Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Flashback 1918: When flu stalked Chicago

Chicago city workers receive their masks

      Occasionally, despite my best efforts to avoid them, I'll catch a whiff of Fox-befouled yokel who bobs to the top of the social media cesspool and declares that the coronavirus is "only the flu." Which is double idiocy because a) it's not; and b) the flu was even worse. In 1918, it slew more than World War I, as I laid out in 1998, on the 80th anniversary of it gripping Chicago. Some of the insanity back then will be sadly familiar today. 

     Shortly after noon on Oct. 1, 1918, the entire Chicago street cleaning department gathered at the foot of Randolph Street, where they were handed white paper masks and ordered to wear them while they worked.
     So began the deadliest month of the deadliest epidemic Chicago and the nation has seen this century. Eighty years have passed, but we are still feeling the repercussions of the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, as scientists search for the virus responsible and epidemiologists worry that the world is as vulnerable now to a killer flu bug as it was then.
     The Spanish flu (actually a misnomer; it seems to have started in the United States) roared to life in spring 1918, did its worst damage over the next few months, and was gone by the end of summer 1919. It was truly a global epidemic: Samoan Islanders and Inuit Eskimos were both devastated by the disease. Conservative estimates place worldwide deaths at 51 million people, 12 million of them in India. Twenty-eight percent of Americans caught the flu, and 550,000 of them died. Nearly 200,000 people died in the United States in the month of October.

     In Chicago, the crisis tended to be overshadowed by the celebration of the end of World War I. Caught up in that excitement, Chicagoans were slow to grasp the impact of the Spanish flu, though it extracted a far greater toll than the war. In the United States, the flu toll was five times higher than the war toll. Greater, in fact, than all U.S. military deaths in the 20th century.
     The flu was first detected here Sept. 25 at the Great Lakes Naval Base and spread to the general population with stunning ferocity. In a week, 50 people a day were dying in Chicago and in two weeks 100 a day were dying.
     At least 100,000 Chicagoans fell ill. Hundreds of telephone company operators were bedridden, so many that the company asked the public to place fewer calls. Half the nurses in Chicago were sick, and appeals for medical help from as far away as Salem, Mass., were turned down.
     By the middle of the first week of October, the board of health instructed police to arrest people spitting in the street or sneezing without covering their mouths. The first offense got a warning; the second, a $1 fine.
     The northern suburbs were particularly hard hit. In Winnetka and Glencoe, military guards patrolled, "breaking up gatherings on the streets and urging citizens to remain in their homes as much as possible." North suburban schools, theaters and churches were closed, and attendance at funerals was limited to immediate families.
     As the epidemic worsened, city and state leaders, conferring at the Sherman Hotel, struggled to form a plan. They knew the disease passed through the air, and they considered closing Chicago schools, churches and places of public gatherings.
     But they didn't do it. When they requested that churches close voluntarily, religious leaders refused. The fear was that closing the schools would send children pouring into the streets, to spread the virus more quickly. So students attended classes in their overcoats, all the windows open to admit healthful air (which was considered so beneficial that, even before the flu, 700 Chicago children attended "Fresh Air Schools" that met outside).
     Streetcar windows and doors were also kept open; when chilly passengers closed them, officials nailed the doors and windows open.
     Still the plague advanced. The medical establishment, already strained by the war, was quickly swamped. Hotels were converted to hospitals, as was the Indian Hill Golf Club, its nursing staff made up of society women.
     Midway through the lethal month, Daily News columnist Frank Crane weighed in with his opinion: The Spanish flu was a fad, possibly a delusion, certainly no different from bugs of the 1890s, and "if we all take reasonable care of ourselves and by simple rules of health fortify ourselves against bad colds we shall not be in serious danger." The next day, 317 people died in Chicago of the flu.
     Efforts to stop the spread of the disease were remarkably haphazard. Taverns were kept open, but political meetings were banned—the election of 1918 was called "the speechless campaign." In the middle of the crisis, with hundreds dying every day, the city held a gigantic liberty loan parade through the Loop, the streets "jammed to the point of suffocation with cheering crowds."
     Police, however, were instructed to arrest parade goers who spat, and the city health commissioner warned those watching the parade "not to expose themselves to any chills."
     The city closed the theaters for 2 1/2 weeks. Hard-working actors found themselves suddenly stranded with time on their hands. Actor Tyrone Power Sr., whose son, Tyrone Jr., later became a film star, spent his idle time "tramping from one end of the city to the other" -- hiking was a fad at the time.
     Chicagoans, accustomed to going out, turned to other pursuits. The Chicago Public Library reported a 50 percent jump in book circulation. Mrs. Samuel T. Chase reported that society folk were "getting acquainted with their own families."
     The death toll peaked Oct. 17, when 520 people died. Many were among the poorest classes, who could not afford medical care. Charitable institutions, going door-to-door, found entire families sick, delirious and uncared for.
     Minds snapped. Even though the flu was fatal in only about 2 percent of the cases, it was seen as a death sentence. After his family became sick, Pater Marrazzo, a laborer living on South Morgan Street, cut his own throat and the throats of his wife and four children. Only he survived.
     Businesses were quick to try to cash in. All manner of nostrums advertised themselves as helpful against the flu, from Gude's Pepto-Mangan ("Fortify your body against Spanish Influenza") to Smo-ko Tobaccoless Cigarettes ("Influenza Germ Killer"). Something called Ely's Cream Balm advised "Cream Applied in Nostrils May Prevent Spanish Influenza."
      Even public health officials tended to intersperse practical advice with bunkum. "Wet feet will make you an easy victim of the 'flu,' Mr. and Mrs. Individual," warned John Hill Robertson, the city health commissioner.
     Toward the end of the month, the daily death toll began to fall. In November, the rate of infection and death dropped dramatically.
     By then the theaters had reopened, though a new act was added to every stage: a two-minute address by a city health department official on the subject of "How to Escape the Influenza."

