The Influenza Pandemic of 1918
The October weather had turned the hills and fields surrounding Greenfield Massachusetts, from their deep summer green to the red-gold-green-brown tweed of autumn. Lydia Johnson’s family had done well by moving here. Her father was bringing home $42 a week, her mother worked as a laundress, and her sister Maud, 21, had landed a job in a machine shop.Lydia, like many other children at the Main Street School, having heard that the Germans put ground glass into sugar, among other hair-raising tales, feared for her life if “they” won the war. But the danger that adults worried about was more immediate. The influenza epidemic was blazing across the state. Camp Devens was quarantined, and General Crowder had canceled the draft even though General Pershing needed more troops! And worse, everyone in town was getting sick.
The policemen had taken to wearing gauze masks, which Lydia thought looked rather funny. But when she came into the house one afternoon and found Maud at home, in bed in the middle of the afternoon, she realized that something extraordinary was happening. But before she could get close to Maud to find out lust what was going on, her brother Harry warned her in a stern voice to keep quiet and at a distance.
That night at dinner Lilla Johnson, 19, told the family that when the doctor called he’d said his nurse was down with the fever too. Maud’s fever rose that night, and another sister, Grace, 17, fell ill the next day. By the week’s end, Lilla and the girls’ father were also sick. But Maud’s influenza attack was the worst.
Mrs. Johnson made up a special bed away from the sick half of the family for her youngest child Lydia, and when she went to work it was Harry who took charge of the infirmary. Maud didn’t have the strength to eat. Grace and Lilla couldn’t keep food in their stomachs, so he fed each of his patients clear soup. Maud’s soaring temperature posed other problems; she was becoming delirious. Listening to her fevered babble was alarming for Harry, but even worse, he had to wrestle her back into bed when she’d jump up insisting she needed to go out to the garden.
In her lucid moments, Harry poured as much tea spiked with whiskey down her throat as he could. The grog kept her dull, and the calm gave Harry time to care for the others. Professionals and laymen caring for persons in Maud’s condition found the whiskey functioned as a pain-killing tranquilizer. Its effects were certainly more reliable than many of the homemade cures such as inhaling turpentine fumes, sniffing camphorated vaseline, or lying beneath poultices of garlic and onions. Whiskey was more effective even than the various vaccines than were widely distributed by doctors to cities and military hospitals.
In Boston, panic was barely kept in check during October 1918. By the 16th more than 3,700 people had died. Though Lieutenant Governor Calvin Coolidge had wired Washington and received more than 1,000 additional nurses and some of the money he’d asked for, doctors and nurses were still sadly needed. All month long the city, newspapers ran front-page appeals for healthy men and women to volunteer to work as nurses, bandage sewers, ambulance drivers, laundresses, pharmacists and messengers. Nurses would be paid $28 a week, nurse’s aides $15, and if they came to the city from a distance, their transportation fees would be reimbursed. Henry Endicott, chairman of the State Committee on Public Safety and Acting Chairman of the Emergency Public Health Committee, encouraged people “to step forward and show their patriotism.”
Officials preached that proper precautions by the public would help stamp out the disease. The State Public Health Department, like many agencies, published lists of dos and don’ts: kissing was officially frowned upon, and public sneezing, spitting, or coughing without covering one’s face were subject to fines.
So many teachers were out sick that after much debate among Boston’s civic leaders, the city was forced to close the schools. Other services were faltering too. More than 165 car men of the Boston Street Railway were sick, and those still on the job had difficulty keeping the trains on schedule. The sailing of ships was delayed. People were asked not use their phones except for emergency because more than 850 operators were out.
At the state house, which had become the headquarters for Endicott’s Emergency Committee, the assessment of the city’s health went from bad to worse. Theater owners unsuccessfully object to an order that forced them to close. Soda shop proprietors and saloon keepers soon received a shut-down order too. Hotels and cabarets were allowed to stay open, but dancing was forbidden.