The first person in West Virginia to die from the Spanish Flu pandemic was an incarcerated Black man.
By Justin McHenry
September 26, 1918.
Martinsburg, West Virginia.
Robert Smith was getting on that train. He just couldn’t do it himself. Ashen-faced and too weak to walk, his body had to be drug by U.S. Marshals, one on each arm, across the trainyard, the tips of his shoes digging tiny trenches in the gravel.
The No. 15 sat there dirty and black, a thin trail of smoke puffing from its stack. The rest of the prisoners looked on as the marshals loaded the shackled Smith onto the train and slumped him down on a bench. All aboard and secured, the train pulled out of the B&O station, rolling west out of Martinsburg and on towards Wheeling. Smith’s fevered eyes scanned the landscape, his head bouncing lightly off the glass to the rhythm of the tracks.
Earlier that day, an ocean away, American and French forces opened the Meuse-Argonne offensive in an attempt to break the German line and bring a close to the Great War. It was, like all previous offensives on the Western Front, a failure. But the war was nearly at its tipping point, and in less than two months it would be over.
The Spanish Influenza, which had flared up during the war, would outlast it. The flu decimated both the German and Allied armies and spread quickly around the world, tearing through civilian communities. Something like a third of the world’s population would become infected by the flu, which would kill as many as a hundred million people by the time it finally dissipated.
Robert Smith could care less about any of that. He was dying. He would end up a casualty of the Spanish flu, arriving in Wheeling DOA. A Martinsburg newspaper at the time claimed Smith was the first death in the county from the Spanish flu, which would make him odds-on favorite for being the first person to die from the pandemic in all of West Virginia.
His death was not instantaneous. It was drawn out, painful, messy. Thick green fluid poured out of his nose and mouth. Mucus flooded into his lungs. His breaths became shallower and shallower, a death rattle drowned out by the clattering of the train. It would not have been pretty. And eventually, somewhere on those 279 miles between Martinsburg and Wheeling, Robert Smith would slump over and die.
The flu came in three waves. The first, contained mostly to military encampments, came in the Midwest in the spring and summer of ‘18. The second began in Boston that fall and wouldn’t be contained. It spread South through the Mid-Atlantic and into the old Confederacy. It spread North up through the remaining part of New England, and West, rolling over the rest of the county. The third wave hit and spread in the winter of ‘19, a cruel aftershock.
In many regards, this was the mother of all flus. All outbreaks since 1918 are direct descendants from the 1918 virus. It infected an estimated five hundred million people, resulting in up to one hundred million deaths. World War I, by comparison, produced no more than eighteen million deaths over four years.
Everything about the Spanish Flu pandemic was unprecedented. That it came in three successive waves and occurred during periods that are not conducive to the flu was unheard-of. The first wave, the Spring wave, spread unevenly across the United States, Europe, and Asia. Illness rates were high, but death rates remained normal. The second wave, the Fall wave, proved to be highly fatal. The increase in severity from first to second wave is supposed to take years and years of mutation to the virus, not just a few weeks. It also proved to be extremely fatal for young adults, with fatality rates twenty times higher among fifteen-to-thirty-four-year-olds than other flu outbreaks. In West Virginia, in 1918, it killed more twenty-to-thirty-nine-year-olds (1,531 in all) than all other age brackets combined. In total, the flu killed approximately six hundred and seventy-five thousand Americans that year and managed to depress the average life expectancy in the United State by more than ten years.
It was called the “three-day fever.” The early symptoms were a temperature in the range of 102 to 104 degrees. The sickness came on suddenly. One moment a person would be feeling just fine, and the next they were weak and sick. Many experienced a pain in the eyes, as well as pain in the ears, head, back, a sore throat, and general soreness all over. It left you feeling utterly exhausted, but most made a full recovery after three or four days. The flu became deadly when it started to cause serious respiratory problems, like pneumonia. It would worm its way down into your chest and once that happened no matter how young and strong and healthy you were, you were most likely dead.
In West Virginia, the flu first appeared in the Eastern Panhandle late in September 1918, with Smith’s case very likely being one of the country’s first fatalities of the second wave; there were no other reported or recorded flu- or respiratory-related deaths prior to his in the Eastern Panhandle. It traveled west and south, and by the middle of October it had touched every county in the state. The number of deaths caused by influenza skyrocketed. In September, there were thirty reported flu-related deaths. In October, that number ballooned to 1,491.
The pandemic swamped the state’s health infrastructure. Doctors and nurses, local health boards, and the state health department were all simply playing catch-up with the events on the ground. Because of the bizarre behavior of the flu itself, local doctors were not even sure what it was or how to treat it. They threw any and every treatment they could think of at it: raw onions, heart stimulants, alcohol, quinine and salts, hot lemonade. Nothing worked. The sheer volume of those infected strained the medical establishment’s ability to provide effective care, and made it impossible to organize and combat the virus.
