The 1918 flu epidemic in Ipswich

*The above picture of the State Guard with their tents set up at the Ipswich Cable Hospital grounds was taken in 1918.

The influenza pandemic of 1918 began during World War I; it was the “greatest medical holocaust in history” and killed between fifty and one hundred million people worldwide. On August 27, 1918 two sailors in Boston reported to sick bay. The flu spread with quickly through both the military and civilian populations and eventually took far more lives than the war in Europe before it abated in December.

The following story was adapted by the late Susan Howard Boice from the Publications of the Ipswich Historical Society.

Influenza made its appearance in Ipswich in September of 1918. The disease spread rapidly in the thickly populated areas of town, chiefly among the foreign-born. The Board of Health ordered the closing of all schools, churches, opera houses, clubs, bowling alleys, billiard saloons, coffee houses and all places of amusement. The public library was also ordered to close its doors – for the disease had struck! The town was worried, for no one knew if they would come down with this terrible disease.

On Oct. 11, 1918, 470 of the mill workers were sick, and only 30 employees came to work at Burke’s Manufacturing Company. On Sunday, Oct. 6, the Cable Hospital had more than 30 patients suffering from pneumonia, which followed the influenza. The state authorities took over the hospital that Oct. 6, and erected 50 tents, each large enough for two patients. The 15th Infantry was put to the task. They worked hard all day pitching the tents, installing electric wires and establishing their own camp. The local carpenters were requisitioned and lumber was brought in from Canney’s lumber yard.

Cable Hospital as construction is being completed.

By Monday, a structure 180 feet long, well-built and conveniently arranged, was completed along with an administration building. A military guard was established and admission was allowed only to those who held passes from headquarters. The fresh-air treatment in the tents and in the open air was beneficial to the patients. The severest pneumonia cases showed improvement and there were fewer deaths.

It was estimated that there were at least 1,500 cases of the flu in Ipswich during the height of this disease. Finally in the middle of October, the Board of Health lifted its ban and the schools opened later in the month.

“1918 Camp Herbert W. Mason” near Cable Hospital, Ipswich

The hospital camp was referred to as Camp Mason, courtesy of Herbert W. Mason, president of the Benjamin Stickney Cable Corp., and was discontinued on Oct. 18, 1918. The schools opened on October 21.

By the end of the pandemic, one in every four people in the US had caught the Spanish Flu and the average life expectancy had been shortened by 12 years!

Red Cross carrying Spanish Flu victims
Ambulance workers transporting a deceased soldier

Timeline from the Ipswich Chronicle

provided by Bruce Laing

August 27, 1918: the first case in Massachusetts is reported. Three days later, 60 people are ill.

September 20: At Cable Memorial Hospital, visitors are not admitted until further notice.

September 27: Mrs. Calvin Holmes, 21 year-old, dies of the Influenza.

September 29: “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.

The flu 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.”

October 1: The National Guard sets up at Cable Hospital.

October 4: Martha Stewart of the Coburn Home has volunteered to supervise volunteer school teachers who will act as nurses. 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. 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. Charles S. Garette of Fruit Street has taken ill. 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.

October 11: 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.

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. 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.

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. A third front page story notes that “the state of public mind in Ipswich has been disturbed”

October 18: The headlines declare “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.

Mrs. Sarah Nichols of Green Street dies. 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.

October 25: Miss Maude Schofield has fully recovered, as has Dr. McGinley, and Camp Mason closes.

November: Funeral services were held for Ralph LaCount of Poplar Street, 28 years old,, 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. Roberta Myrtle Brisbee has just died in Ipswich, and her father, Walter C. Brisbee has passed away at Camp Devens.

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. The Spanish Flu virus takes full advantage of the closely packed crowds, rekindles itself and spreads again.

Armistice Day in Ipswich 1919
Armistice Day parade on Central Street, one year later (1919)



“The pandemic run of influenza with which Ipswich was stricken is still fresh in the minds of our people. It was the nearest thing to universal pestilence that any one now living has ever seen. In its world-wide sweep Ipswich early succumbed and in one month’s time more than two thousand persons were stricken in our town.

“The first case to be recognized was found on Sept. 12. The disease spread like fire through a stubble field. A canvas made on Sept. 30 from house to house after the town had been carefully divided into sixteen districts and the canvassers carefully instructed how to proceed, revealed 1030 cases. They came along rapidly after that and before comparatively normal conditions were restored the two thousand mark had been passed.

“Early in the outbreak the facilities of the Cable Hospital were placed at the service of this Board for the treatment of pneumonia cases, and the hospital was filled to capacity with these cases at the time the military camp afterwards established by the State was opened for the out-of-door treatment of both Influenza and Pneumonia.

“It is not designed in this report to go into details as to how the situation which confronted the Board was met and handled. Such a report would occupy much more space than is available in a report of this kind. It is the desire of the Board some time in the future to publish a detailed history of what happened and what was done, taking events as they occurred in sequence. Abundant data is on file in the office of the Board which will be codified so as to make the story plain, and it will be a most interesting story.

“Early in the epidemic the Board acting in cooperation with the Selectmen and the Committee on Public Safety called on the State for assistance. It took the State Department of Health and Military authorities several days before they could show action in establishing a military camp hospital, and the disease was sweeping at a rapid rate. The epidemic had really reached its peak at the time the camp was established. Its decline was rapid after that. It should be borne in mind that the Commonwealth as well as towns and cities was working under pressure and it was marvellous that it got into efficient swing as quickly as it did. Its coming to the rescue was most timely. Many agencies and individuals in town gave freely of their time and energies.

“We have not space for telling the story and giving individual praise where it belongs, much as we would like to do so. We therefore thank each and every one for what they did in helping to check the pestilence. There were a large number of pneumonia cases resulting from the influenza. The board is without a record of the exact number, as the physicians once having reported influenza did not understand that it was necessary to report these same cases again when pneumonia developed.

“We have though, a record of all deaths from pneumonia. In 1917 between Sept, 1st and Dec. 31st there were 4 deaths. In the same period in 1918 there were 34 deaths. In 1917 the total number was 18, while in 1918 the whole number was 48. So it will be seen that there were about 30 fatal pneumonias resulting from the epidemic; not a large number when figured in percentages. Up to the 20th of October more than 2000 cases had been reported. From that date to Dec. 31st, 272 cases were reported, and with the cases that have occurred since Jan. 1st of this year, and allowing for cases from the first that for various reasons were not reported, it is a conservative estimate that the total number will exceed 2500. Ipswich was fortunate that the final outcome was not worse than it was.

Respectfully Submitted, George E. MacArthur, Aaron Lord, George W. Smith for the Ipswich Board of Health, Feb. 15, 1919.”

How the 1918 flu ended

By the middle of 1919, the flu pandemic had run its course. The second wave had been more deadly than the first. It has been presumed that the population had reached herd immunity, but scientists now believe that the influenza H1N1 virus mutated over a period of about 3 years to be more contagious but less lethal. The virus didn’t actually go away; since 1918, it has returned in various mutated forms to cause brief pandemics, including the “swine flu” pandemic that killed over 20,000 people between 2009 to 2010.

Further reading:

1 thought on “The 1918 flu epidemic in Ipswich”

  1. Interesting that the “open air treatment” was so effective. My grandfather, who had graduated from college in late spring of 1918 and was working in a R.I. factory that made explosives, told me that he would listen to the ambulances going to and fro constantly that fall. He said he slept with his windows wide open and spent as much time as possible outdoors, and he never got sick.

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