With a family story of loss to a pandemic, Eloise Collins of Bridgeton knows she should take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.


Collins is high-risk by reason of her age, and her husband has health issues further endanger him. But, she said, she also has a grandfather she never met because he was carried away at the age of 38 by the Spanish flu in 1918.


His name was Will Stilley.


She shows a photograph of several men piled into a car, taken in 1918. "He was one of the first (in the area) to have a car," she said. In the car are his friends Louis and Ben Avery, and in the back, Wilbur Hurtley who is being driven to the train station to head off to war.


Within a year of them would be dead.


Collins heard stories of her grandfather and of the 1918 pandemic at Saints Delight Baptist Church, where she attended as a child. "Aunt Sadie was my Sunday School teacher," she said. When stories of King David and Jesus at the Temple got too trying, she said she and her classmates fell back on a tried-and-true dodge: "If we wanted to distract her from her lesson, we would ask her to tell us stories" about her relatives, she said.


"She talked about how, when this flu business was raging, the women sat up day and night with my grandfather because he had such high fevers. They were cooling him with cloths and that kind of thing. That was true not only of him, but for others in the neighborhood who were sick."


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Her grandfather was 35 at the time, healthy and robust. He was stricken with the second and most deadly wave of the Spanish flu, when soldiers returning from World War I’s end would bring a mutated and more deadly form of the flu back from Europe.


He died on October 15, 1918.


"It took one week for Granddaddy Will from being healthy and active to being dead," she said.


Her great uncle Louis – who was also in that photo of the car – "was sweet," she said, "on one of the women at the Whitehurst Plantation. Two of the sisters were sick with the flue, and Louis was going out regularly to take food to them."


The sisters survived, she said. But Louis caught the virus from them and died. Hartley, the man being taken to the war in the photograph, would die of pneumonia not related to the Spanish flu, before he got to Europe.


Collins said her Aunt Sadie told the class how everyone would become fearful when they heard hammering around the community: it often meant someone else had died. The community men nailed together coffins while the ladies would sew a liner. Then, Collins said, they would go house to house gathering flowers for the funeral.


Her father, Johnnie Stilley, had just turned 13 when her grandfather died. He was one of seven children to his widowed mother Ella.


The Masons – of whom Will had been a member – offered to take the children to the Masonic orphanage to help Ella. "She pulled herself up to her five-foot stature," Collins said, "and told them, ‘Thank you, but you can just go back across the river.’"


As for Johnnie, "He was in seventh grade in school. He stopped school and went to work. Down near the railroad tracks, where the Marina is now, there was a basket factory. He went to work there, and every week when he came home with his little pay envelope, he gave it to her."


Collins doesn’t know how well the local community understood the pandemic they were living under. "Considering how communication was in those days – you didn’t get NBC and CBS telling you what was going on," she said. "It’s hard to know what they even knew was happening statewide and nationwide." Without that knowledge, she doubts that anyone in the small community was using masks or practicing quarantine, even though many of the cities of the day were.


She said this family history, and the knowledge that is so widespread today, "makes me take (COVID-19) seriously.


"I’ve never known a time when we couldn’t go to church," she added. "Even though nobody close to me has died, I don’t take it light."