From all across Maryland, people gathered on a cold and clear Sunday afternoon in Old St. Paul’s Church — the “Mother Church of Baltimore” — for memorial services honoring women who had died in service during the Great War. The calendar read Feb. 2, 1919, three months after that war’s end. The Rev. Arthur B. Kinsolving delivered the sermon.
Anniston was there, in remembrance, a significant chapter in Cornelia Price’s life.
This story, short as it is, exemplifies this city’s surprising reach. Nothing connects Anniston to the world as strongly as does the military. Not its Model City founding. Not its defunct title as the “Soil Pipe Capital of the World.” Not even The Bus. The Army shuttered Fort McClellan nearly two decades ago but it didn’t — it couldn’t — erase the fragments of Anniston that exist worldwide because of the city’s century-long military marriage.
It couldn’t erase the story of Cornelia Price.
One hundred years ago this week, Cornelia died at then-Camp McClellan from pneumonia, a complication of the Spanish Flu epidemic that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide and quarantined the hastily built Army cantonment just north of Anniston. She was a nurse. On Oct. 8, 1918 — October was the epidemic’s deadliest month in Anniston — she became the camp’s first death among its official staff. She was 29, single, childless. Her body was shipped home to Baltimore and buried at Woodlawn Cemetery.
My guess is Cornelia had never been to Alabama before the Army sent her to Camp McClellan. If so, there’s no way to tell. Her grandfather, Charles H., worked in law enforcement, and her father, Charles W., was a building superintendent. They were Marylanders. Her mother, also Cornelia, the daughter of German immigrants, hailed from Georgia. They had four children, three girls and a boy. Cornelia was the middle girl between Eva and Julia. Brother Stephen was the oldest. They grew up in Baltimore, turn-of-the-century kids in a low-income family.
The Price kids didn’t attend school, Census records show, but they could read and write. Cornelia worked for a tailor. Eva became a bookkeeper. Julia worked as a stenographer. Stephen found work on a ship as a teenager and then became a draftsman for a lumber mill. At some point in her mid-20s, Cornelia left her job as a fitter and became a nurse.
News accounts of Cornelia’s death indicate an affiliation in some manner with Baltimore’s Mercy Hospital, which dates to the early 1800s. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, she joined the American Red Cross and the Army Nurse Corps reserves, which gave her her first military assignment, Camp McClellan. She arrived June 5, 1918.
Each McClellan regiment had its own infirmary, and the base hospital sat shaded under pine trees on the southwest corner of the camp. By that fall, McClellan’s soldier population had swelled to 28,000. The Spanish Flu epidemic wouldn’t begin in earnest until September. When it arrived, it was relentless, with more than 4,900 flu cases reported. “During the latter part of September an epidemic of influenza rapidly increased the morbidity far beyond the hospital capacity,” reads a Camp McClellan base hospital report at the U.S. Army Medical Department’s Office of Medical History.
Cornelia entered the base hospital during that late-September flu surge, a caregiver-turned-patient. Ten days later, on a Tuesday night at 10:40, she died. No U.S. nurses died in combat during World War I, but more than 200, including Cornelia, died in America and Europe from other causes. Cornelia was among the six Maryland nurses who died in the war that The Rev. Kinsolving honored in his sermon.
“She was known among her associates as a tireless worker, and the untimely death of the young woman is generally regretted around the base hospital,” the Baltimore Sun wrote. “Miss Price,” The Star reported, “has been constantly on duty at the base hospital for the past several months, and was known among her associates as one of the most active and efficient members of the nursing staff.”
Two days later, “a simple but impressive ceremony” was held at the camp’s chapel. Afterward, the Army shipped Cornelia’s body home to her family in Maryland. She spent only four months in Alabama.
The Prices gathered that Saturday at the cemetery in Baltimore to bury Cornelia.
On Monday morning, less than 48 hours after the funeral, Cornelia’s older sister, Eva, died of pneumonia.
The Prices buried Eva next to her sister.