Tuesday, October 23, 2012

1918 Flu Pandemic

I'd like to highlight once again how you can use newspaper reports of what was going on in your ancestor's world even if there are no specific mentions of them. Recently, I wanted to know more about the 1918 Flu Pandemic that swept the world, infecting some 500 million people and killing somewhere between 20 and 50 million, and how it influenced my ancestors and their local communities. I already knew that none of my ancestors were reported in any (accessible) papers as ill during the time and none died in 1918 either. I do have one ancestor who died in Alabama in January 1919 and I am waiting on his death certificate to tell me if it was the flu. Though it was mostly waning by that point, you never know.

But for this, I focused primarily on the Ambler Gazette, a local newspaper in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. The Fallows branch of my tree already had numerous mentions in the society section of this paper so I knew that this paper would give me a good picture of their community during the flu pandemic.

First, some background. At the time, it was known as the Spanish Flu because this particular epidemic was thought to have come from Spain. It's now believed that it began amidst the war, at a hospital camp in Étaples, France, spreading quickly among soldiers and staff. There had been precursors among birds and pigs, which highlights how easily bird flu and swine flu can mutate to infect humans, something we still fear today. From Europe, it spread outwards to Asia, Africa, South America, North America, and even the Arctic and remote islands. On July 22, Philadelphia public health officials issued a warning about the Spanish Influenza and in August, Boston was hit hard by it, arriving first at the docks. By late September, it was spreading to the rest of the country but Philadelphia went on with their scheduled Liberty Loan Drive Parade on September 28th, in support of the war effort. Afterwards, there were 635 new cases of the flu in Philadelphia and on October 6th, there were 289 flu related deaths reported for a single day.

Philly was a stone's throw away from the Fallows' East Willow Grove Ave home in Wyndmoor, Montgomery County and their daughter and son-in-law, the Godshalls, were just across the Philly border at 227 E Durham Street. But what was going on in their neighborhood? How was the community and local government handling it? I turned to the Ambler Gazette, which was issued weekly on Thursdays. This meant that the first mentions of the flu weren't ground breaking, since people probably would have read about it first in other, daily papers. At first, there were only a few mentions of individual cases reported on September 26, before the Parade in Philadelphia, but at this point, it did not seem like a huge concern to anyone. Indeed, even as late as October 3rd, Ambler was still planning to go forward with it's own Liberty Loan Drive Parade on October 12 (left), despite reports of other, smaller, local events being postponed or cancelled in the area and the nearby town of Norristown in the "throes of epidemic" (below).

Finally, a week later on October 10th, Ambler had to admit that the parade needed to be cancelled. In the clipping below and right, also including a report from Wyndmoor, they announce:
"Owing to the prevalence of the epidemic, it has been considered prudent to cancel all plans for the public demonstration and parade in Ambler on next Saturday afternoon, Columbus day, designated by President Wilson as Liberty Loan day."
In the account of Wyndmoor, though there is no mention of my ancestors in particular, you can see there are a number of reports of illnesses and the announcement of the closure of churches and schools. This was significant for my ancestors since they were very involved in their church activities and my great grandmother (from this family) had been a teacher in Wyndmoor before her marriage and still occasionally substituted afterwards. Whether she was substituting at that specific time, I'm not sure. She did have a two year old son, (my grandpop!) at the time so I'm guessing not, but she would have known much of the staff at the Wyndmoor Public School.

The mention of Dorothy Unruh's illness is significant as well since they were neighbors of the Fallows. And yes, Unruh is spelled correctly. It's a weird name, I know, but don't laugh because they were prominent land owners in the area and pretty wealthy.

Also on the 10th, information provided by Dr. Karl Schaffle in Massachusetts was printed in the Ambler Gazette with good advice about prevention and preparation, shown below. The Red Cross made notices as well (below) about the war effort and an order for 1800 influenza masks. Although the information about the Ambler parade being cancelled had obviously not yet reached them, note how Red Cross members were expected to participate in the demonstration despite the danger.