The Eastern Panhandle was affected the most. Berkeley and Jefferson counties combined reported fifteen thousand cases between October 15 and November 11, 1918, resulting in eight hundred deaths, most of which went unreported. James Horvatt, who was also incarcerated at the Martinsburg jail at the time, contracted the flu from Smith. He appeared in court on September 27, the day after Smith’s death. Due to the severity of his illness, he was offered a continuance, which he refused, and his case went to trial, spreading the disease among those in the courtroom that day. Three lawyers there contracted the disease and died. The judge, the county clerk, and the assistant prosecuting attorney all contracted the flu. They survived, but spread the disease to their immediate families and others around the courthouse. There were gruesome scenes all over the county. At one point, the Sheriff performed a wellness check on one family only to discover every one of them dead, the baby laying on top of the dresser.
A local committee in Martinsburg estimated that only two in ten people were able to attend to their normal duties because of the widespread havoc the flu brought down upon the community. Gravediggers had a backlog of graves, as they could not keep up with demand. Caskets were sparse, and a local wagon maker had to be called into service to produce enough for the bodies. The burials were quick affairs. Funerals were banned. Churches closed. Public meetings canceled. Theaters shut down. The whole place turned into a ghost town, as those who didn’t yet have the disease opted to stay indoors, away from the infected.
Smith had been arrested for theft. A man named Bob Rippey lifted a dollar’s worth of gin off the riverboat R. Dunbar, sometime in July of 1918, and then passed it along to Smith and Charles Washington, who drank it all up without leaving any for Rippey. Smith was arrested in New Martinsville and awaited trial in Martinsburg at the Northern District Court. He sat in jail in Martinsburg for more than two months. When his day in court finally arrived, things moved fast: Smith was indicted on Friday, sentenced on Monday, and died on Thursday.
The trial was a short one. In reality, it was probably over before it began. Since the crime took place on a riverboat conducting interstate trade, it became a federal case and not a local one. On September 23, the United States Attorney, Stuart W. Walker, presented five witnesses to the grand jury, one of them being Rippey, the man who stole the gin in the first place, who turned state’s evidence against Smith and Washington.
The two co-defendants offered up a novel defense based on their race. All three men were Black. They did not deny receiving the stolen gin or drinking it all up. Instead, they said their innocence relied upon the government’s lack of jurisdiction over what Black men did or didn’t do with their gin. To them it was a personal matter between three Black guys, and they were confused as to why the Federal government would interfere with something so intimate. They told the judge and the jury that this was a direct infringement upon their fifteenth amendment rights.
Everyone seemingly had a good laugh at this, which did not bode well for the co-defendants. The grand jury turned around and delivered a guilty verdict and placed Smith at the mercy of the court. District Court Judge, Alston G. Dayton, was not so merciful, and sentenced Smith to sixty days in the Ohio County Jail, on top of the sixty-plus days he spent in the Martinsburg jail. One hundred and twenty-plus days for a dollar’s worth of gin that he didn’t even steal.
Two more jail-sitting days later, on September 26, Deputy Marshal J. D. Moore retrieved Smith from the cell to transport him to the train station, most likely with the help of fellow Marshal, E. W. Athey. The two dragged Smith onto the train bound for Wheeling. Moore was paid $56.80 for seeing Smith off. In his report to collect the fee, Moore said he successfully delivered the body of Smith to the Ohio County Jail, and failed to mention that Smith died in transit.
Robert Smith was Black; nineteen or thirty-five, depending on the report; from Marietta, Ohio (maybe); and convicted of receiving stolen gin from a riverboat on the Ohio. Apart from his death, that is the totality of what is publicly known about him. The story of James Horvatt gets told and retold, but the man responsible for giving him the flu, Smith, is seldom mentioned. We know more about the boat that held the gin than the man who drank it.
There’s a tragedy somewhere that more isn’t known about Smith, while so much is known about all the men who put him in jail. Athey played a part in the Cliftonville Mine Battle, when he was with the State Police. The foreman of the jury, Charles Lee Stuckey, was the Sheriff of Berkeley County at the time and would later serve in the House of Delegates. Stuart Walker was born in Berkeley County, educated at the Berkeley Academy, and received his law degree at Washington and Lee University. Somewhere along the way he obtained the title of Colonel. He partly owned the Potts Creek Iron Ore Co., worked for many years for the coal industry in different managerial capacities, ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1904, and was appointed by Woodrow Wilson to be district attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia in 1916.
Then, there’s Judge Alston Gordon Dayton, a controversial figure and an unabashed hater of the United Mine Workers of America. It the 1880s he served as prosecuting attorney for Upshur County, then Barbour County. He was elected to Congress as a Republican in 1895 and served there until 1905, when Theodore Roosevelt appointed him judge of the Northern District, which was where he remained until his death in 1920. He issued injunction after injunction to prohibit miners from unionizing, and his decision in Hitchman Coal and Coke v. Mitchell, in 1907, amounted to an all-out assault on the UMWA in the northern coalfields of West Virginia by legalizing the practice of “yellow-dog contracts” (an employment contract that made not joining a union a condition of employment for a miner).
