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Final Train Ticket Home: A story of the Spanish flu

Ethel Griffith’s husband, Lemuel F. Griffith, and daughter Helen.

Contributed by GRACE BOWEN

The’ Spanish Flu’ Influenza Epidemic quickly became a ‘Pandemic’ as it grew into a worldwide grim reaper, taking the lives of over 500 million souls. It claimed more lives than all those lost during the years of WWI. However, the number of Unicoi County soldiers lost in that war paled in comparison to the number of local citizens who died in this Influenza’s fatal grip. This story is based on the facts surrounding Unicoi County’s 1st victim

The Griffith family of Elmwood, Illinois had planned a trip back to the Smokey Mountains for months. Lemuel “Lem” Griffith, the head of house, decided the best time for his family to travel would be in the fall after their crops were harvested. His wife, Ethel, hurried to get her canning put away for the winter, while their young daughter, Helen, kept reminding them several times a day of how excited she was to be traveling by train. She kept asking, “How many more days before time to go?” Finally, after everyone’s patience was running thin, the day came when it was indeed time to go…

Lemuel F. Griffith was known to be a devoted family man. He was born, raised and schooled in Mitchell County, NC. His parents, Rev. Henry and Mary Jane Bradshaw Griffith, still lived in that area along with many of Lem’s 11 siblings. Lem had left home early and went off on his own, settling in Knox County, Illinois where he worked for established farmers as a farm laborer. After saving enough money, Lem started farming for himself. It was at this point he met the love of his life, Ethel.

Ethel May Johnson

Ethel was born Ethel May Johnson in Yates City, Illinois. Her parents, William and Anna Gamble Johnson parented 11 children, including Ethel. Mrs. Johnson died in 1910 at the age of 45. Ethel’s father, a farmer by trade, owned a farm where he raised his family in Knox County, Illinois. In 1912, at the age of 20, Ethel met and married her true love, Lemuel F. Griffith. The happy pair made a home for themselves in Peoria County in a town called Elmwood, Illinois. There Ethel gave birth to Helen in 1913. Ethel, who was unable to conceive again, cherished little Helen even more because she was her only child. When Helen turned five, her parents planned a trip back to Lem’s homeland in North Carolina and Tennessee.

This was their first trip to the Smokey Mountains in several years. They had looked forward to it for months. Letters were exchanged between Ethel and Lem’s family, coordinating dates and times for their long awaited visit. The plan was to spend a week or so with Lem’s relatives in Tennessee and then spend the remaining time with his parents over in North Carolina. From there they planned to catch a train and return to Illinois. With their crops harvested for the season, and snowy weather a month away, it was the perfect time for travel, thus the Griffiths packed their bags and headed to the Illinois Central Railway Station. Little did they know that their long awaited trip would soon turn into a death trap and only two of them would return home alive.

Once they arrived at the Illinois Central Station, Lem purchased their tickets with the understanding they would change trains once they reached Kentucky. The Central Illinois would carry them through Illinois into Kentucky in about 12 to 13 hours at which point the Griffiths would switch trains at Elkhorn, Kentucky where the CC & O Railroad line began. The CC&O (Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio) Railway would take the Griffith family through Kentucky, Virginia and on to Tennessee. The CC&O ride was 136 miles and about 5 ½ hours total with 37stops between Elkhorn, KY and Erwin, TN. The Griffiths’ total travel time, from Illinois to Tennessee, is estimated to have taken about 18 hours requiring overnight travel. While on the train the Griffiths met other passengers from various cities and states. They also noticed some passengers not feeling well. Even some children complained to their mothers that they felt sick. The mothers could be heard saying their children had slight fevers and assumed they were coming down with a common cold. Most of these passengers disembarked in Kentucky or Virginia. Ethel, concerned about her own child, was relieved to see them go.

Once the Griffith family arrived at the Erwin Depot they were met by one of Lem’s older brothers, Charles V. Griffith, who greeted them warmly and loaded their bags in his wagon. He drove them to his home on Clinchfield Avenue in town. Charles had landed a job with the CC&O Railroad working as a ‘Boiler Maker’ in the ‘Steam Railroad Shop’. Charles and his wife, Texie Hughes Griffith had two children, Mamie and Lee. Their new home was lovely and when the Griffiths came into the home they could smell supper cooking. Texie welcomed them with a hug of joy, served a hearty meal, then sent them all to bed to get a good night’s rest after such an exhausting trip.

The following morning, Charles and Texie took the Griffiths on a tour of Erwin. The town was bustling with businesses. The new Clinchfield Pottery had opened its’ doors the year before, and the year before that the Silk Mill opened. When Lem saw the enormous pottery factory he asked, “Are those seven things on top chimneys?” His brother laughed and explained, “Those are actually beehive coal burning kilns used to fire the pottery.” The tour continued as the Griffiths noticed new homes were being built all over town. The town roads were paved and automobiles as well as horses could be seen traveling down them. The new Courthouse was a majestic beauty, built in 1915. Lem and Ethel marveled at how tall it was with its’ huge white columns and Helen was eager to drink from the magnificent water fountain that sat on the court house’s front lawn.

As Texie looked up at the Courthouse, she could not help but think of the young carpenter that helped tear down the 1876 Courthouse and build this new one. His name was, Corbet Rogers. The young man died when he fell from the roof in 1914. She did not mention this to her visitors for she did not want to spoil their enjoyment of the sites. As she turned, Ethel pointed out a window decorated with hats, gloves, and parasols of all kinds. And as Ethel looked around it became evident to her that ladies could buy the latest fashions from several merchants such as A.R. Brown and the Tucker-Toney Company. Lem was impressed with the Toney building’s unusual architectural design which was a corner building that faced into the corner of Gay and Main. He also spotted the shoe shine boy set up outside the local barber shop. As they continued their tour, they realized all the store windows were dressed perfectly to display the stores latest merchandise.

