Preserved in the Thomaston-Upson Archives in Thomaston is the diary of Mattie Lou Hightower, my great-great-grandmother.
I bring it up this week because she writes about the Spanish flu, reports of which are few and far between in the local papers from 1918 and 1919.
The director of the archives, Jamesan Gramme, speculated that might be a result of the Sedition Act. Enacted in 1918, it curbed any criticism of the United States war effort, which could hurt the sale of war bonds.
In the case of Spanish flu, the act may have prevented doctors and newspapers from accurately reporting the outbreak for fear it could damage the country’s reputation. The punishment for doing so was up to 20 years in prison.
Perhaps that is why there isn’t much of a historical record at the local level about the pandemic. Thankfully, we can use the diaries of people like my great-great-grandmother to give us an idea of what life was like in the midst of a global pandemic and World War I.
Mattie Lou was born in 1867, and her husband, Robert E. Hightower Sr., was among the founders of Thomaston Cotton Mills in Thomaston. They had three children: Harrison, Robert Jr. and Julian.
On Oct. 7, 1918 — the day the Atlanta health officer, Dr. J.P. Kennedy, shut down all public spaces in the city — Mattie Lou first writes about the pandemic. Their cook “really is sick, am afraid she is taking Spanish flu.”
That evening, Mattie Lou and my great-great-granddad took the train to Atlanta to see Julian before he left for Officer’s Training School in Charleston, South Carolina. They spent two nights at the Piedmont Hotel, the site of which today is the Equitable Building, 100 Peachtree St. It took up the block of Peachtree, Luckie, Forsyth and Broad streets.
She writes, “All public places in Atlanta are closed, even churches for two months … on account of Spanish flu.”
In that same entry, she noted, “Walter Meek’s body was brought down tonight. He died at a N.C. camp, he was a lieutenant. Also see a notice of death of Robt. Leonard.”
When she returned to Thomaston on Oct. 9, she learned two of her grandchildren — Harrison’s sons Billie and Frank — had come down with Spanish flu. Within two days, Harrison and her daughter-in-law were also infected.
On Oct. 12, she reported, “Found Harrison feeling so badly and Billie too. … When I left at five-thirty, the children’s fever was beginning to rise again, and they were coughing so much.” She ended the entry by writing, “Dr. and Mrs. Moore, of Macon, could not come, as we expected, on account of this same ‘flu.’”
This passage from Oct. 13 captures the trepidation of the time: “I was awakened in the night by an old screech owl. He came in the tree right across from our house, and it did sound so mournful and dreadful. I felt as if he was a bird of ill omen and that something was going to happen to some of my loved ones.”
A letter from her son Julian on Oct. 16 provided some relief. He didn’t have the flu, but four members of his football team did and were “still in the hospital.”
Through October and into November, Mattie Lou filled the diary with mentions of friends and relatives struggling with illness.
“There is so much flu in Thomaston, in some homes the whole family are down with it. Do hope we have no more deaths from it,” she wrote on Nov. 15.
And there was always the war. On Oct. 17, she wrote, “… two of Robert Waker’s best friends were lost on that torpedoed ship the other day and Sis Lily felt so blue over it. So many sad things have happened lately that cast a gloom over us all.”
The fact Mattie Lou repeatedly wrote about the virus, going so far as to say, “there is so much” of it, yet the Spanish flu barely registers an entry in the local paper is incredible. It may confirm the Thomaston-Upson Archives director’s speculation on the Sedition Act’s impact.
Something is definitely amiss.
In our time, with the daily videos of violence and the resulting protests and the rise in coronavirus cases throughout the state, there are similarities in terms of the pressures bearing down on us all.
Mattie Lou Hightower’s diary offers a more personal side of history. It reminds us the people who came before us survived more with less.