By Leslie Potashner
Originally published October 2020.
The COVID-19 epidemic is a great challenge to our community and country. From the closing of schools to remote learning, from working from home to online meetings, from social distancing to mask wearing, we have taken on major adaptations to cope with the pandemic. Over one hundred years ago, the world was hit by a new viral influenza, dubbed the “Spanish Flu,” that killed an estimated fifty to one hundred million people. Many of the preventative measures we see in place today with COVID-19 were used during the 1918 influenza pandemic. This article focuses on the effect of the 1918 influenza pandemic on the Morristown area using accounts from local newspapers including The Madison Eagle, The Chatham Press, The Bernardsville News, as well as large city papers from Newark, Philadelphia, and New York.
A Martial Beginning
The 1918 pandemic was known as the Spanish Flu, but the virus did not originate in Spain. It originated at Fort Riley, Kansas. Epidemiologists today believe it started with farm animals and jumped to humans, one of whom was training at Fort Riley. In early March 1918, the first case of influenza was reported, but within days there were more than five hundred cases.
Emergency hospital set up for soldiers during the early outbreak of the influenza epidemic in 1918 at Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas.
News of the outbreak was suppressed by the Committee on the Public Information, an independent agency of the government created to influence public opinion to support US participation in World War I. Committee publicist Arthur Bullard stated, “The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.” Bullard thought information about the pandemic would hurt the war effort. President Woodrow Wilson did not release a statement on the epidemic. The Surgeon General claimed it was no worse than the ordinary flu. One newspaper in Wisconsin that covered the first wave was prosecuted under the Sedition Act.
The small outbreak of flu in Kansas was exported to the rest of the country and the world by US soldiers headed to Europe and the Great War.
The First Wave
Approximately ten thousand people died in the first wave over the summer. There was no mention of it in any local or city newspapers because of the censorship order. As a result of the suppression of information, the city of Philadelphia decided to go forward with a Liberty Loan parade on September 28, 1918 to support the war effort. Two hundred thousand people attended the parade to show their patriotism. Three days later, 117 civilians were dead. By November 8, more than twelve thousand people were dead in Philadelphia alone.
An aircraft hull travels the parade route in Philadelphia during the Philadelphia Liberty Loan’s Parade. (US Naval History and Heritage Command — Smithsonian.)
Over the month of September, one in five American soldiers were afflicted by the flu. The pandemic finally hit the news when King Alfonso XIII of Spain contracted the disease. Spain was a neutral country in World War I and had freedom of the press. The coverage gave the impression that the pandemic began in Spain, thus dubbing the outbreak the Spanish Flu. Alfonso fully recovered.
The Second Wave
In the first week of October, The Madison Eagle reported a few cases of “the grip.” There were calls to go ahead with the Liberty Bond drive to support the war effort, but by the second week there were 167 cases and seven deaths. Morristown was much worse. This flu is now known as H1N1. It was highly contagious with a very short period between infection and illness, as quick as three days. This created a pattern of one or two weeks of rapid spread, followed by two or three weeks of high morbidity, after which the epidemic rapidly subsided. One New Jersey insurance agent was quoted as saying, “the deaths were so sudden that it was almost unbelievable. You would be talking to someone one day, and hear about his death the next day.”
In the second week of October, the New Jersey State Health Department ordered a statewide closing to prevent the spread of influenza. The order closed all schools, churches, saloons, soda fountains, poolrooms, clubs, halls, theater, moving picture houses, dance halls, and prohibited public gatherings. This was not the first statewide quarantine in recent memory in the state. In 1914, the state imposed a quarantine for hoof and mouth disease, which was only lifted on a county by county basis.
Notice in The New Jersey Journal, October 7, 1918 restricting visitors to the State Hospital in Morris Plains.
While measures did limit the spread of the epidemic, it did not halt it. To do that, a Bridgewater Courier article stated, “it would be necessary to so restrict the movements of the public that essential war industries and all other activities would be seriously interfered with or suspended entirely.” Although health officials wanted to further restrict movements, they did not want to do anything that would hurt the war effort. Even local war bond parades that were cancelled raised more funds than were expected.
