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.
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.
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.
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?