The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 | The Invisible Enemy
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.
The scene at the city’s morgue was chaotic. There weren’t enough coffins and grave diggers couldn’t keep up with the death rate. There was a ban on extra chairs at funerals and wakes were discouraged. But when ministers and priests complied with the city’s request to stop holding church services on Sundays, everyone realized Boston’s fate was truly in the hands of Providence.
Newspaper editorials claimed the city hadn’t been so orderly since the days of the Puritans. But the comparison was too somber to be amusing. “In spite of the wonderful weather, those who did go out for a stroll had the curious vague look of people who didn’t know what to do with themselves.” The city had to wait it out.
When Lydia Johnson returned to school (it had closed during the worst week of the epidemic), the parade of hearses on their way to the cemetery had not stopped. Some of the teachers and a few of the students did not return to class. And for months to come Spanish influenza competed with the Great War as a source for tales. Lydia had one of the best stories: when Maud recovered, she told her family that while she was delirious with fever she had seen Jesus in a beautiful garden where she had struggled to go to receive his blessing.
As soon as the bans on Sunday church going and Saturday night joy were lifted, Boston’s lively personality returned. By the end of October the city’s Emergency Public Health Committee and the Red Cross issued orders to 1,000 doctors and nurses to leave Boston for other cities where the epidemic was still raging.
When the quarantine on Camp Devens was lifted, over 20,000 visitors poured in to visit the boys. Civilians and soldiers alike wanted to forget the gruesome experience of the past two months. The time had come to name the 12th Division, and the Globe reported that the camp favorites were “McCain’s Pride,” the “Terrible Twelfth,” and the “Deadly Dozen.” But before these boys would get “over there” and answer General McCain’s appeal to do their bit in the great cause, the war was over.
For most the epidemic would not inspire awe. Instead it would become just another detail in a year that was full of crises. After Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, teachers no longer told their students: “Somewhere a soldier is risking death for you.”
Francis Russell was a third-grader at the Martha Baker School in Dorchester during the epidemic. He and his classmates could hear the horse-drawn funeral carriages roll endlessly by the school windows. He watched the coffins pile up in the chapel at the New Calvary Cemetery and watched a secondhand circus tent being set up to hold the coffins that kept coming faster than the gravediggers could dig.
In October, while school was out, he and two friends sneaked into the cemetery and watched a funeral. They were spotted by a white-haired man who chased them away.
Years later he wrote that as he walked home through the late autumn twilight, “In that bare instant I became aware of time. And I knew then that life was not a perpetual present, and that even tomorrow would be part of the past, and that for all my days and years to come I too must one day die.”
There is still no explanation for how or where this particular influenza virus originated. In the same week that it crossed the Atlantic to begin its North American tour, it also turned up in Brest, France, and Freetown, Sierra Leone. Here in the United States, the disease first established itself in military installations, where large, mobile populations, housed in overcrowded facilities, provided perfect breeding grounds for an infectious disease. Then it moved in on the nearby civilian populations. In time Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco fell victims like Boston, the first and among the hardest hit cities in the country.
During the last four months of 1918 more than 22,000 people died from influenza and pneumonia in Massachusetts, 4,088 of them in Boston. The normal death rate due to influenza should have been 1,800 for the state, 500 for the city. U.S. Public Health Service statistics are equally staggering: during 1918-1919, over 25 million people, more than one-quarter of the nation’s population, had the flu. But this is surely a conservative figure — medical record keeping then was not the sophisticated craft it is today.
Before the flu passed, 548,000 people died of it in this country, 20 million worldwide — more than died in the Great War.