Did Your Ancestor Die in the Spanish Flu Pandemic?

did your ancestor die in the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic

My great-aunt Belle Faulkenberry was born on July 14, 1887. On December 29, 1918, at the age of 31, she died of the Spanish Flu pandemic*. She married Hope Shawhan in April of 1918; sadly within eight months she was gone.

This photo is of three sisters: Belle (on the left), Bessie (my grandmother, center) and Edith (right). Click photo to enlarge)

Belle’s obituary reads simply “Mrs. Hope Shawhan died of influenza at Lone Jack, Monday Morning. She was formerly Miss Belle Faulkenberry, daughter of Frank Faulkenberry, and formerly had charge of the telephone exchange service at Lone Jack. She was married to Mr. Shawhan about a year ago” [Pleasant Hill Times, December 30, 1918]

Great-aunt Belle was buried in the Lone Jack (Jackson County, Missouri) Cemetery, although her husband was not.

Belle Faulkenberry Shawhan tombstone Lone Jack, Missouri

*Although often referred to as an epidemic, the Spanish Flu was actually a pandemic. What’s the difference? An epidemic attacks people at about the same time and spreads through communities. A pandemic is when an epidemic spreads throughout the world.

What Was the Spanish Flu Pandemic and How Deadly Was It?

Knowing that Belle died in the Spanish flu pandemic sent me out looking for more information about it. Just how bad was the epidemic and how might it have impacted our ancestors’ lives?

An Ancestry.com blog post stated, in part ““The 1918 flu epidemic puts every other epidemic of this century to shame,” observed Gina Kolata in her book Flu. “It was a plague so deadly that if a similar virus were to strike today, it would kill more people in a single year than heart disease, cancers, strokes, chronic pulmonary disease, AIDS and Alzheimer’s disease combined.” [Italics added by me]

Apparently there were three strains of the flu, with the killing strain hitting America beginning in August of 1918.  When I first started reading about the flu, I couldn’t believe the extraordinary measures the county put into place.  The next photo (from the National Archives) shows a New York City letter carrier  wearing a mask for protection. Letter carriers, mass transit workers, and others who came in contact with the public, were especially vulnerable to disease. Wearing a face mask helped them avoid contagion.

The following directive was sent out from Washington, D.C., regarding treatment and procedures for “influenza” (the Spanish flu pandemic), dated September 26, 1918. If you read through it (click to enlarge), you’ll see that several of the suggestions are similar to what we’re cautioned about today when it comes to flu season.

As the flu spread, life in everyday communities changed drastically. Public meetings were shut down, schools, churches, and theaters were closed. Anywhere people gathered was to be avoided. In small communities I can only imagine how everyday life must have come to a standstill.

The National Archives article states that “The flu afflicted over 25 percent of the U.S. population. In one year, the average life expectancy in the United States dropped by 12 years.” Now that’s something to consider!

In total, it’s believed that the pandemic caused 50 million deaths worldwide, with 650,000 of those in the United States. Why, I wonder, is this tragedy mostly overlooked, as a tiny footnote between two World Wars.

In the book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World (which I’m currently reading), the author states: “When asked what was the biggest disaster of the twentieth century, almost nobody answers the Spanish flu . . . yet there are very few cemeteries in the world that, assuming they are older than a century, don’t contain a cluster of graves from the autumn of 1918-when the second and worse wave of the pandemic struck. . .”

How to Research Your 1918 Ancestors and the Spanish Flu Pandemic

Honestly, were it not for Belle’s obituary, I’m not sure I would have known about her death being caused by the Spanish Flu. Although my sister, Vicki, tells me that’s what she always heard about Belle’s death. The state of Missouri has posted death certificates from 1910-1966, however (weirdly) Belle isn’t listed.

However, just to check, I ran through several other people’s death certificates from about the same period as Belle. While I did find some deaths caused by “influenza”, I also found far more with a cause-of-death listed as pneumonia or emphysema. Upon reading even more about the Spanish Flu pandemic, I learned that if people didn’t die directly from influenza, they often died after-the-fact from pneumonia or other respiratory illnesses.

How to research your ancestors and the pandemic?  I have not found any kind of national database of Spanish Flu victims; that meant I had to start digging into online death records and obituaries as well as newspaper articles.

I found it most useful, when searching newspaper articles at both GenealogyBank.com and Newspapers.com, to search first for family by name, and then to search simply by date – I chose Nov 1918 – Jan 1919. You can tell how serious the situation was from this ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, dated December 6, 1918.