They walked down Main Street and noticed the Erwin National Bank on the corner of Main and Union. To the right of the bank was the Barron Theatre that was playing, ‘Hearts of the World’, staring Lillian and Dorothy Gish as well as a Charlie Chaplin short film called ‘A Dog’s Life’. The sidewalks were busy with civilians going to and fro tending to their errands and visiting with neighbors and friends as they passed. It was indeed an exciting time for Erwin. A time that would soon come to a screeching halt.

When they arrived back at Charles’ home, Ethel excused herself stating she was feeling very weak and fatigued. Everyone assumed she was just tired from the long morning stroll through town. However, to everyone’s surprise, Ethel remained in the bed unable to get up without assistance. Soon Helen was feeling the same symptoms. The child became extremely weak and fevered. Texie tried for several days to break the fevers without any success. She was baffled because her home remedies for breaking a fever had always worked in the past, but there was something strange about this one that left Texie puzzled and concerned. She told Lem and Charles she was certain the girls had pneumonia. Frightened by this possibility, they immediately called for the doctor.

Dr. James I. Bradshaw, age 49, lived on Gay Street in Erwin and was one of several Erwin physicians. He was also Lem and Charles’s maternal uncle. Bradshaw was among the first responders in Erwin’s Influenza outbreak. When he arrived at the Griffith home, Texie filled him in on the situation. Lem was overwhelmed with anxiety over his family’s illness. So much so, that Charles stayed home from work just to keep his mind occupied. “Lem, come sit down here and lets’ pray.” urged Charles. Dr. Bradshaw looked into the parlor where he witnessed the two brothers on their knees in earnest prayer as Lem wept uncontrollably begging for God’s mercy on his wife and child. The Doctor was so touched by the scene of his nephew’s earnest prayer that he too teared up. But he quickly blinked away his tears and followed Texie upstairs to see the patients.

When Bradshaw entered the bedroom where Ethel and Helen lay motionless in their bed, he quickly noticed both were sweating with fever and seemed lethargic. He checked all their vitals and their extremities and pressed on their abdomens searching for the cause of their illness. When he had finished his examinations of the patients, he motioned for Texie to step out in the hallway. There he informed her that he had several other patients who were suffering from the same symptoms as the Griffiths. He said that several of them, including a CC&O Engineer, had some association with the railroad either as employee or passenger. Texie replied that the Griffiths had just arrived in town the week before from Illinois.

“You mean this thing was brought in by the train?” asked Texie in disbelief. “Yes, there is no doubt it has been transported by rail all over the Country.” he replied. “We have received a telegraph from Nashville confirming this.” he said. Then the Doctor solemnly proclaimed, “Madame, Influenza has officially arrived in Unicoi County and death is sure to follow.”

Texie’s face went white with fear as she heard the Doctor’s words. Bradshaw instructed Texie to make sure no one entered the sick room under any circumstances and when she attended to the patients, he insisted she wear something to cover her mouth and nose to protect her from catching the fatal virus. He also instructed her to wash her hands and arms with hot water and lye soap after attending the patients. He then helped Texie move Helen from her mother’s bed into another bed across the room. They then went downstairs where Lem and Charles were eagerly awaiting the Doctor’s diagnosis. After hearing what the Doctor said, both men were shocked and speechless with the reality that Ethel and little Helen could die right before their very eyes. Lem collapsed in a nearby chair, dropped his head in his hands and began to sob.

The following day, Helen’s fever broke and she was immediately removed from her mother’s room and isolated in a small room off the kitchen. Helen’s health slowly improved and soon her energy and appetite returned. Lem sighed with relief that his little girl had overcome the odds of this illness. However, Ethel’s condition only worsened as the days went by. She began coughing and vomiting uncontrollably. She seemed to be having trouble breathing. She seldom regained consciousness long enough to speak. In her last conscious moment she uttered the words, “I love you both with all my heart.” Then the unspeakable happened, she began turning blue, bleeding foaming blood from her ears and nose. Thereafter, Ethel went into a coma struggling for her last breath and died. Dr. Bradshaw pronounced her dead at 1pm on October 5th, 1918. She was 27 years old.

Dr. Bradshaw insisted the family remove the body to the undertaker immediately in case of further contamination. (Embalming was required by law for all corpses being transported by rail.) He also instructed Charles to burn all the bedding, including the feather ticks where the sick and dying had laid. Ethel’s body was embalmed by undertaker, Belvin M. Allred, a furniture merchant who lived on Gay Street. After the embalming, Allred placed the body in a wooden coffin, made in his furniture store.

The dear young woman was now ready to be transported back to Illinois. The next day Lem purchased two regular priced tickets and one at a flat rate estimated to have been about 50 cents for the transport of the dead. There was a bitter chill in the air as Lem and Helen stood dazed and grief-stricken when Ethel’s remains were hoisted into the baggage car. The heartbroken father and daughter said tearful goodbyes to Charles and Texie as they quietly loaded the train hearing the final call, “All aboard!” Lem took Helen’s hand and led her up the train steps, looking back briefly at his brother for a final nod goodbye. Then they were in the train and out of sight. Texie held tightly to Charles’ arm as they watched the train slowly roll down the tracks making its way out of Erwin, carrying with it Unicoi County’s 1st official Influenza victim. Ethel May Griffith, a pretty young wife and mother, was finally returning to Elmwood, Illinois… on her final train ticket home.