As August 1918 wound to a close in Boston and summer’s dog days gave way to fall, the city was awash in optimism...
So when, in late August, a handful of sailors stationed at Commonwealth Pier in what is now the South Boston Seaport fell terribly ill, no one in the city paid much mind.
Beyond the pier, in fact, no one really noticed at all.
Quietly, a few sailors became two dozen. Soon there were scores of sick men at naval installations around the city.
And then, in the span of a few weeks, thousands all over Boston and beyond were infected, with more falling ill each day. Public gatherings were shut down, hospitals overwhelmed. Daily death tolls soared above 100. And even as authorities argued over the seriousness of the outbreak and how to contend with it, the sickness known as Spanish flu turned into a virulent and terrifying wave that would sweep from Boston across the country and ultimately kill millions around the world, casting a shadow of fear that would span a generation.
As the outbreak of the novel coronavirus now unfolds in Boston, sparked by an international business meeting at a waterfront hotel not far from where the first sailors fell ill a century ago, the contours of the Spanish flu outbreak in this city are eerily familiar. The particulars of the two illnesses are different — so far, at least, the 1918 pandemic appears far more lethal — and 102 years of medical advances have improved treatment dramatically. But the public reaction seems barely to have changed.
In both cases, national and local leaders initially diminished the seriousness of the viruses. In both cases, initial attempts to limit the seemingly instantaneous spread proved wildly unsuccessful.
And in both cases, the city was paralyzed with a sudden sense of fear and uncertainty.
The first confirmed civilian case in the United States was reported in Boston in the first week of September, and new cases quickly began appearing in nearby towns, as well as other military installations around the country and abroad.
Even as the flu rapidly spread, it got little attention. Boston’s newspaper headlines through the first two weeks of September were dominated by news about the war and the ongoing World Series. It wasn’t until Sept. 15, roughly three weeks after the first soldiers reported ill, that the influenza epidemic reached the front page of The Boston Post.
“Spanish Grip Claims Nine,” read the headline of the small story.
Still, residents had slowly began to take note.
The local electrical workers’ union canceled forthcoming meetings, citing a dozen or so members who’d contracted the virus. In Milford, a grade school was closed out of caution, despite no serious cases of the flu. At Simmons College, students were instructed to exercise outside rather than indoors, and to avoid public transportation.
And fear of gathering in large crowds was clearly beginning to spread.
The flu ripped through workplaces, particularly large businesses. At one point, the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company reported that 800 of its 4,000 employees were out sick, nearly all with the flu. Many businesses locked their doors, either out of precaution or, later, mandate — as daily life in Boston took on a suddenly grim feel.
Almost from the start, hospitals struggled to keep up.
Though Boston would ordinarily have been comparatively well-positioned to handle an outbreak — then, as now, it was a national leader in the medical world — the city’s medical personnel had been depleted due to the war efforts.
When the Red Cross announced it would be making free gauze masks available to those caring for the sick, hundreds of people lined up at locations across the city to get them. Advertisements for so-called influenza remedies soon began appearing. (“If you find yourself tired or weak as a result of the epidemic,” read one ad for an elixir that appeared in The Boston Post, “the commonsense preventative is to begin taking Father John’s Medicine at once.”)
No drugstore remedy, however, was going to stop an outbreak that, by now, had left the state’s top medical officials aghast.
“Previous theories with respect to the nature of the disease were soon found to be practically valueless,” Eugene Kelley, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Health, would write a few months later, in the department’s bimonthly bulletin.
And it would only grow worse.
By Sept. 18, even as some officials continued to downplay the seriousness of the epidemic, death tallies were becoming a daily occurrence in the pages of the Globe.
On Sept. 26, almost a month to the day after the first case surfaced, Boston’s newly appointed health commissioner, William Woodward, a Georgetown-educated physician who’d been instrumental in the fight against typhoid fever a decade earlier, imposed a so-called “gathering ban," closing down all theaters, soda shops, and saloons until the epidemic could be controlled. Many schools had already been shuttered, and most churches, if they hadn’t already, soon followed suit.