Spanish Flu 1918

If you have an ancestor who died in 1918, I encourage you to look for death records, then obituaries and newspaper articles.  Check cemetery records. Also, ask family. As noted, my sister remembered hearing that Belle had died in the pandemic – and that proved to be true. Remember, the newspaper articles (if they’re from your ancestor’s hometown don’t have to mention them by name – get a sense of what life was like during this time).

If you find any other resources for the Spanish Flu epidemic, please leave a comment so everyone can (hopefully) find more information.

More Spanish Flu Pandemic Resources

This is a brief list of good resources:

The Deadly Virus (National Archives)

University of Michigan Influenza Encyclopedia (this site has an excellent search engine)

Stanford University the Influenza Pandemic of 1918

1918 Flu Pandemic

Centers for Disease Control: Reconstruction of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Virus

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  1. My great grandmother died in 1918 in NYC of what we were told was a goiter. Timing wise I’m not so sure… I was also she was caring for her father in law and he ran her ragged and wore her out…. that one sounds more plausible if you throw in the flu.

    1. Becky – the more I read about the pandemic, the more I believe that MANY more deaths were caused by the influenza. I think if people were worn down or had some other illness, it didn’t take much for the flu to kill them.

  2. I got the death certificate for my great-grandmother. Madison County, Alabama ‘sez’ Spanish flu as Cause on 03 Jul 1918. (100 years ago)

    1. Patsy, Interesting, as several of the death certificates I’ve seen don’t specify “Spanish flu”, but simply influenza or pneumonia.


  3. Hi Nancy,

    I just came across this site tonight as I was researching the Spanish flu. Very informative. In the past two years I have written over 100 pieces for our weekly newspaper about local history and other cultural issues in Lynnfield, MA – about 12 miles from Boston.

    I have been thinking about writing an article on the 100th anniversary of the 1918 flu. Actually my uncle John Boland, age 24 (not great uncle) was a victim of the disease. I thought I would use his picture (still looking for it) in the piece. He was quite a handsome dude. John was the oldest of four children. My mother was his sister and often spoke about how devastated the family was when he died.

    He died in Lynn, MA and I was able to get his obits from the Lynn Library in the Item and Daily Telegraph newspapers. So now I know a bit more about him. I will probably frame the article around the other bits of information on the front page of these papers – having to do with the war effort, news from “the Front,” and precautions to be taken for the flu. Recall in those days the print was very small and they really packed a great deal of info into every page of the paper.

    If you are wondering how I could have an uncle who died 100 years ago – my mother was 41 when I was born and I am now 78. It’s only a number.

    I am not really into genealogy as such, and don’t use twitter or pinterest, but I would enjoy hearing from others whose ancestors also succumbed in that tragic event. My Uncle John’s death notice was among many others listed that day, September 21, 1918. Most were young folks in their 20s and 30s.

    Nancy, I wish to thank you for bringing this interesting connection to genealogy and American history to light.

    Helen Breen, Lynnfield, MA

  4. I had two sister I believe there,s were Rachel Harrison and Helena Harrison
    Don,t know to much about them my mother never talked about my brother,s and sisters were older they told me a little of what they knew. One was 22months old they other was around six month’s old. My parents were Flossie Haddie(Raner) and Benjamin Frank Harrison they moved a lot and worked on farms They lived somewhere around lake I would really appreciate
    If you could find any information. Thank you

    1. I had two sister I believe there,s were Rachel Harrison and Helena Harrison
      Don,t know to much about them my mother never talked about my brother,s and sisters were older they told me a little of what they knew. One was 22months old they other was around six month’s old. My parents were Flossie Haddie(Raner) and Benjamin Frank Harrison they moved a lot and worked on farms They lived somewhere around lake I would really appreciate
      If you could find any information. Thank you I,m not sure what type of flu they had. What was the name of the other flu was there back then?

      1. Hi Marie,
        I’m not able to do research for you, but I would suggest you first try to track down death certificates and obituaries. That’s where I would start. I’m not aware of any other “flu” in 1918 other than what was known as the Spanish Flu.


  5. Thanks, Nancy.

    I always wondered why the “Spanish flu” was so named. I came across this tidbit on Wikipedia yesterday. It had to do with public relations I guess…

    “To maintain morale, wartime censors minimized early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States.[17][18] Papers were free to report the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain (such as the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII).[19] This created a false impression of Spain as especially hard hit,[20]thereby giving rise to the pandemic’s nickname, Spanish Flu.[21”

  6. Thanks for writing this informative article on the 1918 Flu Pandemic. My grandmother, Louise Albers Niehaus, and her 8 month old son were victims of this tragedy. She was 25 years old when she died on 25 Feb 1919 and her son died three days later. They were buried together. She left three small children. Both death certificates give broncho pneumonia as the cause of death. I wish I could have known her. She was fondly remembered by her family.

