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Déjà Flu: A Look Back at the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918

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Photos by Cynthia Goldsmith (left), NIAID Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML), U.S. NIH (right)

It is not yet noon on a windy day, and I am conscious of the fact that so far, I have washed my hands seven times. As I write, I try not to absent-mindedly touch my face or rub my eyes — a nearly impossible feat of self-restraint.

My voice is a bit hoarse. An occasional sneeze or cough brings morbid thoughts.

Out of fear-driven necessity, the coronavirus has made us a nation of compulsive, hand-sanitizing hypochondriacs, and yet containing this thing seems akin to playing an epidemiological game of Whac-A-Mole. The existential question: Just how bad will it get?

This may be of limited solace, but we’re not reliving the autumn of 1918, when expressions of optimism were drowned out by a dirge of bad news. The devastation caused by the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918, which took hold in the waning days of World War I and lasted into 1920, is nearly impossible to comprehend.

The Spanish flu had at least three stages — the worst coming in a 31-week period during which 20 million people died worldwide. From mid-September to October 31, 1918, some 30,000 people died in New York City alone. Another 12,000 city residents perished the following week.

Estimates vary, but overall the flu claimed the lives of at least 50 million people, including 550,000 Americans. One out of 200 U.S. citizens died from it — most of them young adults between the ages of 20 and 40.

My grandmother fit that foreboding demographic. She was 24 years old and pregnant with my aunt when she caught the flu in 1919 — practically a death sentence for both of them. They survived, but as a precaution, my mother, barely a year old, was sent away for a few months to live with relatives in Connecticut.

While my family was counted among the fortunate, the weekly Mortuary Record published in a New Rochelle newspaper amounts to a heartbreaking microcosm of the human carnage.

For the week of October 12, 1918, a dozen deaths in New Rochelle were attributed to the Spanish flu. Of the dead, nine were adults in their prime — all of them ordinary, everyday people whose names are now all but forgotten.

The list included Anna Cordon, 35, the night supervisor at the New Rochelle telephone company. Henry Grab, 28, was a volunteer with the local Hook & Ladder Company. Leonard Fisher, also 28, was a musician who led the band at Fort Slocum on David’s Island. Philip Chido, 26, was a popular barber with a shop was on Mechanic Street. Thirty-seven-year-old Emma Conrad was mourned by her husband and “several children” and was buried at Beechwood Cemetery. Three-year-old Tony Mandarino died at home on Sixth Street and was buried at Holy Sepulchre.

Photo by Stefan Radtke

“The devastation caused by the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918, which took hold in the waning days of World War I and lasted into 1920, is nearly impossible to comprehend.”

There were many more names, many more stories.

Five residents in a single household died in Hastings. Thirteen deaths were reported in Yonkers on one day, but that was considered good news, since 20 had died the day before. One sick 21-year-old man at St. John’s Riverside Hospital in Yonkers summoned his girlfriend from Massachusetts to his bedside, so they could be married. She arrived with a ring, a marriage license, and a minister, but the young man died before they could exchange vows.

During the height of the epidemic, Admiral Dot, the so-called “famous midget,” who had performed for P.T. Barnum’s circus, died at White Plains Hospital from the Spanish flu. The night before, his 25-year-old daughter, Hazel, had also succumbed to the flu.

Schools, movie theaters, and houses of worship were closed all over the county. Hospitals were overwhelmed. At one point, the county hospital at East View reported that six out of the nine nurses were “very ill.” Some died.

A state health law made it a misdemeanor to sneeze or cough without using a handkerchief: “Help to enforce the law! Save yourself and save others!” urged Health Commissioner Hermann M. Biggs. Law or no law, people wore protective face masks dubbed “donkey muzzles.”

Reports circulated of price gouging at drug stores. Snake oil remedies were sold by frauds. “Don’t wait until your cold develops Spanish flu or pneumonia,” said an ad for Hill’s Bromide. “Kill it quick.”
A Tarrytown editor, wondering if life would ever return to normal, wrote, “These are strange times.”

The same could be said now. There is nothing “normal” about social distancing, travel suspensions, self-quarantining, and containment zones. The truth is, we don’t know exactly how this will all end, no matter how many times a day we wash our hands. But we do know this: Someday, this fever will break, and we will appreciate life that much more.

The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at edit@westchestermagazine.com