by Bruce Laing
“I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened up the window
*a Skip-rope song sung by children, Fall, 1918
Early Friday morning, August 23, 1918, in a small coastal town of Ipswich, on the North Shore of Boston, the Chronicle went on sale, and for three cents a copy citizens could read front-page news about the progress of the Great War. Or, buried a few pages inside, the reader might have noticed, in the column called “Condensed World News”, the following single sentence, byline:
NEW YORK — The Health Department took active steps to prevent the spreading of Spanish Influenza here after the discovery of several cases recently arrived on board ships from Europe.
This appears to be the first citing of the Pandemic of 1918 in the Chronicle. Such was our medical knowledge at that time that in the same issue, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, the Prozac of its day, advertised its restorative powers for nervous breakdowns; Dr. Kilmar’s Swamp Root was extolled for good results with kidney disease; and Bone Healing Ointment could be mail-ordered to cure man or beast.
Worldwide, there remain questions as to the origin of this Spanish Flu pandemic. The term ‘origin’ is odd anyway. As we understand it today, influenza of this type first occurs as a virus in birds, and may be harmless or harmful. Sometimes these avian viruses change so that they can infect other animals like pigs and horses, and, rarely, can be passed from these animals to humans. To us, the gravest of these viruses are the ones that develop even further, such that they can pass from one human to the next. That is where our trouble starts.
In 1918, the most often cited origin of the pandemic was Spain, where quite a bit of this illness had been detected and reported the previous May, earning this disease the popular name “Spanish Flu”. The speculation got more interesting, including the possibility that it was caused by a German biological weapon, or the bad fortune of the Chinese; or perhaps a deadly miasma resulting from the close quarters and horrid hygienic conditions of trench warfare steeped in mustard gas.
In March, 1918, the earliest known case in the United States was diagnosed at Fort Riley, Kansas. An unfortunate soldier — Albert Gitchell — was struck. One week later, over 500 soldiers at the Fort were ill. One wonders how the first case in the US cropped up in the Heartlands, rather than on the docks of a coastal port, as one might suspect of a human-to-human transmission in-coming from a foreign country like Spain. Years later, scientists determine that the Flu originated from birds, and poultry is usually the number one suspect. Gitchell was a cook at the Fort, and likely to be handling chickens, so it all fits.
Fast-forward to August 27, back to local affairs (four days after the previous issue of the Chronicle made it to the streets) there is news that an infected person has been diagnosed at Commonwealth Pier in Boston. Three days later 60 are ill. It has arrived, and it is spreading; within three weeks it crosses the continental United States. In this month of August, more virulent strains pop up not only in Boston, but also in Brest, France, and in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
On September 20, 1918 the Ipswich Chronicle reports “editorial paragraphs” about: the war; the virtues of gas-less Sundays; fashionable pineapple straw hats; a ban on sugar “sirup”; and this rather odd patriotic announcement, considering that thousands of US Military personnel are also infected with the Flu:
“An epidemic of Influenza is rampant in the German army, but it goes without saying that they are not sneezing at the Americans.”
The Influenza has indeed been infecting the Germans throughout Europe — as well as others throughout the rest of the world — for months. In the fog of war, no one seemed to be paying much attention to the Flu’s entry into the United States.
Either the connection has not been made, or people are denying it. Witness the euphemisms: Three columns away, we learn the sad news that Miss Lena Marcaurelle of Mt. Pleasant Avenue, 21 years of age, has died after an illness of only a few days duration. Also, we notice that John P. Hills is home on sick leave from Fort Andrews in Boston Harbor.
On the other hand, in the same September edition of the Chronicle, local awareness opens its lazy eyes and mouths speak out with the parochial war cry: us versus them!
Hospital Closed to All Visitors — In order to prevent as far as possible any epidemic here of the Spanish Influenza that is prevailing in other places steps are being taken in many ways. At the Cable Memorial Hospital visitors are not admitted until further notice. This action is taken by the Executive Committee in order not to endanger the patients at this institution.
By Monday September 27th, one long week later, the game has changed significantly. The Pandemic is raging and has made the front-page of the paper for the first time. Mrs. Calvin Holmes, another 21 year-old, dies of the Influenza. Her funeral services — held by Reverend William J. Kelly at the Methodist Episcopal Church — were likely well attended as she was well-known. Her parents, the Ralph Pickards of Warren Street, who might very well have attended the services, are also ill with the Influenza. Her husband, a merchant marine stationed in Boston, is also seriously ill with the Influenza.