  7. At 57, with 4 grandchildren of my own (oldest almost 9), I just found out that my maternal grandmother was 9 yrs old when she lost her grandmother, father, mother and 7 yr old brother in 1918 in Dalton, GA. She never spoke of it.

    1. Anthony – what a terrible thing to happen to a child (or anyone!) After they all passed away, where did she live? And I’m not surprised that she didn’t talk about it – I think in those days people kept their emotions to themselves more than we do today. Nancy

  8. Thank you all for addressing this devastating event during our history. It gives me hope that there is a possibility of finding some type of record. My paternal grandparents, with the name of Richmond & Bettie Grice, died during this epidemic; or so the oral history goes, only their death didn’t occur until 1920. Reading the entry from Ross Weintraub, confirms that the influenza was still making its way through the states.
    The last census found for my grandparents was dated 14 Jan 1920 in Madison, St Francis, Arkansas, & they died within weeks of each other. Had it not been for one of my grandmothers sisters, my father & 4 of his siblings would have been orphaned. I had pretty much given up all hope of continuing the research in regard to this epidemic. Now I know it can be continued.

    1. Hi Skye,
      Yes, it is fascinating to learn about this pandemic. After researching the blog post I actually bought a Kindle book called Pale Rider – the Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World. This is a topic I feel I can learn far more about – as well as helping other genealogy folks pin down the cause of death for their 1917-1920 families. Nancy

  9. My great aunt, Fanny Edith M. Chapman, died in the pandemic. She was born in 1892 in Rowley Regis, Staffordshire, England, and came to the United States with her parents (Thomas and Phoebe Chapman) and siblings in 1904. They lived in Newark, New Jersey. My grandmother, Blanche (Leblanc) Chapman and grandfather Walter Job Chapman, who resided in East Orange, New Jersey often told of her terrible illness and of the non-stop train of hearses on the Brooklyn Bridge due to the vast toll of the disease. Although I can find Fanny in multiple Civic, State, Federal, and even English Directories and Censuses (even a Passenger List), all written information of her abruptly ceases in 1918 presumably with her death. I still can find no record (or obituary) of her death or burial. Wondering where the information could be hiding?

    1. Hi Diane,

      The more I read about the pandemic, the more horrifying it becomes. I had no idea how it devastated the world. Can you access death certificates or undertaker records?


  10. I haven’t yet searched for paper verification, but the story in our family says that my great-grandmother, Effie Hafner Johnson, and my grandfather’s first wife, named May, were both sick with the flu at the same time. My grandfather, Walter Harley Johnson, cared for them both, in separate households. He would spend a “shift” with one, where he would boil the linens and change the bed, and tend to her needs. Then he would change his clothes, take a drink of whiskey, and ride on horseback to the other, where he would do it all over again. He never got sick. Unfortunately, the ladies both died within two weeks of each other. He and his wife had only been married for three months. This was in Iowa.

    1. Hi Debra,

      Thank you for sharing the story – and a sad one it is, indeed. This “flu” really wiped out a huge number of people.


  11. Hello I have often wanted to share the extraordinary story of my great aunt Loretta Korzelius Adema.
    She was born in Buffalo New York on October 25th 1918. She was one of 13 children.They were a German/Irish Catholic family that lived in South Buffalo. A very tight working class community. She had an older sister Elizabeth (known as Betty) who was 18 months older. The story goes that it was in the midst of the flu epidemic in Buffalo, New York. When my Great Grandmother went into labor with Loretta, the hospitals were all closed and people were forced to give birth at home. Just as my Aunt made her entrance into the world , her 18 month old sister Betty was taking her last breaths in brother William’s arms (he was my grandfather). Poor baby died of the flu just as her sister was born. Death into life in the same family at home. My aunt was a hoot, she never had children but outlived two husbands, she was a worker, a drinker, a hell raiser, and brandished her Faith like a sword, she lived until she was 93, lonely, as all her brothers and sisters died before her. She often lamented “the Lord won’t take me and the devil won’t have me”. I loved her.

    1. Hi Julie – thank you so much for sharing this story. Your great-aunt sounds like one of my aunts! They are so easy to love, aren’t they? Nancy

    1. Nancy – the more I read about it, the more I understand the enormity. Truly hard to wrap your head around. Nancy

  12. My father’s mother died in Essex County, NJ in 1918 from the Spanish Flu. I have her maiden and married name and would like to be able to at least find out where she is buried. Everyone who could have answered questions I have is now deceased. I have tried burials and searched death notices, etc with no luck. I will try a couple of your suggestions, thanks.

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