By the second week, there were 416 cases and 17 deaths in Morristown. In Bernardsville, there were 256 cases in the first four weeks. In Madison, it was reported that one hundred people had influenza and four died by October 19, 1918.
Churches were closed. The Reverend A. Lincoln Fretz of the Chatham Methodist Episcopal Church wrote to The Chatham Press to ask his parishioners to hold a “home religious service, the head of the family assuming the office of priest, preacher or teacher, and the whole family constituting the congregation. It would indeed be a source of real spiritual uplift if each family in the community would do this.” St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Bound Brook held an outdoor service in the first week of the quarantine but suspended their service immediately afterwards.
Even though twenty percent of the school children were absent due to illness, it took the state mandate to close the schools statewide. The closure of schools was not an unusual solution in the era before vaccines and antibiotics. Measles, whooping cough and other childhood diseases could cause a school closure. In August of 1916, children in the entire state were quarantined at home to stop an outbreak of infantile paralysis (polio). Children were banned from traveling between towns and states, to travel by rail, bus or trolley, and needed a certificate from the health department to travel by car with their parents. Violation of these rules resulted in a two-week in-house quarantine and fines with the cost of quarantine assigned to the parents. In 1920, schools were closed again for another wave of influenza.
“How to Avoid all Respiratory Diseases” printed in The Bernardsville News, October 10, 1918 and The Madison Eagle,October 11, 1918.
Emergency Hospitals Erected
The Editorial Board of The Madison Eagle hoped that the influenza epidemic was abating by the second week, but it quickly became clear that deaths were rising precipitously. Morristown and Summit hospitals were overcrowded and could not accept any more patients. There was a shortage of nurses as many of them had contracted the flu. Home-care was impossible as entire families were ill.
The YMCA was turned over to the Red Cross and was converted into an overflow hospital. Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge put up the initial funding of $300 for the project. Separate men’s, women’s and children’s wards were set up. In its two-and-a-half weeks of operation, the hospital cared for eighteen patients, four of whom died.
In Bernardsville, the Somerset Hills Visiting Nurse Association opened an emergency hospital in the parish house of St. Bernard’s Episcopal Church. They had as many as twenty-three new patients in a single day. The Drew Theological Seminary, now Drew University, opened its own hospital for its twenty sick students. In Newark, a vacant furniture warehouse was converted into a temporary hospital with 400 beds.
Public funerals were prohibited to stop the spread of the disease, but the funeral industry was still overwhelmed. At one point, Holy Sepulchre Cemetery had 140 bodies waiting for burial. The dead remained unburied for days or weeks due to a labor shortage. In Newark, volunteer firemen were used to plough trenches for mass graves.
Newspapers ran ads for various miracle treatments. Oil of Hyomei, a form of menthol, was inhaled and supposedly destroyed the germs before they began to work in the blood. Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills were supposed to build up the blood and reduce the after-effects of “the grip.” Dover’s Powder was a combination of ipecac and morphine. Doctors from around the world claimed to have created a serum to cure the disease, but none of these ever worked.
Quinine emerged as a miracle cure for influenza. Quinine originated in Peru and was made from the bark of the cinchona tree by the Quechua people. In the late sixteenth century, Jesuit missionaries sent the bark to Europe where malaria was rampant in swampy area such as Rome. “Jesuit’s bark” became a valuable commodity. King Charles II of England was treated for malaria with quinine at the end of the seventeenth century, making the drug very popular. Quinine was the most effective treatment for malaria until after World War II, when chloroquinine was discovered to be more effective. Chloroquinine was discovered in 1934 and manufactured by the Bayer Company. In World War II, Allied forces in Tunis discovered Nazi troups taking chloroquinine and sent the drug back to the US for testing. It was approved for use in 1947. In 1918, it was hoped that quinine, the miracle treatment for malaria, could be used for influenza, but malaria is a parasitic disease and the flu a viral disease.
