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West Virginia Veterans Memorial

West Virginia Veterans Memorial


Nelson Newman

"The [year] 1918 has gone: a year momentous as the termination of the most cruel war in the annals of the human race; a year which marked, the end at least for a time, of man's destruction of man; unfortunately a year in which developed a most fatal infectious disease causing the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Medical science for four and one-half years devoted itself to putting men on the firing line and keeping them there. Now it must turn with its whole might to combating the greatest enemy of all: infectious disease. . . ."

Journal of the American Medical Association (28 December 1918)

Nelson Newman was born on January 30, 1898, in Barbour County, West Virginia, to Stephen and Lillie Collins Newman. Nelson was not named at the time of his birth, but the date of birth and Newman being a common name of African Americans in Barbour County at the time, the entry in the birth registry most likely identifies the child as Nelson. His mother, according to the registry, had given birth to three other children. Stephen Newman was listed as a farmer in the birth registry.

The 1910 Federal Census taker found the family living in the Philippi District of Barbour County, but it seems the record is garbled with some note-taking across the names and mistakes in identifying relationship roles. The census says that eight-year-old Elizabeth is the head of the household, but it seems more likely that she's a daughter of Stephen and Lillie. Living in the household were Mr. and Mrs. Newman, daughter Elizabeth, and her six- year-old sibling, whose name is written in cursive and not readable, and son Nelson, aged two. The census says further that Lillie was the mother of four living children, but the fourth is not named.

On June 5, 1917, Nelson Newman's name appears on a military registration card. His age reflected on the card was 22 years old, but he was more likely 19. He was working as a coal miner for Humphreys Coal Company in Philippi. He identified his parents, one sister, and two brothers as his dependents. He was single. In 1918, he was a private in Company K, 77th Infantry in Camp Custer, Michigan, near Battle Creek. Camp Custer was comprised of 16,000 acres, and 100,000 troops were trained there and deployed from there.

No record was found that describes Nelson Newman's life thereafter, except that he died on October 11, 1918, at Camp Custer, Michigan, of pneumonia.

The flu hit Camp Custer on September 29, 1918. The next day, 557 cases were reported, and the day after that, 804. On average there were 50 new cases per hour reported at the camp in the early days, with the first deaths occurring on October 2.

By October 4, 5,000 were ill. By October 9, pneumonia was also setting in.

Rules were put in place to stem the spread, but not always observed. An article in the online edition of the Battle Creek Enquirer ("Coronavirus: Lessons of the 1918 Flu Pandemic That Claimed 674 Soldiers at Camp Custer," 21 March 2020) states:

"The importance of taking precautionary measures was exemplified by the 78th Infantry regiment," said a story in the October 3, 1918, edition of Trench and Camp, a weekly published by the Battle Creek Enquirer. "As of Monday (Sept 30), the average number of cases ‘per regiment' has been 38. In the 78th infantry, three companies failed to observe the rule which requires that mess kits be boiled for ten minutes and then dried without using cloths. In this regiment the number of men afflicted with respiratory diseases was 669.

On October 11, the day that Nelson Newman died, 90 deaths were reported in 24 hours at Camp Custer.

Less than a month later, on November 7, the quarantine ended, and the flu was essentially gone. The Battle Creek Enquirer article continues:

According to military records, 674 of the 39,965 troops at Camp Custer lost their lives in the pandemic. A total of 10,728 influenza and 2,374 pneumonia cases were diagnosed, with an influenza mortality rate of 6.2% and a pneumonia mortality rate of 28.4%.

Nelson Newman's remains were returned to Barbour County. He is interred in Welch Cemetery in Barbour County, West Virginia.
The gravestone for Nelson Newman in Welch Cemetery is off its base and deteriorating. Courtesy Cynthia Mullens

The gravestone for Nelson Newman in Welch Cemetery is off its base and deteriorating. Courtesy Cynthia Mullens

Article prepared by Cynthia Mullens
September 2020


Nelson Newman

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