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

Save Your Family Stories - 10 Easy Steps


  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.


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