The sealed door of the receiving vault at Westview Cemetery bears a nod to what happened in Atlanta in the fall and winter of 1918-19.
That is when the Spanish flu swept across the globe. One-third of the world’s population became infected, resulting in more than 50 million deaths. Of those, 675,000 were in the United States.
I’m not trying to put the fear of God in anyone. As we struggle with the coronavirus (COVID-19), I was thinking about what to write about this week. I felt a little historical perspective would be appreciated.
The country was engaged in the tail end of World War I when the Spanish flu struck. Soldiers training at Camp Gordon in Chamblee were particularly hard hit. On Oct. 2, 1918, 138 soldiers were diagnosed with the virus. Atlanta closed schools and theaters and banned public gatherings. The University of Georgia shut down. Face masks were the norm. Sound familiar?
The Atlanta City Council even limited funerals to 15 minutes.
The inscription on the Westview vault reads, in part, “Great service to the community was rendered by this vault during the winter of 1917-1918 when Atlanta’s Influenza epidemic claimed hundreds of lives. Victims were brought here awaiting burial.”
A fear of disease is the reason Westview is where it is. Atlanta’s first public cemetery, Oakland, was near the city center. When space ran out in the six-acre cemetery, the city convened a committee to find an appropriate site for a new one.
The city tasked the committee with finding a property at least one mile away from the city center for health reasons. The cemetery ended up being a private concern four miles away from Five Points, past the affluent West End neighborhood.
The vault opened in 1888, four years after West View — later Westview — Cemetery opened. Built into the side of a hill, it could hold up to 36 bodies. It allowed families living far away time to get here for the burial services. In the late 19th century, travel to Atlanta from, say, north Georgia would have been an arduous journey.
In the winter months, if the ground froze, the vault could keep the body until the ground thawed and it could be interred. Also back then, hearses were horse-drawn and, if they were hauling coffins, they couldn’t make it out into the cemetery when the roads were rutted and frozen.
In 1945, the cemetery sealed the receiving vault. The more modern Westview Abbey, completed in 1943, was capable of receiving and holding bodies. In 1951, the Atlanta Historical Society donated the plaque sealing the vault for good.
You may have noticed the years on the inscription (1917-1918), noting the vault’s use during the Spanish flu outbreak, do not line up with the years of the Spanish flu (1918-1919). This could just be an error.
Another interesting fact, which historian Jeff Clemmons points out in his excellent book, “Atlanta’s Historic Westview Cemetery,” is the cemetery did not experience a spike in internments during the Spanish flu epidemic. Those numbers were similar to the year prior and the year following, indicating anecdotally at least Atlanta did not have an increase in mortality rates from the global pandemic.
Be that as it may, 750 individuals in Atlanta perished as a result. According to U.S. Census data, the population of Atlanta in 1910 was 154,839. In 1920, that number climbed to 200,616. For a little perspective, the population of Atlanta in 2010 was 420,003.
Westview kept handwritten records, which included the cause of death. I asked the current owner, Charles Bowen, about those numbers. Bowen told me about the vault and its importance in the Spanish flu outbreak while giving me a tour several years ago.
He said the books list the cause of death as “influenza” and suspects the Spanish flu may have been the cause of the death of a similar number of individuals who would have died in any given year as a result of the common flu.
There is a lesson besides the historical footnote. In those newspaper accounts, after a few public health officials thought the worst of the Spanish flu had passed through the community, they reopened the schools, churches and public spaces in early November.
By December, the flu returned and “several prominent citizens were confined to their rooms.”