The Killer Flu of 1918: A Philadelphia Story
An anti-spitting sign posted on streetcar in Philadelphia, October 1918.Credit...Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
The brutal toll taken by the flu that claimed 20,000 lives in the city has not been forgotten as Philadelphia braces for the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.
PHILADELPHIA — At Sunday family dinners, the grandchildren would beg to hear that story again, the one about her twins in the baby carriage, and one of them was dead, and what did she do. This was when Sarah Jane Anderson would add to the collective memory of a Philadelphia nightmare.
Well, children …
It was October 1918, and the raging flu epidemic had killed 18-month-old Augusta, but spared her twin, Eleanor. Funeral parlors could not meet the demands of the dead; caskets were stacked on the sidewalks. But Ms. Anderson had a plan: She knew an undertaker in northeast Philadelphia.
She tucked the twins — one alive, one dead — in a baby carriage, left their rowhouse in Camden, N.J., and took the Delaware River ferry to Philadelphia. As she wheeled her sorrow north, fearful that she might be arrested for moving a body across state lines, people kept peeking into the carriage to admire how peacefully the toddlers were sleeping.
Twins? Aren’t they cute?
Six miles later, Ms. Anderson reached the undertaker; he accepted the tiny body. She then retraced her steps with little Eleanor, who grew up to become the mother of Janice Williams, who heard her grandmother tell this story long ago, and now — in the midst of another pandemic — feels compelled to share it.
“She walked home,” marveled Ms. Williams, 84.
Memories of the 1918 Pandemic From Those Who Survived April 4, 2020
The United States was crippled by the brutal flu that swept through the country in the midst of the First World War, but nowhere was hit more forcefully than the powerhouse industrial cities of Pennsylvania, the nation’s primary manufacturing hub for ships and steel needed in the war effort. More than 17,500 Philadelphians died of the flu in the first six months; 4,500 in one week; 837 in a single day, Oct. 12.
A chart from about 1919 shows the climbing death toll in several U.S. cities.Credit...National Museum of Health and Medicine
Much from that time has the sudden ring of familiarity: the shattering consequence of holding a large public event — a patriotic parade featuring marching bands, Boy Scouts and troops before cheering crowds packed 15 feet deep on the sidewalks — in defiance of scientific advice to stay at home. The overwhelmed health care workers and morticians, and the many citizens who rose to the moment. The fight against an invisible foe whose capriciousness meant that a child died but her twin lived.
Philadelphia has not sidestepped the 2020 coronavirus. Cases reached 2,430 by the end of the week; hundreds more are added every day and 26 people have died.
But the city may not be as overwhelmed as some others. The public health commissioner sprang into action soon after word emerged of the virus in China, holding meetings with hospital administrators as early as January. Testing equipment was purchased early, and Temple University offered space for additional hospital beds. The city expects to have sufficient beds to withstand even a worst-case scenario, though it is scrambling to secure the needed equipment, including ventilators.
SPANISH FLU MEMORIESOral histories tell the stories of “garages full of caskets”.
Dr. Tony S. Reed, chief medical officer at Temple University Hospital, said that Philadelphia’s ordeal in 1918 — enduring the second-highest death rate in the country, next to Pittsburgh — has informed its response to the current epidemic. “The state has handled it very differently, and the city handled it radically differently,” he said. “Frankly, for us it’s going to make all the difference in the world.”
Nancy Bader Thomas, a retired bond underwriter, said she had thought often in recent days of the similarities between the now she is living and the then that both her parents experienced in 1918 Philadelphia.
Latest Updates: Coronavirus Outbreak in the U.S.
- Coronavirus in New York came mainly from Europe, studies show.
- C.D.C. issues new back-to-work guidelines for essential workers.
- In New York, ‘the bad news is actually terrible.’
“It happened again. We’re reliving it,” Ms. Bader Thomas said. “History can repeat itself.”
Stirred by the onset of Covid-19, the Philadelphia memories of 1918 have helped, but they also haunt.
The initial wave of the flu arrived in Philadelphia aboard a British merchant ship that docked at the city’s Navy Yard. Within days, 600 sailors fell ill.
