Stores were told to cancel sales and were limited to one customer per 100 square feet.
Church services were canceled and the sermons printed in local newspapers.
In Tampa, Western Union normally had 20 workers handling information for all of South Florida. But 16 operators were felled by the flu at the same time and the office could no longer perform. In Jacksonville, 50 telegraph operators went home ill on one day alone. This was at a time when both offices were overwhelmed with death notices waiting to be delivered.
The only good news was this: The flu struck hard, but disappeared from a given community within three weeks.
There was little an individual could do, and science had no real answers. The Colgate company took out ads suggesting flu might be prevented by avoiding tight clothes and tight shoes. The Committee of the American Public Health Association suggested fresh air and avoiding exhaustion.
Folklore said onions and garlic had preventive properties. One Pennsylvania mother slapped onion syrup on her 4-year-old daughter and placed her in a tub of raw onions for three days.
Cora Belle Davis, Palma Sola's nurse studying in Tampa, an "angel of mercy" as nurses were called, could only hold the hands of the dying in a Georgia encampment. She did so for one month and six days before the telegram reached her mother that Cora was dead of flu.
She lies in an unmarked grave in the Davis plot in a western Manatee County cemetery. There's untrimmed growth around cedar trees marking the borders of the plot. Against one tree is propped a broken piece of monument.
Across the bar of the cross it says, "Our Little Angel."
By ROBERT BOWDEN and DON MOORE Staff Writers ==================== "MISS CORA DAVIS VICTIM OF INFLUENZA"
"Citizens of this section were saddened this week at the news of the death of one of Manatee county's daughters, Miss Cora Davis of Palma Sola, the victim of Spanish influenza and pneumonia, at Camp Gordon, where she had gone as a volunteer nurse about five weeks ago.
Miss Davis' death occurred on Sunday and the remains were brought home and interred in the family burial grounds at Palma Sola Tuesday. She had just completed the nurse's training course in Plant Park Infirmary at Tampa, and immediately upon her graduation volunteered and signed up with the government for service at home or overseas.
With two of her classmates Miss Davis left Tampa Sept. 1st for Camp Gordon. She had been ill only a few days, her mother going to her bedside in response to a telegram Friday.
Mrs. Davis, with the remains, was met in Jacksonville by Miss Pinsenter, head nurse in the Plant Park hospital, and at Oliphant by other nurses and friends from Tampa, all of whom accompanied the mother home to attend the funeral at Palma Sola.
A deputation of uniformed Red Cross workers and Home Guardsmen met the party at the station, and accompanied the remains to the undertaker's rooms; where it remained until the funeral service at 2 p.m., at the little Palma Sola church where the deceased had been an attendant.
A large procession of Red Cross workers, Home Guards, friends of the family, and citizens generally followed the body as it wended its way to the little church, members of the Home Guards acting as pall bearers, and Rev. J. H. Patterson conducted the funeral service. The casket was draped in the U.S. flag, and covered with flowers from friends in Tampa and Manatee county.
The following is taken from the notice of Miss Davis' death, published in one of the Tampa dailies.
Miss Davis was about 25 years of age and came to Tampa three years ago to enter her training for a nurse. She graduated early this summer and successfully passed the state board, after which she immediately signed up for government service. She is the first nurse from Tampa to make the supreme sacrifice and her death will come as a shock to her friends. Miss Davis was a young woman of excellent qualities and was making a fine record for herself by giving the best she had for the sake of others. She had a lovable and kind disposition, and was said to have been one of the most efficient nurses over in the Plant Park hospital. She was a favorite among the physicians and other nurses and won many admirers by her pleasant manners and competent work.
Miss Davis leaves her parents, three brothers and one sister. Her mother is a practical nurse in this city and her father resides at Palma Sola. In addition she has two brothers in the navy, one being an ensign and the other a non-commissioned officer, and her sister, Miss Alma Davis, and a younger brother, Earl. The many friends of Miss Davis will extend their sympathy to the family."
Manatee River Journal, Thursday, October 10, 1918, front page