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.
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."
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.
"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.
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).
"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.
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.
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