Oddly, we learn that this Flu attacks healthy 20 to 40 year-olds far more often than infants and the elderly, whom flu viruses typically prey upon.
Ralph K. Whittier has taken out a front-page advertisement promoting his undertaking and embalming services offered at 7 Summer Street, noting that he is available “day or night”. The Ipswich Opera House has closed its doors until further notice from the Board of Health.
The “condensed news column” gives us another bit:
NEW YORK — Spanish Influenza is rapidly spreading among soldiers in training, with epidemics at Camp Devens, Upton, Dix…”
We can gather substantial insight into the situation from this detailed and prescient letter written by a doctor at Fort Devens:
“Two hours after admission they have the Mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the Cyanosis [BL: bluish skin resulting from oxygen deprivation] extending from their ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the coloured men from the white. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible.”
“It takes Special trains to carry away the dead. For several days there were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce, we used to go down to the morgue (which is just back of my ward) and look at the boys laid out in long rows. It beats any sight they ever had in France after a battle. An extra long barracks has been vacated for the use of the Morgue, and it would make any man sit up and take notice to walk down the long lines of dead soldiers all dressed and laid out in double rows.”
(Sgd) Roy | Camp Devens, Mass. | Surgical Ward No 16,
29 September 1918
In this eventful week, estimates are more than 700 cases in Ipswich, and all public resorts are closed by the authorities. The Ipswich Mills are short-handed due to absenteeism. The public schools are closed down. Miss Maude Schofield is home from her teaching assignment since the Brookline Schools are closed as well. Mrs. Reuben Andrews of Liberty Street, 48 years of age, related to the Hills family, dies of pneumonia and her funeral is served by the same Reverend William J. Kelly who served Mrs. Calvin Holmes. Walter Dodge of East Street, merchant marine on the steamship Gavin Austin, is confined in his home. Julian Smith of Meeting House Green has it too. Miss Louise Grant of Water Street has it but is improving. James J. Merrill of High Street is not improving. Dr. McGinley of Central Street, has the disease. It is rampant; three Influenza deaths have been confirmed, then Albin Benedix of Manning Street dies, that makes four and counting. Churches, fraternities, and other gatherings are discontinued by the Board of Health.
The Chronicle reports that the worst should be over. In this instance, hindsight is 20/20.
But only three days later, national news reports that the disease has broken out wildly. On the 2nd day of October alone, 851 New Yorkers will perish. Locally, this same Wednesday, the Chronicle front page notes that over 100 new cases were reported.
By October 4th, the Influenza is a regular item in the Chronicle. In an upbeat article, the Trustees of the Cable Memorial Hospital have dedicated the Institution to treatment, and Martha Stewart (an improbably coincidental name) of the Coburn Home has volunteered to supervise volunteer school teachers who will act as nurses. (We can imagine that they were impeccably turned out!)
The Cable has also made its grounds available for a tent hospital that may be requested from the state. Another editorial column presents the State Department of Health’s advice for avoiding the Influenza.
From Saltonstall Street to Steep Bank, the Polish section of town, the Influenza is now rampant, as it has been in the Greek section of town. Most area residents are non-English speakers. At least two Polish immigrants and two Greek immigrants die this week. Doctors and druggists are working 24 hour days; fortunately Dr. McGinley’s condition is improving, as he is needed back on the job.
Harry Joyce of Argilla Road, confined at the Long Island Hospital in Boston Harbor, is improving. Mrs. George A. Schofield returns home after several weeks at Cable. But all is not well. Five year-old Mary Rose Gallant, a French girl of Mt. Pleasant Street succumbs, as does five year-old Frank Comeau, Jr. of North Main Street. Harry E. Ward, also of North Main Street, dies at 31 years of age. Mrs. Helen Byron of County Street is confined. (As would be most of the clerks who worked at her store, in a week’s time.) Charles S. Garette of Fruit Street has taken ill.
The First Church, disregarding the notice from the Board of Health, holds a large evening meeting. All the Churches decide to cancel Sunday services. The town Library is asked to close. Reverend Guy E. Margeson of the Immanuel Bapist Church is taken ill to Cable.
This week, there were 470 workers absent from the Ipswich Mills.
Mrs. Frank T. Waters, on behalf of the District Nursing Association, requests that those fortunate owners of automobiles, that still new-fangled contraption, loan them to the cause, and she seeks volunteers to assist the sick and the families of the sick.
