Louis Armstrong Remembers How He Survived the 1918 Flu Epidemic in New Orleans

Born into pover­ty in New Orleans in 1901, and grow­ing up dur­ing some of the most bru­tal years of seg­re­ga­tion in the South, Louis Arm­strong first lived with his grand­moth­er, next in a “Col­ored Waif’s Home” after drop­ping out of school at age 11, then with his moth­er and sis­ter in a home so small they had to sleep in the same bed. After already liv­ing through the first World War, he would go on to wit­ness the Span­ish Flu epi­dem­ic, the Great Depres­sion, World War II, the Cold War, and the tur­bu­lent 1960s and the Viet­nam con­flict.

That’s a lot for one life­time, though for much of it, Arm­strong was a star and liv­ing leg­end who beat the odds and rose above his ori­gins with will and tal­ent. Even so, he suf­fered some severe ups and downs dur­ing the hard times, tour­ing so much to cov­er his debts in the lean 1930s, for exam­ple, that he injured his lips and fin­gers, and final­ly mov­ing to Europe when the mob came after him.

Armstrong’s descrip­tions of his expe­ri­ence of the 1918 influen­za pandemic—as he remem­bers it in his 1954 mem­oir Satch­mo: My Life in New Orleans—are almost jaun­ty, as you can part­ly see in the type­script page above from the Louis Arm­strong House. But he remem­bered it from the per­spec­tive of a 17-year-old musi­cian in robust health—who seemed to have some kind of resis­tance to the flu.

He devotes no more than two para­graphs to the flu, which hit the city hard in Octo­ber of that year. Accord­ing to the Influen­za Ency­clo­pe­dia, an online project doc­u­ment­ing the flu in the U.S. between 1918–1919, New Orleans city author­i­ties “act­ed imme­di­ate­ly,” once they dis­cov­ered the out­break, arrived by car­go ship the month before.

On Octo­ber 9th, the New Orleans Super­in­ten­dent of Health, “with May­or Mar­tine Behrman’s con­sent and the bless­ing of state author­i­ties… ordered closed all schools (pub­lic, pri­vate, and parochial, as well as com­mer­cial col­leges), church­es, the­aters, movie hous­es, and oth­er places of amuse­ment, and [pro­hib­it­ed] pub­lic gath­er­ings such as sport­ing events and pub­lic funer­als and wed­dings.”

For a strug­gling young musi­cian mak­ing a liv­ing play­ing clubs and river­boats, the clo­sure of “oth­er places of amuse­ment” took a seri­ous toll. The loss of liveli­hood is what seems to have hurt Arm­strong the most when he returned to the city from tour­ing, still unsure if the Great War would end.

When I came back from Houma things were much tougher. The Kaiser’s mon­key busi­ness was get­ting worse, and, what is more, a seri­ous flu epi­dem­ic had hit New Orleans. Every­body was down with it, except me. That was because I was physic-mind­ed. I nev­er missed a week with­out a physic, and that kept all kinds of sick­ness out of me.

What­ev­er “physic” helped Armstrong’s avoid infec­tion, it wasn’t for lack of expo­sure. In lieu of play­ing the trum­pet he began car­ing for the sick, since all of the hos­pi­tals, even those that would take black patients, were com­plete­ly over­crowd­ed.

Just when the gov­ern­ment was about to let crowds of peo­ple con­gre­gate again so that we could play our horns once more the lid was clamped down tighter than ever. That forced me to take any odd jobs I could get. With every­body suf­fer­ing from the flu, I had to work and play the doc­tor to every­one in my fam­i­ly as well as all my friends in the neigh­bor­hood. If I do say so, I did a good job cur­ing them.

We might imag­ine some of those “odd jobs” were what we now call “essential”—i.e. low paid and high risk under the cir­cum­stances. He per­se­vered and final­ly got a gig play­ing a “honky-tonk” that avoid­ed a shut-down because it was “third rate,” and he “could play a lot of blues for cheap pros­ti­tutes and hus­tlers.” Few things could get Satch­mo down, it seemed, not even a flu pan­dem­ic, but he was one of the lucky ones—luckily for the future of jazz. Only, we don’t have to imag­ine how hard this must have been for him. We just have to take a look around.

Learn more about the 1918 influen­za epi­dem­ic in the U.S. at the Influen­za Ency­clo­pe­dia and read the rest of Armstrong’s account of his for­ma­tive years at the Inter­net Archive.

via Ted Gioia

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Only Known Footage of Louis Arm­strong in a Record­ing Stu­dio: Watch the Recent­ly-Dis­cov­ered Film (1959)

Louis Arm­strong Plays His­toric Cold War Con­certs in East Berlin & Budapest (1965)

What Hap­pened to U.S. Cities That Practiced–and Didn’t Practice–Social Dis­tanc­ing Dur­ing 1918’s “Span­ish Flu”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • sfemet says:

    Arm­strong men­tions in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy that his moth­er gave him “Plu­to Water” when he was a child. It was a very strong lax­a­tive, some­thing Arm­strong used all his life.

    Min­er­al waters were often referred to as a “physic.” It was tout­ed as a cure dur­ing the 1918 epi­dem­ic. There’s a news­pa­per clip­ping on the Wikipedia page for Plu­to Water “Free­dom from con­sti­pa­tion is the surest pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sure.” Cer­tain­ly an exam­ple of fake cure.

  • Paul Tatara says:

    I was just about to say that. Years lat­er, when they stopped mak­ing Plu­to Water, he switched to Swiss Kriss. Rather bizarrely, he was a very enthu­si­as­tic and vocal pro­po­nent of tak­ing a dai­ly lax­a­tive. My friend went to see him play in the 1960s, and they hand­ed every­body a pack­et of Swiss Kriss on the way into the audi­to­ri­um! That’s believ­ing!

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