By that point, the situation had grown so dire that local officials discussed — and later implemented — a restriction on visitors at the funerals of those who’d died of Spanish flu.
On Sept. 25, the Boston Health Department reported 105 deaths.
On Sept. 28, there were 152.
On Sept. 30, 171.
By the time September wound to a merciful close, the virus had proven so deadly, taking 700 lives in the final week of the month alone, that it was being discussed much in the same way as an enemy army.
Wrote the Globe, “Day by day, the doctors, nurses and bacteriologists have been feeling out the enemy’s weak points, tirelessly searching for the point in his line where science can break through."
The end came gradually.
In the first two weeks of October, there would be daily death totals of 202, 191, and 183.
But by mid-way through the month, for reasons not entirely clear, the numbers suddenly began to drop.
On October 15, there were 98 reported deaths; the next day, 71; a day after that, 53.
Slowly, the fear that had gripped the city began to subside.
For weeks, residents had been relegated to their homes, watching helplessly as the flu ravaged their communities — striking friends and neighbors, draining hope, and, for many, life from family members.
So on Oct. 21, when the city announced it would officially emerge from its self-quarantine with the reopening of saloons, soda shops, and schools, residents could barely contain their glee.
The news in that day’s Globe trumpeted the city’s grand reopening.
“It is anticipated that today and tonight will be just like a happy holiday in Boston,” the story said, “with great crowds of residents and visitors abroad.”
The excitement would prove premature; a few weeks later, a jubilant gathering of thousands celebrating the end of the war would spark another round of illness. Hundreds more would die, pushing the toll in Boston to more than 6,000 by midway through the next year, and some 675,000 nationwide. Across the world, an estimated 50 to 100 million people would die from the Spanish flu or resulting pneumonia.
But on this night, at least, hope had the upper hand.
“A mighty effort will be made everywhere and by everybody today," the Globe story continued, "to lift and set aside the sadness which the epidemic brought to Boston.”
Yes, Rufous, the poem is excellent. It could have been written today and was actually done in what?.....1869, I think, and then resurrected for the l918 Influenza. Some things don't change as much as we think, except that truly was a pandemic and we were the carriers. Amazing, huh? Whole families were wiped out with barely a teenager left to raise a 2 yr. old. Social workers didn't care, because they couldn't care...there were just too many dead. Thus it was up to society itself to keep an eye on these households.
Yes, Rufous, the poem is excellent. It could have been written today
For weeks they were saying masks were not helpful. There were articles explaining why they were useless too.
That image surprised me quite a bit! I would not have expected threats of jail back then for not wearing a mask --
And they didn’t even have Etsy then! (She says having just ordered a mask with carbon filters from Etsy) — sorry, I couldn’t resist the diversion!
We can’t get N95s in the States—they are reserved for medical personnel—so these are made by small companies (sort of home workshops) though they have incorporated pockets for filters, are 3 layers thick, and have a moldable wire over the bridge of the nose. There is a big selection on Etsy.Sounds interesting. Is that some high tech mask? I have been looking for something a bit better than the standard N95 respirators. Ideally something that filters viruses, but looks more stylish!
Anyone in contact with [the patients] had to wear an improvised facemask, which comprised five layers of gauze on a wire frame covering the nose and mouth. The frame was made out of an ordinary gravy strainer, shaped to fit the face of the wearer and to prevent the gauze filter from touching the nostrils or mouth. Nurses and orderlies were instructed to keep their hands away from the outside of the masks as much as possible. A superintendent made sure the masks were replaced every two hours, were properly sterilized, and contained fresh gauze.
Sounds like they struggled with masks just as much as we are now—both the medical workers and the general public. If they had had better understanding of the specifications necessary for masks the death toll might not have been so bad in 1918 and 1919.