WEST ROCKHILL — A year ago, the Spanish Influenza was included in, but only a small part of, historical lecturer Michael Jesberger's presentations on World War I.
Now he's got a separate presentation about the pandemic that killed more than 50 million people worldwide, including more than 650,000 in the United States, about 12,000 of which deaths were in the Philadelphia area between the spring of 1918 and summer of 1919.
"I just had to tell the story tonight because it is oh so familiar," with many parallels to the current COVID-19 pandemic, Jesberger, a Lansdale resident, said at the start of his "The Spanish Influenza - Philadelphia 1918" presentation Feb. 11 to the West Rockhill Historical Society.
Because of the current pandemic, the program was held as a Zoom meeting.
In the Philadelphia area, the 1918 pandemic "exploded" following one particular event, Jesberger said.
"September 28, 1918 in Philadelphia, more than 200,000 people turned out to witness the latest Liberty Loan parade — a patriotic event designed to inspire public financing for World War I. Organizers went ahead with the parade in the midst of an influenza epidemic that already had decimated New England and was gaining ground at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and surrounding Philadelphia area," Jesberger wrote in program information. "It proved to be a crucial mistake. The parade became a breeding ground for the infection. Within days, the influenza had become so widespread that Philadelphia and state officials essentially shut down the city."
By October 25, 1918, an estimated 150,000 people in Philadelphia were infected, with 4,500 deaths in one week and 837 deaths on one day on Oct. 12, 1918, he said.
Children, meanwhile, were reciting a rhyme as they jumped rope: "I had a little bird/and it's name was Enza/I opened a window/and in flew Enza."
Photos from the time included people wearing face masks similar to those worn today. In one of the photos, a woman is holding a sign reading, "Wear mask or go to jail."
One man claimed to have a cure that was found to instead be candy, Jesberger said.
In response to an emailed question about the similarities between then and now, Jesberger wrote, "Both are contagious respiratory diseases with very similar symptoms, but a person infected with Covid can take longer to develop symptoms than if they had the flu where it can take 1 to 4 days after the infection. Similarities between the two are shortness of doctors and nurses, not enough hospital beds, restrictions on public gatherings and events, strong emphasis on wearing masks and washing hands, no available vaccination (until recently) and both are not selective in when, who and where it would strike. Both spread panic across the world with significant loss of life."
"Tough program, but you did a great job," West Rockhill Historical Society President Brenda Phelan told Jesberger at the conclusion.
"It's important history," Jesberger replied.
Along with adding the Spanish Influenza presentation, he said, he has also added one on the cholera pandemic in the 1830s and 1840s.
Before, the cholera pandemic had been only a small part of his presentation on Duffy's Cut, he said. Duffy's Cut is a section of railroad tracks built in 1832 about 30 miles west of Philadelphia where 57 Irish immigrants working on the tracks all died in less than two months after arriving. Their deaths were initially thought to all have been from the cholera pandemic, but forensic evidence now indicates some may have been murdered, perhaps because of fears of the disease spreading.
Asked in the email why he decided to do the separate presentations on the pandemics, Jesberger said, "There was a false sense of security in our modern age that this type of cataclysmic pandemic could not be repeated or that it would not last long enough without a cure to inflict high casualty numbers."
He said he wanted to remind everyone that the next generations will be talking about us and what we went through.
"We, ourselves, are creating history," Jesberger said.
With March marking one year since COVID-19 changed the way we live, people are showing more interest in learning from the past, he said. Jesberger will again be presenting the Spanish Influenza program 2 p.m. March 20 as a Zoom program through the Hershey Public Library. Registration is required through the library's website.
On March 8, West Rockhill Historical Society will have "That's Unusual," with Carl Lavo presenting funny stories from Bucks County history.
On April 12, West Rockhill Historical Society will have "Hidden in Belgium during the Holocaust." Daniel Goldsmith will talk about his experiences during World War II and surviving the Holocaust.
The programs will be held as Zoom meetings and registration information will be on the WRHS website and Facebook page. Persons who are not members can also view the programs, Phelan said.