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The Daily Genealogist: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918

(A Note from the Editor) Permanent link
Betlock Lynn

Lynn Betlock

The Weekly Genealogist survey on April 9 asked readers about heroic ancestors. (The question was a follow up to a previous one on black sheep ancestors.) We received a number of written responses to the question, some of which were published on April 16. NEHGS genealogist Marie Daly wrote a story about her grandmother's heroism during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, which we are featuring today.

Many accolades have deservedly gone to first-responders who risked their lives by running toward catastrophic danger to rescue the injured, the stranded, and the lost. But there have also been many other unsung heroes among us--doctors, nurses, clergy, and ordinary men and women--who knowingly exposed themselves to virulent disease to care for the sick and dying. My grandmother was among these heroes.

In 1918, a newly mutated and virulent influenza strain killed twenty to forty million people worldwide. Approximately 675,000 Americans died from the flu, ten times more than were killed in World War I. Boston was the first city in the country to be affected, and it suffered the most losses. The contagion first appeared among returning sailors and spread rapidly. Located next to Boston, densely populated Cambridge, with a large percentage of immigrants, was overwhelmed. My mother, then a child in Cambridge, recalled the wail of ambulance sirens day and night.

Exhausted doctors worked around the clock, but medical care was mainly palliative. Although temporary hospitals were established, most afflicted people could not get into hospitals and lay morbidly ill at home, cared for by family members. Typically, a patient would come down with chills and fever on the first day. By the next day, the blue-tinged victim would be gasping for breath. By the third day, the patient would be dead, asphyxiated by the massive amounts of fluid in his or her lungs. The flu killed 2.5% of people who contracted the disease, a case mortality rate much higher than in previous outbreaks. 

The epidemic peaked in September and October, and by November, Cambridge had reopened schools and theaters, and people began taking public transportation and attending church services again. In December, a rebound epidemic occurred. My grandmother, Mary Ellen (Steele) Kelly, was 38 years old, and lived in a triple-decker with her husband, a Cambridge police officer, and her two daughters, ages eight and three years. Her neighbor contracted influenza and lay dying and alone. By December, people knew how dangerous the infection was, and other neighbors refused to help the woman. My grandmother voluntarily stepped forward to care for the dying neighbor. She knew all too well that she was risking her life to help the woman. The neighbor soon died, and, within a day, my grandmother, Mary Ellen (Steele) Kelly, contracted the flu; she died three days later. 

We have medals to acclaim the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers and first responders. We have only our memories of our unrecognized heroes who demonstrated similar virtues in the face of more insidious peril. We should hold these heroes in our hearts and record their courageous deeds for posterity.

For more information:

The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia offers a searchable archive of more than 16,000 photographs and documents, and accounts of the epidemic in fifty American cities.

The Great Pandemic: The United States in 1918-1919 includes documents, illustrations, and an account of the situation in each state.

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918
provides a brief overview of the epidemic, with links to additional information. 

The Pandemic Influenza Storybook
contains personal recollections submitted by survivors, and their families and friends.

The Daily Genealogist: New York City Ancestors

(Surveys) Permanent link
Betlock Lynn

Lynn Betlock

The Weekly Genealogist Survey
Last week's survey asked if any of your ancestors took part in the battles at Lexington and Concord, or participated in other related events on that day. 3,467 people answered the survey. The results are:
•    35%, Yes, I have at least one ancestor who participated.
•    29%, No, I don't have any ancestors who participated.
•    36%, I am not sure whether any of my ancestors participated.

This week's survey asks if any of your ancestors lived in what is now New York City. Take the survey now!

The Daily Genealogist: Lexington and Concord

(Surveys) Permanent link
Betlock Lynn

Lynn Betlock

Last week's survey asked if you have any"heroic" ancestors. 3,628 people answered the survey. The resultsare:

  • 33%    Yes, I have many heroic ancestors (5 ormore).
  • 30%    Yes, I have two to four heroic ancestors.
  • 12%    Yes, I have one heroic ancestor.
  • 25%    No, I am not aware of any heroic ancestorsin my family.

This week's survey asks about ancestors at the battles atLexington and Concord. Take the survey now!


The Daily Genealogist: Rapid City Society for Genealogical Research, South Dakota

(Spotlight) Permanent link
Valerie Beaudrault

Valerie Beaudrault
Assistant Editor

Rapid City Society for Genealogical Research, South Dakota

Rapid City, located in southwestern South Dakota, is the county seat of Pennington County. The Rapid City Society for Genealogical Research has made a number of resources available on its website in PDF format. Click the Records tab to access them.