Wyndmoor was certainly not the only town shutting down. Most nearby areas, such as Flourtown or Horsham, were also closing churches and schools. It must have been worrying just to go out for necessary groceries. Would such a simple act cost you your life? Or the life of those you loved? At first, I was surprised when I realized that one of the numerous mentions of my ancestors going on one of their many vacations was right in the midst of all this. On October 17th, the Wyndmoor section of the paper writes:
"Mr. and Mrs. Harry Fallows are spending some time at Lake Hopatcong."
In the clipping to the right, you can see how right along side this report, there are also several announcements of illness and death related to the flu and shocking accounts of hundreds of bodies not yet buried laid out in a cemetery because there was no where else to put them and they couldn't be buried fast enough. Why on earth would my ancestors go on vacation in the middle of all this? It's hardly a time to kick back, relax, and enjoy yourself. I can only imagine that were trying to escape the risk of infection. Lake Hopatcong is a rural area where there was probably less contact with people and therefore a lower threat. Indeed, people were being advised to avoid crowded, public areas and what better way to avoid that than to spend some time at a remote lake? With that line of thinking, I'm actually surprised they didn't take their daughter, son-in-law, and toddler grandson with them.

In the same week, the Massachusetts Department of Health issued information about avoidance and treatment. Some of it, as you can see to the left, is not very dissimilar to the advice circulated regarding the more recent swine flu outbreak.

Riddled throughout all these articles are countless mentions of the names of the ill and dead. The search function on the Ambler Gazette initially highlights the words you're searching for in red (example below) and after searching merely for "influenza", some of the images of each sheet of paper are literally covered in red highlight. By this point, I was definitely getting an understanding of just how much this must have influenced my ancestors in the area, even if they were not infected themselves (and it's possible they were but it simply wasn't reported in the paper - if they were, they at least did not perish from it).

By the following week as reported on October 24th, we are starting to see more mentions of improvements and fewer new cases. There are still deaths and illness but there is light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Still, the Red Cross asks for donations of soups and other foods (right) to distribute to the sick.

Also printed on the 24th was an obvious attempt to keep fears at bay and prevent panic in yet another instructional advice article, shown to the left.
"Simply the Old Grip or La Grippe That Was Epidemic in 1889-1890".
I'm sure that was a great comfort to those with dead loved ones and did not sound patronizing at all (sense the sarcasm). It is true that it was certainly not the first flu epidemic (which went by many names including the Grip) but it did wind up being a more devastating case of it. The 1889-1890 influenza comparatively caused about one million deaths.

Finally, on October 31st (below), the Ambler Gazette reports more and more improvements and the Wyndmoor section notably has no mention of any new cases of the flu. It lists names of fatalities from their town in the last couple weeks, just one of the many areas of the sprawling suburbs of Philadelphia where there would be many more names. It also announced the reopening of two churches, one of which was the Grace Lutheran Church where my ancestors were members. Life was seemingly getting back to normal but with so many gone, it would never quite be the same. Below is an account from November 14th of how the deadly epidemic made orphans out of 50,000 children in Pennsylvania alone:

Never underestimate capitalism's ability to benefit from tragedy though. Below are examples of companies advertising treatments for the flu; amusingly, one of them is for plain old whiskey! And good old Vicks, still used today, cashed in big and had to report a lack of stock.

Of course none of these things will have saved lives, they just made the suffering a little easier. On October 19, Dr. C.Y. White in Philadelphia developed a vaccine and over 10,000 inoculations were given out through the Philadelphia Board of Health. Whether this played a significant role in reducing the spread of the disease in Philly is still debated. Numbers did decrease afterwards but some believe they would have done so naturally anyway at that point as the virus had run it's course.

And remember, this epidemic was spread worldwide so it's likely your own ancestors were somehow influenced by it as well, even if it was only indirectly. Don't overlook this important yet often forgotten part of history. The hardest part is finding the right newspaper for your ancestor's local area but if you're like me and you've already got your source and are looking for new ways to use it to find new information, this should yield fascinating results. Happy searching!

Influenza Strikes: The Great Pandemic
City Snapshots: Philadelphia. Influenza 1918
Timeline. Influenza 1918
1918 flu pandemic
Access Pennsylvania Digital Repository