From the condensed news, an extraordinary postponement of orders in a time of war:
WASHINGTON — Because of the epidemic of Spanish Influenza in Army camps… cancelled orders for 142,000 ‘draftees’…
On Friday the 11th, the pages of the Chronicle are spotted with items. The lead:
THE OUTLOOK MORE FAVORABLE — For the six days commencing Monday… local doctors reported a total of 475 new cases…”
Lodges, clubs, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, pool halls, coffee rooms, and soda fountains are shut down. Right here in RiverCity. Funerals must be private, for family members only, and in many areas they are restricted to 15 minutes duration. A news writer prescribes that treatment outdoors is much preferred, ergo the tents at Cable. Volunteers are knitting blue wool sweaters and now there is a call for gray outing flannel ‘Johnnies’ . Thirty patients are at the hospital with pneumonia, where, and from which, the young French girl had died.
Good news: Mrs. William Garrette of South Main Street is much improved, as is Dorothy Hall of Market Street. Mrs. Kyes of 26 High Street is coordinating an effort to make 100 comforters for the Red Cross. Curiously, in Chicago the crime rate drops 43%, as criminals are struck down alongside honest citizens.
On the other hand, while Mrs. Helen Byron has improved, the clerks in her store have caught the flu: Miss Bertha Duguay of Topsfield Road and Miss Rosa Marcourelle of Mt. Pleasant Avenue. (Perhaps this Rosa lost her older sister Lena a few weeks ago.) Miss Annie Arkin of Mt. Pleasant Street has died. Miss Margaret Player, 12 years old of High Street, has been taken to Hospital as has Miss Laura Chaput. The former Principal of the Junior High School, Ralph W. Wescott, is critically ill, at Camp Upton. The Chief of Police, John F. Dupray, takes a fifteen day leave of absence for reasons unstated.
Miss Stella Goldsmith of Rowley, a top graduate of the Manning High School when she was only 15 years of age, has died at age 17. Miss Cleola Davis of Ward Street, Miss Marjorie Morris of High Street, and A. Warner of County Street are ill.
Several daughters of Nova Scotia have succumbed: Mrs. Frank Scahill, 34, of Central Street, nee Emma Wright, and Mrs. Christina Jones, mother of Mrs. Fred L. Grant, at age 70. Starvors Poulos of 106 5th Avenue died. (Did the newspaper misspell this immigrant’s name?)
The Ipswich Grange cancels its annual meeting, as do other organizations. The Chronicle reports that the epidemic has slowed troop shipments to Europe as well as re-supply of troops already deployed. In New York City the Board of Health has changed the hours of offices, stores, and theaters to thin out the number of passengers on public transportation at the same time.
Camp Mason, the tent field hospital at Cable, is being set up by Company N of the 15th Infantry, steam pipes are being trenched in, lights wired, and they plan to be busy taking in Rowley residents as well those from Ipswich. The Camp consists of one street, 50 tents, and 2 cots per tent. The Federal government has agreed to build a 180 foot long medical building as well, and the lumber is arriving.
Mrs. Harry K. Damon of Manning Street is coordinating a group of ladies who are making the gauze masks used by the doctors and nurses. The prevailing medical opinion in the paper is worth quoting:
“In cases of pneumonia, the patient suffers from lack of oxygen in the lungs. It stands to reason that if the patient is as near to out of doors as possible, that a larger and better supply of oxygen will be had than if the patient were confined in a closed room where the air is none too pure.”
A third front page story notes that “the state of public mind in Ipswich has been disturbed”, and takes a chastising tone with the populace for spreading rumors about death. Inside the pages of the Chronicle, the Spanish authorities deny that the influenza has Spanish origins, even though the paper notes that King Alphonso caught it. (So did President Wilson.) Surgeon General Rupert Blue has released the Federal government’s official wisdom, noting that we do not know if it originated in Spain, but also noting that the first influenza in the British colonies, in 1647, arrived from Valencia, Spain. It also seems that the Germans observed the illness as early as the summer of 1817. It is explained by the Surgeon General that the disease is caused by “long-named” germs and spread by expelling droplets of mucus that are air-born. The Surgeon General reminds us that King Alphonso also caught this same Influenza in 1893, asserting that it was possible to get it more than once. Blue also warns us to get fresh air and not live in over-crowded spaces.