Mortuary Records Index
Behrens' Mortuary records cover 1879 to 1971 (early records contain more information than later ones). The data fields are last name, first name, death date, age, where buried, and number. Additional data, drawn from the 1880 census, 1890 reconstructed census, the 1900 census, and Eka Parkinson's newspaper readings (1879 to 1923), are provided.

Pennington County, South Dakota Residents and Land Owners, 1890
The Rapid City Society for Genealogical Research searched local land records, tax lists, school records, mining records, newspapers, and a number of other sources to attempt to reconstruct the 1890 U.S. Federal Census for Pennington County. The results of their research were published in a book titled Pennington County Residents and Landowners--1890, indexed in this database.

Obituary Indexes
The obituaries in this alphabetical index are drawn from The Rapid City Journal from 1968 through 2012. The data fields include name, age, death, location, cemetery, and obituary date. The society will look up obituaries for individuals whose names appear in the database.

Cemetery Readings
This section of the website contains burial databases for seventeen cemeteries in various counties in South Dakota, including Pennington County. One cemetery is located in North Dakota.

Deceased Rapid City Classmates--1962
This database of students from the Rapid City High School class of 1962 who died between graduation and 2012 is compiled from a book titled Deceased Classmates, Rapid City High School Class of 1962 Cobblers, Gone But Not Forgotten. The data fields include name, date of birth, and date of death.

The Daily Genealogist: Black Sheep Ancestors Survey

 Permanent link
Betlock Lynn

Lynn Betlock

The Weekly Genealogist Survey

Last week's survey asked about your familiarity with the genealogical practice of "double dating." 4,046 people answered the survey. More than one answer could be selected. The results are:


48%, I understand the concept of double dating.

29%, I am somewhat familiar with double dating.

9%, I am confused by the concept of double dating.

14%, I have never heard of double dating.


This week's survey asks about black sheep ancestors. Take the survey now

The Daily Genealogist: Black Sheep Ancestors

 Permanent link
Betlock Lynn

Lynn Betlock

Genealogists and non-genealogists alike are often fascinated by their "black sheep" ancestors. Of course, this interest doesn't stem from approval of crimes and misdeeds. Instead, researching black sheep ancestors can often be more exciting than investigating more virtuous forebears. Ancestors who were scoundrels can capture the imagination and bring color and pathos to a family history. I doubt many people muse about why ancestors stayed on the straight and narrow path throughout their lives. Considering those forebears who didn't follow the rules--and why they did not--is a lot more thought-provoking. In addition, black sheep ancestors--particularly those who were actual criminals--may have generated additional records, such as court documents and newspaper accounts. Generally, no extra records are created when a person is a good and upstanding citizen (with the exception, perhaps, of good citizenship awards). The often rich and detailed records about black sheep ancestors might not only give information about transgressions but also provide insight into family circumstances not likely to be found anywhere else.       

In the early 2000s, we regularly featured readers' black sheep ancestor stories in both New England Ancestors magazine (the predecessor to American Ancestors) and the e-newsletter. In fact, the black sheep stories (along with "my favorite ancestor" stories) were so popular that we ran at least one in the e-news almost every week for about two-and-a-half years, from March 2003 to October 2005. I recently read through the stories in our e-newsletter archive and found a host of reasons why someone might be pegged as a black sheep ancestor: adultery, bigamy, child abandonment, counterfeiting, desertion from the military, murder, and theft. The results of this week's survey, which asks whether readers have black sheep ancestors, should produce interesting results. Unfortunately, the survey can't answer the question of how many readers have black sheep ancestors and don't know it!    

Below is a selection of related resources:
•    Blacksheep Ancestors offers links to prison records, insane asylum records, historical court records, execution records, and biographies of notorious criminals.
•    International Blacksheep Society of Genealogists is an association of genealogists who have found "blacksheep ancestors" in their direct family lines.
•    Wanted! U.S. Criminal Records by Ron Arons is a reference book with information about sources for criminal records and listings of relevant archives, libraries, courts, and online sites.
•    The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London's Central Criminal Court, 1674-1913 is a fully searchable edition containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court.
•    Least Wanted: A Century of American Mug Shots by Mark Michaelson is described in evocative detail in this 2006 New York Times article.  

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