1918: Spanish Influenza invades Massachusetts

From The Boston Globe; 19 October 1918, Pg. 7

During the first weeks of the Epidemic, almost 4,000 people died in Boston as a result of the Spanish Flu.

As summer became autumn in 1918, the Spanish Flu struck hard at the eastern shores of New England.  Cases emerged in Boston, Brockton, Quincy, and Gloucester and at Camp Devens.  By mid-September, 21 flu-related deaths were reported in Boston alone.  By October 1, 85,000 cases had been reported statewide and the city was experiencing deaths at a rate of about 200 a day.  Doctors, health officials, and scientists rushed to control and find a treatment for the influenza epidemic as they watched victims die within days, or even hours, of the appearance of their first symptoms.

John Owen, my grandfather, was just 17 years old and living in Lawrence, Massachusetts at the time.  He remembered seeing the wagons come around the streets of Lawrence to collect the bodies of those who had fallen victim to the flu.  As he explained it, the horse-drawn wagons would approach from the end of the street and collect bodies placed on the sidewalks, or carried out from houses.  Coffins became scarce at the height of the epidemic and workers were forced to pile the bodies one atop the next, and carry them to mass graves.

By Uncredited photographer for St. Louis Post Dispatch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With masks over their faces, members of the American Red Cross remove a victim of the Spanish Flu from a house in St. Louis, Missouri.

From National Archives and Records Administration

Street car conductor in Seattle not allowing passengers aboard without a mask. 1918.

As influenza cases and death tolls mounted in Boston and statewide, panic emerged.  Misinformation and fear abounded.  What were the symptoms of the flu?  How could it be distinguished from the common cold?  The US Public Health Service soon released a pamphlet, informing the public that the Spanish Flu came on suddenly, striking the victim with pain and soreness throughout his body, especially in the eyes, ears, back and head.  Some experienced dizziness and nausea; most suffered fevers as high as 104°F that lasted as long as four days.  The US Public Heath Service advised that flu sufferers looked sick and likely would have bloodshot eyes, a runny nose, and a cough.

From The Lowell Sun, 27 December 1918, pg. 11

As the flu season progressed, advice to those nervous about getting sick was offered from many sources.

Beyond the pamphlets, schools became a means of disseminating information about the disease to children and their families.  During the height of the epidemic, the National School Boards Association advised the worried public to avoid sick people, crowds, and badly ventilated places, to keep warm, and to change from wet clothes quickly.  This is familiar advice, even for us today.  Local papers took it a step further, perhaps sensationalizing their advice somewhat, in order to attract more readers.

To slow the spread of the disease, public buildings, schools included, in Lawrence and many other New England cities and towns were closed.  Haverhill, Massachusetts went a step further and prohibited its schoolchildren from attending motion picture houses or other public meetings during the epidemic.  In Marblehead, Massachusetts, the high school building was converted into a hospital by the Board of Health in October 1918.  Boston’s Committee of Public Safety asked school teachers to attend flu victims; most did as schools were closed indefinitely.

From: CDC, released into public domain

This May 29, 1919 photograph showed rows of tents that had been set up on a lawn at Emery Hill in Lawrence, Massachusetts where victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic were treated.

During the epidemic, fresh air was thought paramount in protecting against infection.  Open-air emergency camps were set up in many Massachusetts cities and towns to treat the infected.  The first opened on Brookline’s Corey Hill on September 9, 1918.  Gloucester, Ipswich, Brockton, Waltham, Haverhill, Springfield, and Barre soon followed.  My grandfather would have also seen Lawrence open its own emergency camp for flu victims from the city, as well as cases from the neighboring communities of Methuen, Andover, and North Andover.  Controversy surrounded the opening of the Lawrence camp, named Emery Hill, which had been a large dairy farm that supplied milk to nearby residents.  Though the residents objected loudly to Lawrence’s Mayor Hurley; in the end, Lawrence city officials protested that they had little say in the matter.  They maintained that the state had chosen the site and was running the hospital.  By October 12, 1918, the camp had 150 patients.

In the end, more than one in every four people in the US suffered some form of the Spanish Flu, and within one year, the average life expectancy for a US citizen was shortened by 12 years.   Worldwide, more than 50 million people died – more than three times the number of lives claimed by World War I.

