Brevard County was a sparsely settled, mosquito-plagued frontier when the Spanish flu pandemic swept the nation more than a century ago, wreaking havoc in metropolitan areas.
But much like COVID-19, the influenza still shuttered schools, closed churches and triggered quarantines in October 1918 in Brevard’s biggest cities, Cocoa (population 1,400+) and Titusville (population 1,300+).
And sadly, Mrs. John Eberwine of Artesia — a long-lost Banana River village near today’s Port Canaveral — lost three sons to the dread virus. They “answered the last roll call” while preparing to fight for the U.S. Army in World War I, the Cocoa Tribune reported on Nov. 7, 1918.
Her first son, Charles, died in May 1918 following an attack of pneumonia at Camp Jackson, South Carolina. Then in October, son Fritz died of the same disease at the same camp. The third son, George, died the next day while aboard a troop transport ship bound for France.
“The great difference, as most of us know, is how many more of the young people were affected by the Spanish influenza,” said Gordon Patterson, a professor and historian at the Florida Institute of Technology.
“And that was brought home in, I thought, the really terrible story of the mother who lost three sons to the disease,” Patterson said.
The 1918 influenza pandemic ranks as the worst in modern history, killing at least 50 million worldwide and about 675,000 in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
Microfilm copies of two weekly newspapers, the Cocoa Tribune and the long-titled East Coast Advocate and Indian River Chronicle in Titusville, offer a rare glimpse of local Spanish influenza disruptions. Copies of the Melbourne Times, a third publication, are no longer available from that era, said Michael Boonstra, genealogy librarian at the Central Brevard Library in Cocoa.
Booming during the Progressive Era, rural Brevard County’s census population skyrocketed 80% between 1910 and 1920 — from 4,717 people to 8,505.
The fishing villages of Melbourne and Eau Gallie each boasted 500-odd residents. WWI savings stamps were purchased by residents of long-vanished Brevard communities: Hopkins, Tillman, Courtenay, Allenhurst, Shiloh, Pineda, Indianola, Georgiana, Lotus, Aurantia, Banyan, Tropic and Bonaventure.
Steamboats and railroad transport made Cocoa a bustling port for the citrus industry. Paved streets for automobiles had just been introduced. A newspaper article chronicled the excitement when residents spotted “three hydro-aeroplanes” flying along the riverfront.
And Cocoa Ice & Light Co. advertised a newfangled innovation: “Get Your House Wired: Electricity is Cheaper than Gas or Oil.”
“Back in 1918, it would have been a bigger deal to travel from town to town. If you drive on U.S. 1 today, a lot of the towns blend together. But Cocoa was very different and very far away from Titusville, Eau Gallie and Melbourne,” said Ben Brotemarkle, executive director of the Florida Historical Society.
To journey from Cocoa to Titusville, for example, Brotemarkle said many residents preferred to travel via boat: “You would have to dedicate a whole day to the project.”
On Oct. 8, 1918, to curtail the spread of Spanish influenza, Titusville officials ordered the closing of the public school, churches, Sunday school, the “moving picture show” and all places of public gathering.
Four days later, Cocoa Mayor William A. Heaton issued a similar proclamation.
“He basically put the town in lockdown, canceling all public gatherings. That seemed to be a prudent response. He certainly took decisive action,” Brotemarkle said.
State health officials told Florida flu sufferers to quarantine — and their homes were marked with placards to warn their neighbors.
What’s more, children were forbidden from returning to school for seven days after a physician pronounced him or her cured.
“Some of the similarities are interesting in that the schools were closed, public meetings and gatherings were banned in most places, they recognized that coughing and sneezing could spread it — and all this just over a hundred years ago from today,” Boonstra said.
Brevard fared better than Miami, where the city’s hospital was overwhelmed by ill troops from Naval Air Station Dinner Key. More than 400 residents died from Spanish flu in Jacksonville in October 1918 — and that sum may not have included 155 dead at the predecessor of Naval Air Station Jacksonville, the Florida Times-Union reported.
