In 1918 and 1919 the great Spanish Influenza pandemic killed 50 million to 100 million people worldwide and about 700,000 in the United States. At one point, during a six-week period in the fall of 1918, one Philadelphian died of the flu every five minutes.
The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 19 S. 22nd St., is preparing its most ambitious exhibition ever to bring the deadly outbreak out of the shadows and tell the story of disease and the legacy of it all. The exhibition is titled, “Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic in Philadelphia.”
My Aunt, Sarah Ann Taylor, was one of the victims. She was born December 14, 1893 in Manchester, Lancashire, England. She died at age 24 on October 9, 1918. Three days before the out-of-control disease killed 800 in the city, the highest one-day toll. Sarah came to the United States with the rest of her family in 1910 (aboard the USS Haverford), with her father, John (my Grandfather), Mother Mary Ann and siblings John Joseph, Henry (my father) and Florence Elaine.
John had first come to Philadelphia in 1908 and was sexton of St. Martin’s in the Field Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill. There he spent two years living in the church basement saving enough money to bring his family to the US.
When I heard of the exhibit I contacted Nancy Hill, special projects manager for the museum, and told her about my Aunt Sarah. She replied, “So much of what you said is typical of those affected by the flu. Recent immigrants, victims in their mid 20s to mid 30s, and the second week of October being particularly fatal- unfortunately for Sarah, it seems like the perfect storm. I looked and we do have her death certificate recorded.”
Deep into the outbreak, the city posted street-side warnings: “Spit Spreads Death.”And that was pretty much the only government acknowledgment that things weren’t going well.
"There are no monuments to the flu,” said Robert Hicks, director of the museum. "The war overshadowed everything else and the government had a lot to do with the fact that the flu didn’t get acknowledged. President Woodrow Wilson never made a public utterance because he did not want to divert attention away from World War I and the last great push to win it.” In the President’s view, nothing was more important than winning thewar, except, perhaps, paying for it.
It is likely that the epidemic’s spread can be traced to an ill-conceived parade and so it was that on Sept. 28, 1918, with the city was already in the grips of a the deadly disease, the 4th Liberty Loan parade kicked off down Broad Street with the aim of raising funds for war bonds. More than 200,000 people lined Broad Street that day to cheer on the war effort, and unwittingly to spread disease. I’m sure that Sarah, who worked in the city, was among them. She was dead a little over two weeks later.
Doctor’s knew of the dangers of large public gatherings convened in the midst of the contagious disease and yet the city declined to publicly talk about it. It was politics first, people second. A group of them went to city officials and the press but were largely ignored. The physicians were warning the city that the parade was a bad idea and were told, ‘We’re having the parade,’" said Hicks. The physicians declared, “We’ll put public notices in the newspapers warning people” and yet no newspaper would run them.
Censorship in the US was promoted by the press all through World War I, and it started with the President. There was no federal agency stepping in to do anything or make the big announcement. Here I am writing about it 101 years later and it makes me angry.
Sarah was a mystery to me, the Aunt that died way too young. With no warning, the parade went on and people died. Ms. Hill said there was a “dramatic spike” in flu-related deaths following the parade, although she adds that it is difficult to say that the parade in and of itself was the cause. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but people died.
Once the patriotic war bond frenzy died down people realized they had slipped into a “bring out your dead situation.” My wife recalls that her South Philadelphia grandmother, Rigoletta Cianci, told her, “It was so terrible there were people laying in the streets waiting for wagons to come gather their bodies. Ms. Hall agreed, “Yes, that part of the city was particularly hard hit for a number of reasons -- overcrowding, poor sanitation, large immigrant populations working in crowded factories.”
“Each death certificate opens a window into the life of a person who is otherwise unknown,” Hicks said. “We want to commemorate those who died in 1918 and who didn’t get the burials, the funerals, or anything they may have wanted.”
The only mark the flu left in the city is in the cemeteries, where gravestone after gravestone bears a death date of bleak days in the fall of 1918. Sarah is buried in Ivy Hill Cemetery near where they resided.
No policies for public health management were altered, hospital protocols remained the same. The government reasoned that the epidemic was over by March 1919, so why plan for the past? Some would say a typical bureaucratic response.
Only the medical researchers, who engaged in a relentless pursuit for the origins and treatment of the flu, stuck to it. They finally determined that it was a virus by the 1930s and developed a vaccine by the 1940s. Along the way they made some other important discoveries pursuing their research — the biggest of them, penicillin.
“The most visible lasting effect is just gravestones,” said Hicks. How sad.
Listen to Ted Taylor on WRDV FM (89.3) Tuesdays from 8 AM to Noon and Wednesdays from 10 pm – 1 am or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org