Epidemics, medical advances, drugs, all affected Richmond lives in the early 1900s. Today the zika virus and ebola evoke fear but in Harry Stilson’s time, Spanish influenza stuck terror in hearts. 1918 was an especially deadly year and Richmond wasn’t exempt from tragedy. My great-grandfather, Harry Stilson, as a streetcar motorman, was exposed to passengers with all sorts of diseases as were his fellow “car men.” He kept a journal and one entry offered a poignant illustration of the friendships between streetcar men: “Wed 8/7/18 W C Wright my conductor, became sick and getting worse. I asked to have him relieved but it was 3.30 before Outland 212, came, and I had gotten Wright into Power House to wait for Ambulance which had been called to take him home.” The next day his entry read: “Thurs 8/8/18 Told that Conductor William Clarence Wright died last night after 7 PM at the house of his sister at 1505 Garland Ave Barton Heights.” A few months later, he noted: “Fri 10/25/18 Spanish Influenza the end of Willie McCloud last night.”

Diphtheria was another dreaded disease. I found this booklet entitled “Train Ticket to No-Diphtheria-Town on the Health Road” filled out with my aunt’s name. In 1913, the Schick skin test was developed but only came to the United States in 1923. It offered a simple mass immunization and I suppose the “Train Ticket” was designed to inspire participation in the immunization programs.

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Medical practices were different back then. My grandmother was bitten by a snake as a little girl. Doctors were summoned from Richmond or Midlothian to treat Bon Air patients so her father called the doctor. Hours passed. Finally, at sundown, Dr. Hazen rode up on his horse and said, “If that snake was poisonous, she’d be dead” and headed home again.

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Visiting nurses and midwives handled most medical emergencies. Harry simply labeled this photo “Visiting colored nurse” with no explanation of who, where, or why he took her picture. 003 Black health nurse

Even back then, the Medical College of Virginia was respected for its advanced treatments. Several photographs of “Mr. & Mrs. Lynch” clarified that they were not related to Harry’s son-in-law, Lee Lynch. The couple came from North Carolina for treatment and rented an apartment from Harry Stilson. Several notations on photographs refer to Mrs. Lynch having “little chance of surviving” whatever illness she suffered from.Hospital stays exposed patients to germs and bugs. Dr. Charles Williams was a patient at MCV as a boy and witnessed the use of blow torches to exterminate bugs in his hospital room. lynch

Harry’s sister was married to a doctor and some of his equipment, including a porcelain urinal, survived the decades to wind up in my house. Without disinfectants, I doubt any of the equipment was very sanitary. urinal

And then there were the usual accidents…broken bones and such. Bet they didn’t offer this guy his choice in neon-colored casts.

man in castHarry Stilson’s bouts with his “lungs” were less worrisome than they could have been. He reported missing work and then, “feeling some better”, going to see his friend, Sam Sparrow, in Jackson Ward. Sparrow, an African-American railroad porter, had reason to be irritated at Harry if he realized that Harry, still sick, might have caused what Sparrow told Harry: “Tue 12/17/18, Sparrow reported his wife sick Saturday night soon after I left.” People didn’t know how germs were transferred. Without sick day pay, missing work was a financial hardship so folks like Harry “Went back to work “all in” at quitting time” and probably passed his germs on to his coworkers as they had done to him.

The descriptions and terms are quaint, as when Harry wrote that his conductor was ill: “2/9/19 Epperson off, throat and lung sore.” All in all, I’m glad to live in times when inoculations are routine, sanitizers are available in most public places, and urinals come in disposable plastic.