My husband’s father was 14 and living in New York during the pandemic of 1918, sometimes known as the Spanish flu. He must have had memories of the time; surely he knew people who died in Brooklyn, where he lived. Yet according to my husband, his parents never mentioned the epidemic, which killed upward of 60 million people worldwide. My grandparents never talked about it, either. In 1918 they were in their 20s, and also lived in Brooklyn.
On a personal level and in the press, there was a kind of collective amnesia about the pandemic, some say because the horror was overwhelming.
In 2005, when I read “Wickett’s Remedy,” a novel about the pandemic by Myla Goldberg, I was amazed that a catastrophic epidemic had swept through this country so recently. Goldberg’s historical fiction told the tale not in the cold numbers of the body count, but in the arresting details of a community under siege — a study of how people behave in the grip of unyielding suffering. It seems especially relevant now.
The Spanish flu was a novel virus, like Covid-19. No one had immunity, and it surged through the city tenements, wiping out entire families. Hospitals had to set up tents outdoors, because they were filled beyond capacity. Bodies piled up on the streets of Philadelphia. There was no known cause and no cure. The virus traveled around the world on troop ships carrying soldiers to World War I battlegrounds.
Like today, there was plenty of fake news about miracle cures and remedies. In Brooklyn, a group of chiropractors took out an ad in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, touting spinal adjustments as a cure for the disease. Their ad read in part, “If you catch cold easily and throw it off slowly, it indicates a lowered nervous vigor that must be corrected. . . . The cause lies in the derangement of that sensitive part of the anatomy, the spine. Spinal adjustments by a chiropractor, trained and skillful, will correct this condition.” Hydroxychloroquine, anyone?
The same paper reported on Oct. 4, 1918, that 135 men appeared in court after being caught spitting in the street. The magistrate “imposed a fine of $1 on each of the defendants and told them that with an influenza epidemic on hand they ought to be more careful.”
On Oct. 15, the Eagle reported that there had been some 500,000 cases of Spanish flu in New York City. Low-cost meals were being prepared and distributed from an empty storefront in downtown Brooklyn. Then, as now, reckless behavior sometimes led to a spike in cases. In Eastport, Long Island, folks thought the worst was over, so they planned a celebration. The paper reported, “Flu was at party, epidemic follows.” Apparently there were only 15 glasses for more than 500 guests at the shindig, and it became a “superspreader” event.
Eventually, even without a vaccine, without the medical interventions we have now, the cases of flu just started to drop, and the disease disappeared, with very little press coverage.
It has been suggested that one reason people buried the memories with the bodies was that an even bigger tragedy was strutting on the world stage and grabbing the headlines: World War I. President Woodrow Wilson never made a public comment about the pandemic. There was no federal response to the disease, no Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So it played out quietly in towns and cities across the country.
Yet “The 1918 influenza pandemic was the deadliest event in all of human history,” David M. Morens, an epidemiologist at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in 2006. “It killed more people than any war, any pandemic, the Black Death, AIDS, you can pick your terrible event.”
The 1918 flu killed some 675,000 Americans, according to the CDC. It is estimated that one-third of the world’s population became infected with the virus.
I want to know more about how people got through the worst of it. How did they cope with the loss of life on such an epic scale? The Covid-19 death toll in America stands at 560,000 and counting, gaining on the 1918 death toll.
Now we are the witnesses. Our duty is to keep the records of this time, the data and the eyewitness accounts, our personal stories. Contemporaneous newspaper accounts, the first drafts of history, along with the remarkable scientific advances we have seen, will help us prepare for the next pandemic when it strikes.
Copyright 2021 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.