As a result of Dayton’s legal battles with the UMWA, Congress held hearings on his conduct (or misconduct). The hearings revealed favoritism toward coal operators and a deep-seated hatred of unions. He called union organizer Fannie Sellins “a disgrace to American womanhood” for being associated with the UMWA. It was alleged that he conspired to oust his predecessor Judge John J. Jackson, and that he used government funds to pay for his own personal gardener and cook. Congress admonished him for his “many matters of individual bad taste” and for not adhering to the “high standard of judicial ethics.”
One thing that came out of the Dayton hearings that had a large bearing on the Smith case, and ultimately on Smith’s death, was that it uncovered the practice of “railroading” by deputy marshals. Railroading involved ferrying prisoners back and forth across the state, allowing the marshals to graft the government out of fees they received each time a prisoner was transported. Deputy marshals were not paid salaries. Their whole compensation depended on these fees from transporting prisoners, which of course put pressure on them to keep moving prisoners, whether they were healthy or sick, alive or dead. The longer the ride, the greater the fee. Additional pressure was applied to judges and prosecuting attorneys to sentence and ship these prisoners to and fro.
Smith was arrested in New Martinsville and shuttled to Martinsburg on the other side of the state, and, upon his conviction, was shuttled back across the state to Wheeling. All told he was moved some five hundred miles, and the deputies transporting him on his journeys received their fees and justified their positions. $56.80 to Wheeling for just one prisoner is what Moore collected. He (or some other Deputy Marshal) probably received something similar for transporting Smith from New Martinsville to Martinsburg, bringing the sum total value that the authorities placed upon his life to a little over $100.
Dozens of other people were also shipped across the state for this one court session. They, like Smith, had been arrested that summer of 1918 and ferried to Martinsburg to be housed in the cells. By the time the next court was in session in September, there were more than a hundred federal prisoners crowded into the county jail, with the regular allotment of county offenders sprinkled on top.
These were the conditions under which the Spanish Flu first sprung up in West Virginia: overcrowding of a jail built to manage a fraction of that population. The flu festered and spread among the inmates and then exploded out into the courts and then the public. The problem was only exacerbated when the sentenced men were herded onto the train and shipped West to serve out their sentences and, incidentally, spread the disease more quickly. It is probably no coincidence that the only other flu-related death outside of Berkeley County that September happened in Keyser, along the same route that Smith and the other infected men traveled, and to a man who worked on the railroad.
Smith’s case has consumed me for a couple decades now, and there’s little doubt in my mind that the liberties taken by his handlers, given his weakened condition and the relative harshness of the sentence, were due to his race. Add to that the Marshal’s financial stake in seeing him get on that train, and Smith never really had a chance. The first person to die in West Virginia from the Spanish Flu pandemic was an incarcerated Black man, and the only reason he died was so the U.S. Marshal escorting him on a train across the state could pocket $50.
That’s one of the things that affects me so much about Smith’s case: he didn’t even get to be the protagonist of his own story, an all-too-common refrain for Black Americans still trodden upon by the hooves of Jim Crow (in)justice. Smith was marginalized, expendable, just another fee for the marshals, just another case for the DA, just another thief to the judge. Never a man. Nobody recorded his age. We don’t know his face. We don’t know his voice. We don’t know his thoughts. We don’t know his family. We don’t know his past, and we certainly never got to see the promise lying within him. He’s a ghost, a fleeting thought slipping through the cracks of memory. What we do know is that he sat on a westbound train and died.
They buried Smith in a pauper’s grave at the Peninsula Cemetery in Wheeling. If you are ever on I-70 travelling west through Wheeling, before the Route 250 exit, right before the Wheeling Tunnel, look north through the trees. There you will see Robert Smith’s final resting place, overgrown and wild. In a second you’ll be by it and on into the tunnel and out over the Ohio. ■
A Note on Sources: I first ran across Smith’s story in the summer of 2001. I was browsing through an old issue of West Virginia History (Vol. 38, No. 2, January 1977) in the back of a Ben Franklin that had been converted into a consignment store in Nitro, West Virginia. In a brief paragraph, the author of the article, “A West Virginia County’s Experience with the 1918 Influenza Epidemic,” William T. Doherty, described how Smith was tried and then died on his way being transferred to Wheeling. This sparked my curiosity and has stayed with me ever since.
This article was culled together from a wide variety of sources. Accounts of Smith’s trial and his death come from newspapers accounts that were published in the Martinsburg World and Evening Journal accessed at Shepherd University, West Virginia Archives, and West Virginia University. Information related to Smith’s crime and his transportation by U.S. Marshals is found in the federal case file #5405, U.S. vs. Charles Washington and Robert Smith, found at the National Archives in Philadelphia. Details and statistics related to Spanish flu deaths in West Virginia were gathered from State Health Department reports and West Virginia death records maintained by the West Virginia Archives. Background information on the flu came from various articles and publications, and Berkeley County information was provided by “The ‘Flu’ Epidemic,” found in History of Berkeley County. Robert Smith’s death certificate can be found here.
Justin McHenry is an archivist and historian who is passionate about West Virginia history and preserving local and personal histories.
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