Philadelphia

Lecture Review – “In Flew Enza: The 1918 Flu Epidemic in Philadelphia and New Jersey” by Mikey DiCamillo

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.

 

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Requiem for a Philadelphian

Jack and Agnes McKeon Wedding Photo

Jack and Agnes McKeon Wedding Photo

McKeown Family Photo

McKeown Family Photo

This August 8th marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my maternal grandfather’s passing. I can’t believe it’s been a whole quarter century since I’ve seen Pop Jack. The two of us spent a lot of time together during his later years. He lived a little over a mile away from my mom and dad’s house. On summer days, I’d take a walk over there to see him at least once a week. After all, I loved history and he’d lived it.

I remember strolling up to his house. He’d be sitting on the porch smoking a cigarette. “Hi, pal,” he’d greet me. Pop Jack would then talk about whatever came to mind. He’d describe his experiences as a Station Master with the rail road, his contagious love of baseball (especially the Phillies) and his experiences as a soldier in the Second World War. As a budding historian, I enjoyed the later the most. After his passing I inherited his army helmet. The metal still bears the mangled form it took when shredded by German shrapnel. The family kindly gave me his Purple Heart as well.

The City of Philadelphia held a special place in his heart. That was his other favorite topic of conversation. Pop Jack grew up on Olive Street in West Philly, and remained a Philadelphian in spirt for the remainder of his life. No one adored the City of Brotherly Love more than he did. I have a copy of letter Mayor Frank Rizzo sent him during the late 1970’s. His Honor expressed his appreciation for Pop Jack’s “support of the administration during the teacher’s strike.” My grandfather had been living in Riverton, NJ for close to twenty years at the time.

I also have his final driver’s license. While it clearly lists his address as Riverton, NJ, the State of Pennsylvania issued it. That shows me that while not a resident of the Keystone State, until the end of his life, he never really left.

It saddens me that Pop Jack didn’t talk about family more often. After my mother’s passing, I found some old family albums. I have a photo him with his mom (Elizabeth) and dad (Jack). I know very little about them. I also have my grandparents’ wedding photo taken January 23, 1943. My grandmother passed away before I turned three so I never got to know her. I don’t remember my grandfather discussing her.

Pop Jack wore thick, dark rimmed glasses that I wonder if he used to intimidate; or maybe hide behind. He didn’t express personal emotions very often. During Phillies’ games he’d be much more forthcoming with his thoughts and feelings, however; especially if that mood was anger. Like myself and many fans during the 1980’s I recall him becoming quite animated on a variety of occasions. His love of Phillies baseball paralleled his passion for the city they represented.

In all seriousness my grandfather suffered serious personal tragedies. He outlived both his spouses. My step-grandmother passed away a week before his 62nd birthday. As someone who’s lost a number of people close to him, I understand how difficult it can be to talk about loved ones no longer with us. It’s a lot harder for someone who displays a tough exterior.

Today Pop Jack lies buried at a quiet cemetery in Cinnaminson. Next to him is my grandmother, Agnes’ final resting place. His brother-in-law Joe Crowley is next to her. To his right is my grandfather’s oldest sister, Catherine. I’ve always thought it interesting that even in death there needs to be a buffer between the two McKeon siblings. (Hey, they started out as scrappy Irish kids from Philly.) The last time I saw my grandfather I was an immature teenager. Today I’m a man who’s had some of the same life experiences as Pop Jack. Whenever I visit his grave I wonder what he’d think of me today. Is there any greater tribute to a person than that?

Famous Historical Figure Visits Moorestown

The wife of one of the Founding Fathers visited the Historical Society of Moorestown on October 19, 2006. Deborah Read Franklin shared with the group stories about her life in pre-Revolutionary American society. Of course, her lecture would not have been complete without some remarks about her famous husband, the beloved Founding Father, Benjamin. Mrs. Franklin illuminated a side of Philadelphia’s most famous citizen that the history books have kept in the dark all these years.

With a pining look in her eyes, Mrs. Franklin described her first encounter with the man who would become her husband. She first met Benjamin on the very day of his arrival in the City of Brotherly Love. He was a young man of just 17 at the time. He looked rather disheveled as he made his way down High Street (now Market Street). He had just completed a long, arduous journey from Boston by way of New York and looking worst for wear. “It was love at first sight,” she said smiling.

“Young Ben was carrying three large loaves of bread under his arms,” Deborah said. When she asked why young Benjamin explained that he offered a baker a few coins for “biscuits”, as his often did in Boston. The proud baker became indignant. “We only sell fine bread here!”

“Well then give me this much worth of bread!” Benjamin retorted as he thrust the coins in the man’s direction. Young Ben didn’t know that the Philadelphia economy differed from that of Boston. He didn’t want to come across as provincial so when the baker handed him the three large loaves so he gladly accepted them.

The next time that Deborah saw Ben, she asked him what he did with all the bread. It certainly would have gone bad before he had time to eat it. (Mr. Franklin didn’t add his legendary girth until he was much older.) “I saw a woman and her young child who had been ship mates of mine. They were hungry so I gave the bread to them.”

Deborah also solemnly related the story of how devastated Benjamin felt when his mother-in-law passed away. She tragically fell into an open fire pit during a fit of apoplexy. This loss affected Ben greatly. It consumed him. He couldn’t accept that he had founded the city’s first fire company, but was powerless to save someone so close to him from its dangers. But the horrible tragedy inspired Ben to “make things better.” He invented the Franklin Stove which no doubt saved countless lives from the ravages of fire. Although Ben couldn’t save his mother-in-law, his invention no-doubt saved an incalculable number of other lives. Mrs. Franklin said that prior to the invention of Mr. Franklin’s stove, the second leading cause of death among women in Colonial America was infection caused by burns.

Deborah concluded her narrative by saying that Ben was such a successful businessman that he retired at the age of 42. At the time he happily told his wife: “Now, Debbie we can do all those things we never had time for.” Very shortly afterwards, the American Revolution entered into its incipient stages. Ben heeded the call of the new nation and travelled to England to fight against “taxation without representation.” Mrs. Franklin didn’t see her husband for the final ten years of her life. Sadly, she didn’t survive long enough to witness the independence of the United States that her husband worked to hard to achieve. She passed away in 1774.

Historian and actress JoAnn Tufo brought the character of Deborah Read Franklin to life. During the question period, an audience member asked Ms. Tufo if she believed Ben Franklin truly loved his wife. After all, his legendary reputation among the ladies of France persists to this day. Ms. Tufo replied that Benjamin was a widower long before he went to Paris. In keeping with the theme of revealing elements of Franklin’s character not captured by the history books, she said that Ben also happened to be a songwriter. One of his works still extant is a tune he penned about Debbie. “What greater sign of love is there than when a man writes a drinking song about his wife?” She asked.