American Red Cross ambulance during the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918

A century ago – The Spanish Flu epidemic raged in Massachusetts in 1918

by Helen Breen

“John F. Boland, Jr., was born in Lynn and attended Cobbet Grammar School. While in school he was active in athletics and played football and baseball on the school teams. He was a leather sorter by trade, working at times for Stephenson & Osborne, a cut sole house, Hilliard & Merrill, Brown & Olive and E. Parker Chick. He was employed with a Boston leather house up until a week ago when he was taken ill at his work and was forced to take to his bed.

Everything was done for him, but his condition was such that medical assistance was to no avail. He was a well- known young man of the city, a member of Lynn Lodge, and the Valladolid Counsel Knights of Columbus.

He attended St. Mary’s Church and was a member of the Holy Name Society of that parish. Besides his mother and father, he is survived by a brother Arthur Boland, a student at Lynn English High School, and two sisters, Annie and Sarah Boland.”

Obituary in the Lynn Telegram News, September 21, 1918)

The flu pandemic that spread throughout the world in 1918-1919 may have killed more people than the medieval Black Death did according to some observers. Why was it called the “Spanish flu”? As World War I was raging across Europe, wartime censors sought to minimize the severity of the contagion on the Continent and America by using casualty figures from neutral Spain.

Epidemiologists continue to study the phenomenon. They agree that wartime conditions exacerbated the advance of influenza including overcrowded medical camps and hospitals. Other factors were malnutrition and poor hygiene. Less well understood was the infection’s tendency to strike mostly those in young adulthood, rather than children or the elderly.


John’s obituary appeared on the front pages of both the Lynn Item and Lynn Telegraph. A glance at adjoining articles provides a snapshot of news in September 1918 – namely the war and the flu.


HUN IN BAD POSITION – This headline referred to the German retreat in the mountainous area of Bulgaria.

DENY METZ BOMBARDMENT – French and American military authorities maintained that Metz in Alsace-Lorraine had not been hit, although forts in the area appeared heavily damaged.

WOMEN IN INDUSTRY – Statistics indicated a dramatic increase in women working in heavy industries in the United States and in Allied countries.

BIG U-BOAT OFF COAST PERHAPS SUNK – A large German submarine, lying in wait for transatlantic vessels, was struck by an American merchant ship and believed to have been destroyed near an unnamed U.S. port.

ALLIES STRIKING HEAVY BLOW ON THREE FRONTS – Readers were assured that “Victorious blows are now being struck by the Allies on three theaters of war – the French, Balkan and Turkish.”


A patient being treated for the flu at Fort Devens, Massachusetts in 1918. The facility was a main staging point for the doughboys before being shipped out to France. Fort Devens was described by one historian as “U.S. Ground Zero of the flu pandemic that spread around the world in 1918, killing more people than died in World War I.” (image – New England Historical Society)


85 NEW CASES – In New York City eighty-five new cases of influenza were reported during a forty-eight hour period.

ST. MARY’S (LYNN) NOTES – “It was announced at all the masses that the census which was to take place this week will be indefinitely postponed because of the influenza epidemic.”


ASK WOMEN MOTORISTS TO AID MOTOR CORPS – During the emergency, the Red Cross appealed to women drivers help “those persons who have been confined to their homes and unable to get out and to buy food and other necessities.”

STRICT QUARANTINE AT FORT DEVENS – “Visitors are barred and unless there is absolute necessity for permitting soldiers to leave the camp, they are under restrictions to remain inside the cantonment. … There have been more than 7,000 cases of influenza and a number of deaths have occurred from pneumonia attributable to the grip.”

FOUR MORE DEATHS REPORTED IN CITY – Telegram News JOHN BOLAND, 24 years old, 11a Bedford Street; MRS JOSEPHINE ZUFFA, 27 years old, 95 Laurel Street; MRS. SARAH POIRIER, 33 years old, 522 Western Avenue; and MRS. SARAH J. BARNES, 37 years old, 15 Rockaway Street. This sampling suggests the prevalence of young adults succumbing to the Spanish Flu.


My mother Anne Boland Gallagher and her older brother John Boland, who died of the flu at age 24, in September 1918. This picture was taken at Canobie Lake, most likely in the preceding summer.

JOHN BOLAND (1894-1918)

My uncle John Boland’s brief obituary describes a common life trajectory for a young man in his circumstances at the time. The oldest son of Irish immigrants, it was expected that he would leave school after the ninth grade and go to work “in the shop,” as did his two sisters. His younger brother Arthur was attending Lynn English High School then, a fact proudly included in the notice.

John was employed as a “leather sorter” at no less than four shoe factories mentioned in the obituary. This was not unusual since work “in the shop” was seasonal and basically transitional. This “well- known young man of the city” also had time for social, civic, and religious organizations in Lynn.

“Everything was done for him,” – of that I am certain. The Bolands were devastated by his loss. My mother would sometimes recollect, “When Johnnie died…” I wish that I had listened more closely to the details.

A century on, Uncle John Boland – RIP. –Helen Breen

The 1918 flu epidemic in Ipswich - An estimated 1,500 cases of the so-called "Spanish flu in Ipswich resulted in at least 66 deaths. It is believed that the country reached herd immunity after the virus mutated to a less lethal variant. By the end of the pandemic, the average life expectancy had been shortened by 12 years!… Continue reading The 1918 flu epidemic in Ipswich
American Red Cross ambulance during the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 A century ago – The Spanish Flu epidemic raged in Massachusetts in 1918 - The flu pandemic that spread throughout the world in 1918-1919 may have killed more people than the medieval Black Death.… Continue reading A century ago – The Spanish Flu epidemic raged in Massachusetts in 1918

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