The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 is frequently overlooked in discussions about the history of the United States.  Does your family have a story about its experiences with the epidemic?  Did you lose any family members to it?

12 thoughts on “1918: Spanish Influenza invades Massachusetts

  1. Your entries never fail to be fascinating, Ryan. I had no Idea until now that there were tents like this.

    The influenza epidemic actually was a large reason why WWI ended.

  2. In the school year of 1917-1918 my grandmother was a nursing student at the Waltham Training School For Nurses. Before she died, my aunt Anna told me that my great grandfather pulled my grandmother out of nursing school out of fear she would get sick and die. Your article here has greatly sharpened the focus on this timeline for my family history project, especially the mention that tents were set up in Waltham. I suspect now that the nursing school was probably involved in caring for victims in Waltham and would be greatful if anyone could confirm this.

    • Hi David, you’ve suspected correctly. According to a volume of Nursing World dating from 1918, “During the Spanish Influenza epidemic in Waltham, the Waltham Training School for Nurses has served as headquarters for all the activities aimed to combat the disease, the authorities at the city hall having at an early stage turned matters wholly over to the school.” The issue of Nursing World containing this excerpt and more information can be found here. Hope this helps! Best of luck with the project.

  3. Thank you for sharing information about the 1918 influenza epidemic.
    My grandfather owned Chenette’s Pharmacy in Indian Orchard, MA from 1904 to 1918. He was a pharmacist himself when he died of influenza leaving behind my grandmother and my father, who was 5 years old.

    I’ve been trying to find out more information about this.

  4. I just began my genealogy search on my husband’s side of the family. He and his mom told me that my husband’s great grand mother had died in the Spanish Flu epidemic. Upon further research, I was able to deduce that she did indeed pass away in 1918 but I’ve been unable to locate much else in way of validation (grave marker, death certificate). Looking at your blog shows how scarce things were at that time and the record keeping for the vast amount of victims during that time would have been difficult to maintain. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and bringing light to a horrible event in world history.

  5. Does anyone know if there exists a list of names for people who died during the Flu epidemic of 1918. My 3rd great grandparents on my mothers side both died during 1918, but I don’t have exact dates

    • There is no list as such. However there are many sources of the information you seek. If you know the town they died in that is the best start. Also, many genealogy websites have databases that may include the information you seek. If you know the town they died in then go to the town hall and ask them to look for a death certificate. If they can’t help you or want to charge you a fee, go to the main branch of the public library in that town. Then ask to view town reports. Most towns will include all deaths that occurred in the town that year and will give a date. Another way is to look up on the internet the time period when the Spanish flu affected the area your third great grandparents died in then look at obituaries in the local paper. Obituaries will give you either exact date or a very close approximation. Grave stones usually have death dates written on them. If you know where they are buried you should find the dates there.

  6. My grandparents grew up in Lawrence, and were 15 at the time of the epidemic. Maybe they knew your grandfather! My grandmother was the only one in her family of 8 who did not get it. She was told to stay outside in “fresh” air as much as possible when not caring for her family members. From her perch, she would see the wagons go past with the bodies of their neighbors. As far as I know, none of her or my granddad’s family died. Recent research suggests that what didn’t kill didn’t make you stronger, however. Now they’re saying that that flu strain weakened victims’ hearts and immune systems.

  7. Hello! Great blog! I’m looking for photos of the tent camp that was set up for the flu patients in Waltham. I believe it was called Camp Jensen. Do you know of any resources? Thank you!

    • Hi Rachel. My grandmother was a student at the Waltham Training School for Nurses. She was also an amateur photographer. I have such photos in my storage unit though at the moment I am unable to travel to that city to retrieve them. They are safe and I hope one day soon to retrieve them and scan them and post them here. They are unpublished and show the tents with the patients my grandmother was caring for.

  8. Hi David,
    I’d also be very interested in seeing your grandmother’s photos of Camp Jensen in Waltham. A recent Waltham Historical Society talk on the 1918 flu epidemic discussed the nurses and their heroic work at the tent camp. The camp was apparently built on the Paine Estate.

  9. My grand-father was born around 1896. I remember hearing he was married and his wife died a short time later before he met and married my grand-mother. I’m betting she died from the Spanish Flue

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