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 18, 1998


  1. Thanks Neil. While a lot of your readers are well aware of the 1918 pandemic, most of America is not. Even now.
    Such a sad state for our Americans. To be so ignorant of their own History. I guess we can shorten that old adage to simply be Those ignorant of history are doomed....

  2. This is always an interesting topic.

  3. Prescient indeed!

    We now, it turns out, are not all that better equipped to deal with this enemy as attributed by Mr. Kipling to "Our Fathers of Old."

    "Wonderful little, when all is said.
    Wonderful little our fathers knew
    Half their remedies killed you dead.
    Most of their teaching was quite untrue."


  4. 19th C.: "Asiatic Cholera" strikes Winfield Scott's soldiers stationed here to fight Black Hawk. 1855: Mayor Levi Boone, a GP who treated cholera patients, is elected on an "anti-immigrant ticket." He said cholera was brought here by "immigrants". I prefer history "rhymes" to "repeats itself" but, anyhoo. Spot on, Neil. Thanks again.

  5. Great info for those who are unaware of our nation’s encounter with flu in 1918. Gonna share your blog. Thank you for pulling it out of your archives.

  6. This is making me think of "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," Katherine Anne Porter's classic about what it was like to live through both World War I (as a civilian) and the Spanish flu.

  7. All this hunkering down has given me plenty of time to go through my shelf of American history books. Much of the following comes from them.

    "Never before," a writer in Science magazine noted in 1919, had there been "a catastrophe at once so sudden, so devastating, and so universal."

    A severe outbreak occurred in China, and was supposedly carried to Europe when 200,000 Chinese laborers were shipped to France in 1917 to help with the war effort. The disease spread rapidly and soon rolled across the Alps and Pyrenees into Italy and Spain. As many as eight million Spaniards contracted the virus in May and June of 1918. Hence the nickname--"Spanish Flu."

    (Is anything beginning to sound familiar yet?)

    American servicemen returning from France brought the flu with them, and it raced through the congested army camps and naval bases. When the hospitalized men started dying by the dozens, it became obvious that this was no ordinary flu virus. This flu epidemic exacted an unusually high toll among young adults, rather than among children and the elderly. In fact, 43,000 American servicemen died of influenza in 1918.

    By September 1918, the epidemic had spread to the civilian population. Millions of people began wearing surgical masks to work. And they didn't stay home. In 1918, if you didn't work, you didn't eat. There were not yet any safety nets. No unemployment checks or Social Security. No bailouts or stimulus money. And most Americans did not yet own a car. So they went to work on crowded streetcars and trains. Not a lot of social distancing there.

    Victims often came home from work healthy, woke up sick the next morning, and were dead by evening. Life insurance companies nearly went bankrupt, hospitals were besieged, and cemeteries soon ran out of space. Thousands of burials occurred every day. At its peak, the daily death toll in the U.S. surpassed the 6,500 mark.

    Yet, by the spring of 1919, the pandemic had run its course. It ended as suddenly--and as inexplicably--as it had begun. No disease, plague, war, famine, or natural catastrophe in world history killed so many people in such a short time (A dubious record that may soon be broken).

    The most remarkable aspect of the 1918-19 flu pandemic was that people actually seemed to take it in stride. The Feds downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak, so as not to alarm the populace, or to hinder the war effort. "Perhaps the most notable peculiarity of the infuenza epidemic," wrote a New York Times editor in November 1918, "is the fact that it has been attended by no traces of panic or even of excitement."

    A century ago, people seemed resigned to biological forces beyond their control, perhaps because mass communication was still in its infancy. Mostly just daily newspapers. No radio, TV, internet, electronic devices, and...most importantly...no 24/7 news cycle. People then knew what they saw in the papers, or often next to nothing. People today overdose on an unceasing ribbon of bad news, and eventually know too much. So they freak, and stores get wiped out (pun intended).

    Despite Woodrow Wilson's many faults, Americans in 1918-19 had someone in charge. No need to repeat here what we have...or don't have. And Wilson never labeled the flu as a fad, a delusion, or a hoax.

    1. Grizz 65. Thanks. Like getting two great columns for the price of one today. Always interesting to look back at this. Parallels some things today.

  8. Grizz, Very true about the Chinese laborers and that's a little known fact.

    1. Source: America: A Narrative History, Volume II (1865-1995)
      By George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi (Fourth Edition, 1996)

      A superb two-volume American history survey.
      The Tenth Edition was published in 2016.


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