1918: Death on the Home Front

Philadelphia Deaths from Influenza, 1890-1930.. February 17, 1931 (PhillyHistory.org)

Deaths from Influenza in Philadelphia, 1890-1930.. February 17, 1931. (PhillyHistory.org)

September had been tough, especially the middle of the month, when more than a quarter of the soldiers at the Frankford Arsenal had been hospitalized with the “Spanish Flu.” On October 1, as the deaths were counted, the Inquirer grasped for a positive tone, pointing out the number of new cases had actually fallen off toward the end of the month. Commander R.W. Plummer of the Fourth Naval Reserve District also tried to offer hope, that maybe, just maybe, “the crest of the epidemic of Spanish Influenza has passed.”

“Talk of cheerful things instead of disease,” urged the Inquirer on October 5, why close down “public schools, theatres, churches, and many other places. … The authorities seem to be going daft. What are they trying to do, scare everybody to death?” The Inquirer took a position even more reckless than that of Dr. Wilmer Krusen, head of the City’s Department of Public Health and Charities. Until two days earlier, Krusen had insisted citizens were in no danger.

In October 1918, Philadelphians had little time for public health; there was a fundraising parade to put on. Citizens had been ordered to do their share and buy half a billion dollars’ worth of Liberty Bonds in support of the war effort, and to do so before the end of October. No way would this be possible in a city scared and shuttered. On September 28th the parade on Broad Street took place as scheduled; 200,000 turned out for it.

Symptoms of this strain of influenza began as soon as a day after exposure. On September 30th and October 1st the city hospitals found 466 new cases on their hands. Twenty-four hours later, on October 2nd, the Inquirer reported an additional 635 cases.

“Within seventy-two hours after the parade” writes John Barry, in The Great Influenza,“every single bed in each of the city’s thirty-one hospitals was filled. And people began dying. Hospitals began refusing to accept patients. … On October 3, only five days after Krusen had let the parade proceed, he banned all public meetings in the city-including, finally, further Liberty Loan gatherings—and closed all churches, schools, theatres. Even public funerals were prohibited.”

Too little; too late. From October 4th through the 20th, the city recorded 22,051 new cases. More than 3,900 died during those 17 days. During its most virulent four-week stretch, 47,094 cases of influenza were reported, writes James F. Armstrong. Due to combined denial of city officials and the Press—an Inquirer article from October 9th  carried the headline “Signs Of Epidemic Wearing Itself Out”—the 1918 influenza pandemic and the related complication of pneumonia, cost Philadelphia something like 1% of its entire population, nearly 12,200 citizens.

“In its 10-month duration between 22 and 40 million people perished worldwide,” writes Armstrong, “estimates place the death toll in the United States at over 675,000 with over 22 million becoming ill.”  That death toll was more than five times the total number of American casualties in World War I. Bad all around, but no American city had it harder than Philly.

Life on the home front? In 1918 Philadelphia, it was more like stubborn ignorance and needless death.

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