On November 10, 1918, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer announces that Seattle native Therese (Tess) Preston McCarthy and her husband Roy McCarthy have died in Minneapolis, victims of the global Spanish influenza pandemic. The couple's death orphans their four young children, including 6-year-old Mary McCarthy. Years later McCarthy will movingly describe the horror of her parents' sudden demise in her 1957 memoir, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.
The McCarthys were in the process of moving their household to Minneapolis, where Roy had grown up and where his parents still lived, when they became ill.
The party that left Seattle on the evening of October 30, 1918, aboard the Northern Pacific's North Coast Limited included Tess (1888-1918), Roy (1880-1918), their children Mary (1912-1989), Kevin (b. 1914), Preston (b. 1915), Sheridan (1917-1966) and Roy's brother and sister-in-law, Harry and Zula McCarthy. Harry and Zula had traveled from Minneapolis to Seattle to help with the move. Tess and Roy McCarthy's house at 934 22nd Avenue (now 22nd Avenue E) had been sold and the party spent their last days in Seattle at the New Washington Hotel.
The report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, under the headline "Native Daughter Dies," stated:
"Mr. and Mrs. McCarthy, with their four young children, left Seattle on October 30 for Minneapolis, where they were to make their future home. On the train Mr. and Mrs. McCarthy and the children contracted Spanish influenza. Mrs. McCarthy died on last Wednesday and her husband on the following day. The children are recovering. Mr. and Mrs. Preston, informed of the serious condition of their daughter, left Seattle for Minneapolis last Wednesday, but Mrs. McCarthy died before they arrived" (November 10, 1918).
Mary McCarthy wrote: "One by one, we had been carried off the train which had brought us from distant Puget Sound to make a new home in Minneapolis. Waving good-by in the Seattle depot, we had not known that we had carried the flu with us into our drawing rooms, along with the presents and the flowers, but, one after another, we had been struck down as the train proceeded eastward. We children did not understand whether the chattering of our teeth and Mama's lying torpid in the berth were not somehow part of the trip ... on the platform in Minneapolis, there were stretchers, a wheel chair, redcaps, distraught officials" (Memories... p. 34).
The need for ambulances to meet incoming public transportation and carry away flu victims was woefully familiar to Seattleites who, like the majority of other communities in the United States and throughout the world, were in the midst of their own public-health battle with the disease. On November 6, for example, as the McCarthys lay dying in Minneapolis, The Seattle Star reported that when the Alaskan steamer Victoria docked in Seattle the night before, it was met by 17 ambulances. Of the 700 aboard, 153 came down with influenza en route from Nome.
Influenza is characterized by a rapid onset and high fever. Fatalities result from pulmonary edema (the collection of fluid in the lungs) or from secondary infections from bacterial pneumonia. The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic targeted primarily young adults between the ages of 20 and 35.
The 1918 Pandemic
At least 21 million people worldwide died of influenza during the 1918-1919 pandemic, some 700,000 in the United States and 1,600 of these in Seattle. On October 29, 1918, Seattle made the wearing of six-ply gauze masks mandatory while in public, and on October 30 the requirement was extended statewide.
In attempt to prevent the spread of the disease, public gatherings in Seattle were banned. Public gatherings were also banned in Minneapolis, the McCarthy family's destination. By the time the influenza had receded from Minnesota, that state had recorded nearly 12,000 deaths, Tess and Roy McCarthy's among them.
Two Deaths, Four Orphans
Carol Gelderman, one of Mary McCarthy's biographers, states in Mary McCarthy: A Life that Tess McCarthy had already been taken ill with influenza several weeks before the family left Seattle. According to Gelderman, Tess became ill on October 7, 1918, and was hospitalized on October 11. (It seems probable that this illness was actually something other than influenza, which tends to exert its effects more rapidly than the recorded course of Tess's October 7 illness would indicate.) Mary was recovering from chicken pox, and her three brothers developed that disease in quick succession during the second week in October. A nursemaid and laundress employed by the family both gave notice. Tess McCarthy was released from the hospital on October 22, returning home to pack for the cross-country move and tend her children -- conditions that surely belied a restful recuperative period.
The McCarthys died at the home of Roy McCarthy's parents, 2214 Blaisdell Avenue in Minneapolis. Notations in Roy McCarthy's calendar made by his mother Elizabeth McCarthy and quoted in Mary McCarthy: A Life indicate that Roy succumbed first, at 2:30 p.m. on November 6, and Tess at 11 pm on November 7. A funeral mass was held November 11, 1918, at St. Stephen's Church, but the caskets were stored in a vault until the spring of 1919 when the ground had thawed enough for them to be buried at Saint Mary's Cemetery in Minneapolis (p. 19).
A Happy Family
Tess McCarthy was the daughter of prominent Seattle attorney Harold Preston (1858-1938) and Augusta Morgenstern Preston (1865-1954). Roy McCarthy's parents were Minneapolis grain merchant James Henry McCarthy and Elizabeth Sheridan McCarthy. Roy held a law degree from the University of Washington. Tess graduated from the University of Washington in 1911 with a liberal arts degree.
The McCarthys were married in 1911. Tess Preston, whose mother was Jewish and father Protestant, converted to Catholicism at the time of her marriage. According to Mary McCarthy, both sets of parents opposed the match. Roy McCarthy entered the University of Washington School of Law shortly after Mary's birth. Despite continual money troubles, Roy's ill health, and the strain of Tess's almost continuous pregnancies, the young family's home life seems to have been warm and happy.
Why Travel Then?
Mary McCarthy later posed the question, Why travel then? In addition to the children's recent chicken pox, her father, Roy, had a bad heart and was perpetually sick in bed, dosing himself with digitalis. "The whole idea of traveling with a sick man and four small children at the height of an epidemic seems madness, but I can see why the risk was taken from an old Seattle newspaper clipping, preserved by my great-grandfather Preston: 'The party left for the east at this particular time in order to see another brother, Lewis McCarthy [Louis], who is in the aviation service and had a furlough home.' This was the last, no doubt, of my father's headstrong whims" (Memories..., p. 16). It also seems likely that Roy McCarthy's parents, on whose financial support Roy and Tess depended, had summoned them.
Mary McCarthy and her younger brothers were apparently not formally told that their parents had died, but rather led to believe that they were in a hospital. The siblings were left in the care of a great-aunt and her husband under what Mary McCarthy describes as exceedingly brutal conditions.
In 1923 Mary's maternal grandparents moved her back to Seattle. Mary McCarthy's home during her teenage years was the Prestons' large house at 712 35th Avenue in the Madrona neighborhood.