Our current flu season is a reminder that not so long ago the 1918 Influenza Pandemic – known then as the “Spanish Flu” or “La Grippe” – killed over 22 million people. It sickened thousands in Northern New York and killed hundreds.
The first documented case occurred on March 11, 1918 at Camp Funston, Kansas. By the end of that week more than 500 soldiers had been sickened. Influenza first spread through army bases, but by September 5th the Massachusetts State Department of Health warned that “unless precautions are taken, the disease in all probability will spread to the civilian population,” which it did. By October 22nd the city of Philadelphia’s death rate was 700 times higher than normal for a single week.
Many Americans, including in Ogdensburg in Northern New York, were focused on World War One. The Ogdensburg Republican Journal’s front pages were filled with the conflict and as the flu spread, headlines such as “20,000 New Cases in Army Camps in 48 Hours” and “Epidemic Is Spreading in Central New York,” reported the spread of the disease from military bases to civilians.
In early October visitors were no longer permitted at the St. Lawrence State Hospital and flu deaths were being recorded in Ogdensburg and the surrounding communities. Local doctor Grant Madill advised the use of masks to prevent spread of the disease. Many doctors believed the flu was caused by bacteria, and they hoped a vaccine could be developed. Rumors abounded in Ogdensburg that a cure had been found, but unfortunately, because influenza is a viral infection, no vaccine was possible.
The editor of the Republican Journal complained that in communities affected by the flu “rigorous preventative measures have only been adopted after the disease has obtained a firm grip… [H]ad the proper steps been taken… the number of people stricken might not have been so large.”
On October 9th, the Ogdensburg Board of Health “respectfully urged” people who were recovering from the illness or who were coughing and sneezing to keep away from others. The Board urged that public dances be prohibited, crowded places be avoided and that people refrain from visiting the sick. The following day the Board of Health closed churches, theatres, and dance halls. Other indoor assemblages, including public funerals and Liberty Loan gatherings, were also prohibited. Dr. J.W. Benton stated that only three or four deaths had occurred in Ogdensburg, and there were “half a dozen hospital cases… and that there was nothing alarming in the situation.” Interestingly enough, the Board chose to keep schools open because it believed cases among children were few.
On October 11th Congress voted to fund $1million to the Public Health Service to cope with influenza, but some newspapers continued to downplay the epidemic, dismissing the flu as a “Hun ploy.”
Sales of masks exploded however, and the New York State Department of Health directed Dr. Herman Biggs to take charge of the state’s response to the epidemic. It was made a misdemeanor to sneeze or cough in public without covering your nose, punishable by a $500 fine!
Still, a Liberty Loan Parade was held in Ogdensburg on the same day. This public gathering was advertised next to the obituary of Mrs. Arthur Valley, a young woman who died of influenza as did her husband. (If one did contract the flu, one local druggist sold “Williams Camphorated Mustard Cream” at the bargain price of 30 cents per jar, it promised: “use it in time and avoid pneumonia.”)
By October 15th the “Social and Personal” section of the Republican Journal was filled with news of local citizens who had contracted influenza including at least one local doctor. The U.S. Board of Health issued a bulletin warning people to stay at home if they suspected they were ill and to not take patent medicines. Twelve nurses at Hepburn Hospital fell ill and the hospital asked the Red Cross for assistance. Still, the Public Health Service issued a bulletin stating that “the proportion of deaths in the present epidemic has generally been low.” Presumably this was to keep citizens from panicking.
Louisa Madill, wife of Dr. Grant Madill, noted on October 13th that “For the first time in the history of Ogdensburg no church bells rang today-all closed on account of influenza.” The following day she helped make masks at the Red Cross Canteen. She was appointed chair of the Red Cross Canteen, which set up at the Strand Theatre and worked with other women to prepare for the sick. Throughout her diary during this period however, she remained focused on the progress of the war in Europe. “Reports from Europe [are] very encouraging,” she wrote, “but you cannot trust Germany.”
By October 17th, Louisa Madill noted: “Influenza rampant. Some desperate cases.” On October 19th she wrote “Busy day at the canteen… Many people ill with influenza but not as many new cases. The ladies went to the hospital today to help while so many nurses are ill.” The Republican Journal reported that the Fourth Ward of Ogdensburg was particularly afflicted. Rosseel and Seymour streets were hit hard, with only eight houses on the two streets were free of the flu.
Businesses were also affected as employees became too ill to work. Metropolitan Life Insurance closed its office “owing to the illness of Mr. Eli, Mr. Cunningham, and the death of Mr. Marlow.” Contractor W.J. Pooler had to shut down his business due to illness of all but one of his employees. Nathan Frank and Sons Department Store found that they had an excess of inventory due to “unusual health conditions” and advertised a sale of surplus suits.
By late October the earliest locations of the influenza epidemic saw numbers of new cases decline. The Republican Journal reported that the epidemic was over at two army bases in Syracuse, but elsewhere the epidemic continued. The New York State Public Health Department warning again that everyone must cover their mouths and noses when sneezing or coughing. Doctors also recommended washing one’s hands and wearing masks. (Fort Devens in Western Massachusetts reported they were using whiskey, eggs and milk to fight flu and pneumonia.) By October 22nd the Superintendent of the St. Lawrence State Hospital reported that 300 patients and staff were ill. Physicians’ wives were assisting in the care of the sick. The Salvation Army also set up a hospital and 24 patients were admitted with influenza.
Louisa Madill and others continued organizing food baskets for families too ill to take care of themselves and taking care of the sick through the end of October, the worst of the epidemic. She also had to deal with a broken furnace and water in the cellar; neither of which could be taken care of due to the number of people sick in Ogdensburg. (Patrick Hackett Hardware Co., advertised oil heaters to “Keep the homes warm-best preventative for influenza.”) Finally on the 26th she wrote that the number of new cases of the flu had decreased.
On November 8th Madill noted that the canteen had been open 24 days, had sent out 364 food baskets to families, and had served 1,384 persons. The Board of Health allowed the reopening of schools, theaters, and churches on November 9th. The Superintendent of the State Hospital reported that there were 711 cases of influenza during the month of October and that 45 patients and employees had died. In all 146 died of influenza or pneumonia in the City of Ogdensburg during the months of October and November; more than 200,000 people died across the United States in October alone.
During that fall, winter and spring new cases of influenza were still prevalent in New York State, until the summer of 1919, but the Ogdensburg Board of Health removed the ban on public gatherings and the Strand Theatre reopened on November 9th, and the city’s churches the next day. The Headline of the November 11th edition of the Republican Journal announced the end of World War One. A large celebration occurred the following day, including a parade throughout the city.
The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 has mostly been forgotten. Alfred Crosby, author of America’s Forgotten Pandemic, has said that “it is in the individual memory of a great many of us, but it’s not in our collective memory. That for me is the greatest mystery: how we could have forgotten anything so horrendous… [as] this epidemic which killed so many of us, killed us so fast and our reaction was to forget it.”
Perhaps the pandemic was so horrible people didn’t want to remember, or more likely the violence and upheaval of World War One loomed larger in the collective memory of those who survived.