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The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Prince George: Learning Resource

A primary source analysis teaching resource about the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic in the Prince George area

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LOCATION: UNBC Prince George
Geoffrey R. Weller Library
4th Floor (Room 5-423)

Corless Funeral Ledger

The Corless funeral ledger records deaths for Prince George and Fort George area between 1916 and 1931 including local deaths caused by the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. Of the deaths recorded in the Corless ledger from middle of October 1918--when the first death caused by pneumonia is listed--to approximately the end of April 1919 (when no new cases emerged) the register listed 55 cases of deaths by pneumonia or influenza.

Access the digital reproduction of the original Corless Funeral Ledger via:

Access the digital transcript of the Corless Funeral Ledger via:

Richard “Dick” Corless operated a funeral business, or "undertaker's parlour", at the corner of Quebec & Fourth Ave in Prince George. The following excerpt from Gary McKivett's Landscape of the Past: A Brief History of the Prince George Municipal Cemetery provides a history of the Corless business and its funeral ledger:

The formal preparation of the deceased and their interment is vital in a community, since it enables the residents to come to terms with death and accept it as a social reality that is part of the natural order of things. There appeared to be no shortage of undertakers in the early days, but it was obviously a profession that required a supplementary career, due to the relatively low residential population and death rate. Henry Gross, a druggist by trade, operated an embalming service as well. As early as March of 1912, J. W. Sandiford is advertising his cabinetmaking and furniture business, followed two years later with the announcement of a partnership to open a funeral parlour. The Fort George Undertaking Co. opened to the public shortly afterwards. Henry Wapshott was listed as manager and licensed embalmer, with Sandiford's furniture making experience likely supplying the caskets. By December of that year Sandiford was in business for himself, as "Undertaker and Funeral Director." When Sandiford left after being unable to keep pace with the ravages of the 1918-19 flu epidemic, Richard and Mary Ellen Corless assumed control. The Corless undertaking enterprise ensured that a stable funeral business would be in operation for more than a decade, providing records that impart interesting information about life as well as death in early Prince George. Richard Corless dabbled in more than one business venture, but his furniture craftsmanship resulted in a sideline preparing coffins for J. W. Sandiford. In 1918, the overwhelming numbers of deaths due to the influenza epidemic caused Sandiford to give up in despair. When Sandiford left town, he abandoned his embalming books and equipment, and the Corlesses were in business on their own. That first winter in the business would test their mettle. Jack Corless remembers his mother stating that at one point there were fourteen frozen corpses stacked, "like firewood," in the shed behind the funeral home.

Although not the only undertaker operating in Prince George at the time, Corless was the major business, and the records kept are the only detailed, consistent ones to survive. According to her son Jack, Mary Ellen Corless was a woman of character with a strong sense of responsibility, and it seems likely that her sense of doing a job right ensured this legacy of meticulous records. The entries in the Corless ledger are handwritten and, for the most part, almost always complete. More importantly, the records are entirely legible, a reflection of penmanship as an integral aspect of the era's education. In addition, the legibility underscores the fact that since handwriting was the primary means of communication for small businesses, easy comprehension was a necessity. High education standards become apparent when one realizes that the ledger covers fifteen years and a few different recorders, yet the handwriting style remains constant and, to the layman, almost indistinguishable regarding identity. There are some partial entries that may indicate haste or indifference on the record keeper's part, such as during the flu epidemic, or regarding the deaths of Asians or Aboriginals. However, the speculative explanations for the partial entries or omissions are in themselves a telling comment on the social history of the time.

By examining historical community documents such as a funeral or cemetery ledger, we learn much about life in the early stages of Prince George' s formation and development. For example, the name of the deceased can provide information regarding ethnic origin or gender. Ages supply statistics for estimating population demographics, infant mortality rates, etc. To illustrate, the Corless funeral ledger reveals a record of 162 deaths from 1916-1920: eighteen in 1916, nineteen in 1917, eighty in 1918, 28 in 1919 and seventeen in 1920. The peak year, 1918, is obviously due to the flu pandemic, with over fifty of the deaths occurring in November and December. Of those 162 burials, 88 were males, 53 females, and 21 remain unidentified as to gender. Thirty-nine deaths were aged two years or less, an infant mortality rate of almost 25%, or twice the national average at this time. In contrast, only twelve deaths were registered for children aged 3-15, while young adults ranging from 16-35 years accounted for 64 deaths, or approximately 40%. The Corless establishment did not discriminate regarding race, since twenty-one deaths are identified as Indian and four as Chinese. The four Chinese deaths were all male, with three of the occupations listed as cook and one as railway worker, a reflection of historical immigration statistics regarding gender and labour.

Analysis of the Corless Ledger

Graph of influenza deaths during the 1918/19 Influenza pandemic in Prince George

This graph tracks the number of deaths by month during the epidemic in Prince George. Note that it was not unusual that the most deaths from influenza occurred in October as this was the peak month for most cities and towns around the world to experience influenza deaths.




Credit: Dr. Lianne Tripp, Assistant Professor, UNBC Department of Anthropology

Class Activity

Provide students with the link to the Corless funeral ledger, the print out of the transcriptions of the Corless funeral ledger records and the graph. This funeral ledger records the following information:

Name Date of Death Date of Funeral
Age Cause of Death Burial Place
Occupation Place of Death Minister
Residence Physician Funeral Arrangements
Birthplace   Accounts Payable

Discussion Questions

What was the original function of the ledger?

What does the information recorded in the ledger tell about the cases of pneumonia that occurred in the Prince George area during that time period?

What age group were most of the deceased whose deaths are recorded by pneumonia?

What information is recorded for those deceased who were identified as First Nations?

How might the information recorded in the ledger be utilized by a researcher today?

What does the graph tell us about the cases of pneumonia during the pandemic?