October 18: The headlines declare that “Influenza on the Wane”. This week there are “only” 174 new cases, and only five new cases are admitted to Camp Mason. The Board of Health gives its approval for public organizations to resume their normal operations. The schools re-open.
But the flu is still in business. Mrs. Sarah Nichols of Green Street dies. Her funeral services celebrated by Robert B. Parker (another improbable coincidence of names) of the Episcopal Church. Mrs. Chrisola Skraka of High Street, born in Greece, 21 years of age, who immigrated to the United State of America in 1917, and her infant daughter of eight months both die. Her services were held in the funeral home of Ralph K. Whittier, on Summer Street. Also, the paper tells us the sad fact that “a Polish man whose name was not learned” has died. Six year-old Welsford Sheppard of Manning Street dies, and his father is seriously ill. A woman from Rowley, Mrs. Elsie Carey [Green] Collins, wife of Dr. Collins, a 30 year-old, a 1906 graduate of Manning High School, a teacher in the Ipswich Public Schools, passes away.
A week later, October 25, 1918, Miss Maude Schofield has fully recovered, as has Dr. McGinley, and CampMason closes. George Dexter of Central Street has taken several good snapshots of the Camp to show us its likeness.
Surgeon General Blue offers another press release, this one urges home care for patients in the face of a shortage of doctors and nurses, explaining, in the good Surgeon’s opinion, that “the present generation has been spoiled”, so home care is indicated, as is the removal of all the furniture in the room, and a prescription including “fresh smoothed sheets, hair combed.” It is difficult to reconcile these measured comments in light of the statistics. Before this month of October, 1918 is up, an unimaginable 195,000 Americans will have succumbed to this killer virus.
November 1st passes, painfully for some, as it is not over for them, regardless of what the authorities are telling us. The Chronicle reports that funeral services were held for Ralph LaCount of Poplar Street, 28 years young, who had worked for ‘The Shoe’ in Beverly. Only a few hours after his funeral, Mrs. LaCount dies. Mr. and Mrs. LaCount had no children or survivors. The Flu blankets the country, it is both indiscriminant and coincidental in its selection, and dispersed family members are no safer than the rest of us: we learn that Roberta Myrtle Brisbee has just died in Ipswich, and her father, Walter C. Brisbee has passed away at Camp Devens.
The Board of Managers of the Nursing Association thanks all the volunteers for their hard work. Judge Hayes goes back to work.
Out of balance with the diminishing threat, stylishly late treatment tips are espoused in another lengthy column. This one makes the extraordinary claim that this pandemic is “La Grippe”, like the one in 1889, and that the mortality rate would calculate out to .25%, which is to say that for every 400 people who fell ill with the flu, 1 would die. This estimated percentage actually suggests a rather virulent version of the flu, since the average mortality rate for previous flu’s was closer to .1%, or 1 death out of every 1000 infected.
In truth, both of these estimated mortality rates were woefully low, by a factor of 10. After the smoke of this Pandemic has cleared, the mortality rate would calculate out to an unprecedented 2.5%, which indicates that for every 400 to become ill, 10 would die. This statistic becomes even more horrific when you do the math on a state, national, or global level.
November 8, 1918 the Chronicle reports about a South Carolina druggist who has a remedy, new to New England and apparently of interest to Flu victims, called Vicks VapoRub, a salve of Menthol, Camphor, and volatile oils. On closer inspection, what appears to be a scientific news column is a thinly disguised “paid advertisement”.
On November 11, 1918, at 5:45 AM, the Ipswich Fire Station blasts the fire horn 10 times in succession, rousing the populace and signaling the good news that the Armistice has been signed. The celebration begins. Churches throughout the town pick up the message and all the bells are ringing. The day is filled with tears of happiness, parades, a bonfire on Market Street, marching bands, and people embracing.
Unfortunately, the large public celebrations, not just in Ipswich but around the country and the world, are a public health disaster. The Spanish Flu virus takes full advantage of the closely packed crowds, rekindles itself and spreads again.
On November 22, we hear an alarming but deceptively low statistic: a Chronicle article reports that 78,000 in major metropolitan areas of the US have died from the Spanish Flu over just the past few months. That is only a small slice of the pie, as we soon find out.
The Broader Perspective
In the 19 months of US involvement in the Great War, approximately 55,000 U.S. soldiers lose their lives in European combat. In nine weeks just prior to the end of the War, approximately 60,000 U.S. soldiers — back in camps within the United States — lose their lives to the Flu.