CHARLESTOWN – The worsening epidemic of Influenza had reached inside the Shannock home of 35-year-old Robert Browning. He and his wife Sarah (Card) had fallen ill along with their two children; 8-year-old Robert and eight-month-old Evelyn. Outside their door, a blizzard raged and all they could do was lay helplessly bedridden, listening to the violent winds.
The storm had begun early that morning, Feb. 5, 1920. Heavy snow dumped down from the sky as 30-mile-per-hour gusts whipped the flakes into towering drifts that blocked roads. The mailman had attempted to fulfill his duties, shoveling a path for his horses as he went along through town but it was a hopeless pursuit and the mail would end up being delayed for days.
The dairyman, caught in snow so deep his horses could not walk through it, finally abandon his entire carriage packed with 24 cans of milk. Scenes like this were happening simultaneously all over New England as the east coast was confronted with the worst blizzard since the Gale of 1898.
The ground was already snow-covered when the storm began. Over the next 24 hours, ten more inches would be whipped ferociously across the landscape. All industry had quickly become paralyzed and transportation completely grounded.
It wasn’t long after the blizzard calmed that a heavy thunder storm moved in. The booming of the sky had barely ceased when snow began to fall again, this time quieter and calmer.
Panic set in as farmers were unable to get out to feed their animals, people wondered how they would obtain food and milk, and businesses owners worried about their investments sitting idle. State authorities urged citizens to help public works organizations clear the roadways.
No one was panicking more that Robert Browning. From his home on Washington Schoolhouse Road, he nervously watched his infant daughter become sicker as the days went on. He had already lost one child. Eleven years earlier, his first son to be named after him, died just five days before his first birthday from stomach inflammation and the resulting malnutrition.
Finally, Browning could wait no more. He pulled himself from his own sickbed, got dressed and went out into the freezing cold where the glare of white snowdrifts must have blinded him with every step. He forced his feet to carry him down roads where doctors should have been located. But none were to be found. Unwilling to give up, he made his way to Wyoming where he found 56-year-old Dr. John Welcome Saunders.
Seeing the condition Browning was in, the doctor took his temperature and found it to be 103 degrees. Saunders provided medicine for him to take back for himself and his family. The remedy came too late however, and Evelyn died.
Robert, Sarah and their son recovered from Influenza. Robert died in 1936 and was laid to rest beside his daughter in Perryville Church Cemetery in South Kingstown.