Quinine advertised as a treatment for influenza. The Courier-News, Bridgewater, November 12, 1923.
Aspirin became a controversial drug in a new wave of flu in 1919, after being effectively used in 1918. The National Institute of Homeopathy called for an end to “Aspirin propaganda” and for a boycott. Aspirin was manufactured by the German company Bayer, and anti-German sentiment ran high during and after the war. One doctor called for a “bone dry anti-Teutonic drug prohibition.”
Early in the pandemic, hopes were raise by reports of breakthroughs in the development of a vaccine for influenza. In October 1918, the “Pfeiffer Bacilli Vaccine” was released. Thirty thousand doses were given out in Newark, but had no effect. The H. K. Mulford Company in Philadelphia produced a vaccine that was given in South Plainfield to great acclaim, but was also ineffective.
The cause of influenza was unknown until 1933 when it was discovered to be a virus and not a bacterium. Jonas Salk and Thomas Francis developed the first flu vaccine in 1938. The US Army supported their research because of the devastating effect on the troops. A vaccine with inactive influenza was approved for civilian use in 1946. Since the invention of the vaccine, the death rate for H1N1 dropped from 600 per 100,000 people to 15 per 100,000. In 1947, H1N1 mutated requiring the development of a new vaccine every year. In 1957, H2N2 emerged, killing over a million people worldwide and 116,000 in the US. In 1968, a new strain dubbed H3N2 triggered another pandemic resulting in a million deaths globally and over 100,000 deaths in the US.
Insurance companies were overwhelmed with claims on life insurance policies. Lines ran out the doors onto the sidewalk. Prudential Insurance agents in face masks processed 85,000 claims worth more than $20,000,000. Clerks, typists, and supervisors were reassigned as special examiners and commonly worked more than 100 hours in one week. The president of the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company said the solvency of his company was threatened by the death toll.
Doctors undercounted the number of influenza deaths. The Bridgewater Courier-News dated October 11, 1918 had an abnormally long list of deaths. Eight people from children to the elderly, but mostly people in their twenties, died from influenza. Another six people from the age of 12 to 51 died of pneumonia, which can be inferred to have been influenza. A ten-year-old, a 72-year-old, and two 34-year-olds died after “short illnesses,” which was probably due to the flu as well. Only four people out of 22 died of other causes: two car accidents, a long illness, and complications from surgery. All the rest were related to influenza.
At a meeting of the Morristown Board of Health on December 18, 1918, Health Inspector S. Fred Burnet explained that several residents died of influenza in the hospital but “added that the epidemic might be considered over.” The pandemic wasn’t actually considered over until April of 1920, although high rates of infection continued through 1939.
The quarantine in Madison lasted three weeks. In that short time, 666 cases were reported with 32 deaths out of a population of about 5,000. Total cases were actually higher as physicians were not required to report their cases to the Board of Health the first week, and others never saw a doctor. The Editorial Board of The Madison Eagle insisted that although the restrictions were lifted, it was incumbent upon every citizen to be vigilant to end the outbreak.
The Madison Eagle, November 1, 1918.
The pandemic was largely forgotten in the euphoria over the end of the war, despite the fact that more Americans died of influenza than in the war. A civilian at home was nine times more likely to die of influenza than all causes of death in the war. The pandemic killed 675,000 Americans, half of whom were between the ages of 20 and 35. Survivors had shorter life expectancies due to damage from the virus. The pandemic tripled the death rate in the United States.
President Woodrow Wilson caught the flu while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, the treaty that ended the war. He never fully recovered and had a stroke in 1919. This affected his ability to lobby Congress to join the League of Nations, which ultimately the US did not do. Historians ponder if Wilson had not contracted the flu, could a better treaty have been negotiated at Versailles? Could US membership in the League of Nations have changed the course of history? Could World War II have been averted?