Patterson noted a list of highlights from the 1918 Cocoa-Titusville newpaper clippings:
Spanish flu severely struck more young people than COVID-19
“Sunday evening, at eight o’clock, the Death Angel came to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Allan A. Sapp, and claimed their precious little 14 months’ old baby girl, that had suffered for more than two weeks with Spanish influenza, which was followed by pneumonia.”
That November 1918 East Coast Advocate and Indian River Chronicle story — headlined “Death of an Infant” — relayed the fate of little Marguerite Katherine Sapp, who was laid to rest in the Titusville Cemetery.
Patterson was also struck by the death of Eau Gallie resident LeLand V. McMillan, who died at age 28 of complications following influenza. His brother had died a few weeks earlier at a military training camp.
“There were obituaries for infants all the way up to older folks, and all people in between. There were people in their 20s,” Brotemarkle said.
The 1918 pandemic occurred during World War I
A cartoon advertisement offered a wartime warning: “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases: As Dangerous as Poison Gas Shells.”
“The Spanish influenza occurred in the midst of a world war. And so, the way in which it was thought about was, this is something that poses an existential threat — just as the war posed an existential threat to the doughboys that went,” Patterson said.
“I wonder if that is one of the differences between 1918-19 and 2020. The full gravity of this existential threat has not, to a substantial number of people, become current,” he said.
“It is something that the 18- or 19-year-old in South Beach or at the end of Fifth Avenue says, ‘Oh, I’m not worried about it for myself.’ But the consequence of that is that the disease can spread into populations which are immunocompromised, or at high risk,” he said.
Spanish flu claimed the son of Eau Gallie’s founder
In 1970, William H. Gleason bought 16,000 acres and named the area Eau Gallie. He was Florida’s first elected lieutenant governor, and his Queen Anne-styled home on Pineapple Avenue is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
His son, Capt. G.G. Gleason, succumbed to Spanish flu-related pneumonia in 1918 in St. Augustine at age 53. He previously lived in Eau Gallie, where he worked as superintendent of Indian River Steamers.
G.G. Gleason’s nephew, William Lansing Gleason, would later co-found Indian Harbour Beach. Lansing Island and Florida Tech’s 480-seat W. Lansing Gleason Performing Arts Center are named in his honor.
Medical quackery: Laxative touted as virus fighter
A lengthy advertisement touted Tanlac, a “powerful reconstructive tonic” that supposedly fortified the weak and tired against deadly Spanish influenza. Tanlac was sold in Titusville at Banner Drug Store.
“In connection with the Tanlac treatment, it is necessary to keep the bowels open by taking Tanlac Laxative Tablets, samples of which are included with every bottle of Tanlac,” the advertisement said.
Tanlac — which contained 17% alcohol — was denounced by the Journal of the American Medical Association as a fraudulent medicine of the vaudeville variety that had “doubtless relieved the people of the South of many thousands of dollars.”
Patterson drew parallels with the Bradenton church that sold a toxic bleach-based “miracle mineral solution” as a coronavirus treatment. Last month, federal prosecutors charged four men in the scheme — one of whom wrote President Donald Trump a letter touting chlorine dioxide as an alleged COVID-19 cure.
“My God, it makes me think all bad ideas come from Florida,” Patterson said, laughing.
Woman becomes trailblazing tax assessor
Brevard County Tax Assessor Willard Hall, 47, who was born in Sharpes, fell ill after his family contracted the disease during a trip to Jacksonville.
They returned home to Titusville, where Hall took to his bed and died within about a week.
“Many hearts were plunged into deep grief,” the Cocoa Tribune reported
Gov. Sidney Catts appointed his wife, Frances, to fulfill his unexpired term in office. This marked the first time in Florida history that a woman was appointed to fill such a county office, the East Coast Advocate and Indian River Chronicle reported.
Like today, health care workers worked on the front lines
Cocoa native Alberta Battle died at age 28, the Cocoa Tribune reported.
“By profession she was a trained nurse, a graduate of the East Coast hospital in St. Augustine, and during the influenza epidemic she nursed her husband through an attack of the disease,” the newspaper reported.
“Not strong herself, she, too, became a victim of the disease, which later developed into pneumonia she was unable to successfully carry through the fight to throw it off.”
She was survived by her husband — and their 7-week-old infant daughter.