2018 marks the hundredth anniversary of one of history’s most horrific years. With the bloodbath of the First World War, it’s easy to forget that 2018 also commemorates the centenary of another catastrophe. This one also caused massive loss of life. Unlike the war, this one affected people well beyond the battlefields. It even made a tremendous impact in our region. This disaster caused eight to 12 thousand deaths in Philadelphia and another 2,600 in Camden County. This malady made no noise, had no smell and couldn’t be detected by the naked eye. Today we know that killer as the influenza virus.
Historian Mickey DiCamillo enhanced my understanding. He presented a lecture on the 1918 flu pandemic this July 11th. It took place in the May Barton Memorial Garden located at the Historical Society of Moorestown.
While a somber topic for a summer lecture, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about it. I have a personal connection to this subject. My great-grand aunt and Philadelphia resident Edith Bishop Clark succumbed during the 1918 flu pandemic on October 13, 1918. Mrs. Cark was only 27 years old. Since her sister, my great-grandmother Violet Bishop Connelly, lived to be 80, I wondered how someone so young could be struck down by something as common as the flu.
Mr. DiCamillo didn’t disappoint. He provided a thorough overview of the outbreak. The historian performed copious research on the topic. It gave him a solid understanding of the subject matter.
The lecture focused on several key areas: the epidemic’s origin, why it spread so quickly and how society responded to it.
I’d often heard the pandemic referred to as the “Spanish Flu.” Mr. DiCamillo explained that this is a misnomer. He explored the historiography of how scholars analyzed the outbreak’s roots.
During the First World War a myth spread that the pandemic originated with German POWs. Interestingly, during the 1940s and 1950s, historians then theorized that it began among Russian POWs. Mr. DiCamillo noted that in both cases, the historians of the day attributed it to America’s main adversary.
Contemporary historians theorize that the virus originated in Haskell County, Kansas around February of 1918. A physician named Loring Miner observed young, strong people becoming ill and dying. They experienced regular flu like symptoms that quickly developed into pneumonia. Dr. Miner published his findings. He ominously warned: “the public should be alarmed.”
In March of the same year this flu strain affected Camp Fungsten, a military base in the Haskell County area. Within three weeks medics reported 1,100 cases there. Many soldiers from this facility landed in Brest, France. Mr. DiCamillo described that city as “ground zero” for the European’s flu’s outbreak.
The Haskell County origin is a hypothesis, Mr. DiCamillo noted. Modern researchers can document the Kansas outbreak because Dr. Miner published his findings in a Federal Government journal. The epidemic struck all over the world. That makes it very difficult to identify its precise beginning.
The scourge spread to the Northeast beginning in late summer. Soldiers at military bases became its first victims. The close quarters common to barracks allowed for the illness’ easy transmission.
Mr. DiCamillo then focused his remarks on the Camden County and Philadelphia areas. He cited a “voice from the era”, to describe events. A local newspaper, the Camden Daily Courier, reported that the flu had passed the region on 9/20/1918. Then between 9/20 and 9/24, Camp Dix experienced 1,000 cases of it.
The speaker referenced another voice from the era in the person of Alton W. Miller. While stationed at Kentucky’s Camp Taylor, he wrote letters to his sister stating he felt “sick.” He didn’t report his illness at the base because, “Everybody who goes into the hospital doesn’t come out.” His concern proved prescient. When he could no longer hide his symptoms, he was sent there. He passed away shortly afterwards.
Mr. DiCamillo presented his own theory as to how the epidemic spread through the area. On September 28, 1918 a Liberty Loan Rally was scheduled to take place at Willow Grove Park. With flu raging through the Northeast, the organizers debated whether or not to hold the event. Philadelphia’s public health officials adhered to the specious belief that they had a vaccine to combat the illness. They gave permission for the gathering to take place. On that date 200,000 people gathered in Willow Grove Park.
Three days later the number of flu cases in Philadelphia leapt from 100 to 635. Around this time news of the flu appeared on the front page of the Camden Daily Courier for the first time.
So why was this flu so contagious? Mr. DiCamillo provided two explanations. He estimated that 75% of the area’s trained medical personnel went overseas to support the war effort. He added that the conflict “sped everything up.” Factories operated 24 hours a day.
People of the day used some modern methods to treat the malady. The patient would be isolated. The sick person’s body temperature would be carefully monitored. Cathartics would be used to “rid the patient off poisons.” The patient would be encouraged to breathe fresh air, keep their windows screened and to drink plenty of fluids.
Mr. DiCamillo shared some amusing stories as to how people responded to the crisis.
By the first week of October, officials in Camden and Philadelphia took measures to control the illness’ spread. They ordered schools, churches and social clubs closed. Philadelphia even took the added step of shutting down saloons. Camden did not. This led to an influx of people from the City of Brotherly Love into the South Jersey area. Residents described their behavior as failing to give credence to the city’s nickname.
At the time doctors prescribed whiskey to treat the epidemic. Historians doubt that’s what led so many Philadelphians to swarm into South Jersey’s taverns, though.
During the crisis the Philadelphia Inquirer made an editorial decision not to print articles about the flu on the front page. Unlike modern media that thrives on sensationalism the newspaper didn’t want to start a panic.
Remember that “vaccine” Philadelphia public health officials figured would defeat the illness? It was designed to fight a bacterial malady: not a viral one. Even if it had been, it wouldn’t have had much impact. The epidemic passed around the third week of October.
Mr. DiCamillo opened his remarks by saying that talking about the subject, “Makes me nervous to be around people.” After listening to his lecture, I could understand why. If Mr. DiCamillo ever becomes interested in making a career change, he’d make a great salesman for flu shots.