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In 1918, you could have been arrested for openly sneezing in Knoxville

The number of flu cases in East Tennessee in 2017 are bad and they continue to rise but as history proves itself, we are no where near what Knoxville saw 100 years ago.

One hundred years ago, in 1918, Knoxville was unrecognizable.

There was no Sunsphere, The Great Smoky Mountains had not yet been named a national park and horses filled the downtown streets.

Roughly 75,000 people lived in the city and the headlines were all about World War I.

While many soldiers from East Tennessee died fighting overseas, people back home in Knoxville were dying on American soil.

"October 1918 was the deadliest month of war for Americans and Knoxvillians," said Jack Neely, executive director of the Knoxville History Project.

Neely is an expert on the flu epidemic of 1918 that killed somewhere between 140 to 213 people in Knoxville.

"We probably had more people die in Knoxville than soldiers died in the entire war in a year-and-a-half in combat," he said.

Neely said the flu came to Knoxville through soldiers.

"Training in camps and so forth and they came down with something they called a mysterious melody that is unofficially rumored to be the Spanish flu," he added.

In October 1918, one month before the war was over, the flu had spread in Knoxville.

"By two weeks later I think there was 6,000 or something victims of the flu all over Knoxville," Neely said.

At the time Knoxville's only hospital, Knoxville General Hospital, was overwhelmed by all the flu patients which eventually lead to the opening of St. Mary's Hospital.

It was so widespread, UT was quarantined and the city's health director banned public gatherings in public places.

"If you sneezed without a handkerchief, you were arrested. If you spit on the ground, you may have been arrested," Neely said.

That's right, a sneeze could land you in jail.

"This is the last major major deadly epidemic in Knoxville," he said.

Neely said while it may seem trivial, we can learn a lot from history.

"We need to study our epidemics to see what we did right and what we did wrong. We are in 2018 but we are still human beings and vulnerable to germs and sometimes die to contagious diseases," Neely said.

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