CLINICS IN PERILThe coronavirus pandemic has depleted many of these clinics revenues, causing layoffs.
Philadelphia’s health director, a gynecologist named Dr. Wilmer Krusen, initially denied that the city had a flu problem, hoping that isolating the sick would limit the outbreak. He faced a difficult decision: shut down the city, or hope that quarantines would suffice.
But the United States was also embroiled in a world war. Philadelphia felt intense pressure to recruit soldiers, churn out warships — and demonstrate its second-to-none patriotism with an elaborate parade to boost morale and encourage the purchase of war-financing bonds.
“If Krusen had decided not to go ahead with the parade, knowing that all cities were doing it, they would have sacked him,” said Robert Hicks, a historian who created a 1918 flu exhibit for the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. “There’s no way it could have been stopped.”
On Sept. 28, an estimated 200,000 people — about one-ninth of the city’s population — packed downtown for the rousing procession of floats and troops. War widows held court on street corners. Schoolgirls in white marched arm in arm. Citizens bought bonds.
24 HOURS IN NEW AMERICAOver 24 hours across America, this is what we saw.
And a virus spread.
Two days later, Dr. Krusen acknowledged that the city was in the throes of an epidemic — but it was too late: Philadelphia did not have a chance. Hundreds of police officers came down with a “blue flu,” impeding law enforcement. Telephone switchboard operators fell ill, disrupting communication. Schools and public venues closed, funeral processions competed for street space and church bells tolled incessantly for the dead.
A Naval Aircraft Factory float, with the hull of an F5L patrol seaplane, moves down South Broad Street during a parade in Philadelphia on Sept. 28, 1918.Credit...U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph
But many Philadelphians responded as if to the war posters festooning the city: They did their part.
A citizens committee redirected its efforts from fighting the war to fighting the flu, partitioning the city and assigning medical professionals to each section. Families sheltered orphans; a private school, Girard College, received a class of orphaned “flu kids.” Volunteers dug mass graves.
FACE MASKSAcross the country, state and local politicians have begun donning protective gear, in contrast to President Trump.
Then the epidemic was over, as suddenly as it had arrived. While other major cities experienced multiple harsh waves of the flu, Philadelphia was for the most part hit with blunt force only once. Soldiers traumatized by war returned to families traumatized by an epidemic. But Philadelphia moved on.
Now, in the spring of 2020, another epidemic has hit, and this city of 1.5 million, like many other communities, is bursting with absence. No packs of commuters erupting from 30th Street Station. No tourists swarming about Independence Hall. No fans streaming into the Wells Fargo Center to see 76ers basketball or Flyers hockey.
Girard College is closed for the epidemic. The Navy Yard, now an industrial park, is mostly deserted but has a coronavirus testing site. And few people linger at the corner of Broad and Chestnut, where many thousands once gathered for a glorious and deadly parade.
Although historical markers throughout the city commemorate assorted people, places and moments — America’s first Bible society; Girl Scout cookies; the singer Mario Lanza — there is no marker memorializing the 1918 epidemic. Too painful, perhaps. Best forgotten.
But there has been that exhibit at the Mütter Museum. Even before it opened in October, the exhibit, “Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 in Philadelphia,” was generating calls and emails from people who had stories to tell.
“They do not talk about the experiences in a detached, retrospective way,” Mr. Hicks, the museum’s former director, said. “They talk about really desperate times and anguish. It’s not just, ‘Oh, my great-grandfather died from the flu.’ It’s something intimate and personal, as if the person telling us the story witnessed the event themselves.”
Nancy Hill, the museum’s manager, agreed. She noted that since the city’s effective shutdown last month because of the coronavirus, there has been a spike in emails to the museum from people with epidemic stories to share.
An undated clipping from a scrapbook of the influenza pandemic in Philadelphia, compiled by an unknown person, August 1918–March 1919.Credit...Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
People like Ms. Williams, who remembers those Sunday dinners of the 1940s, when she and other children would swarm around their plump grandmother Sarah Jane Anderson, who had had a hard life and who loved to play Chinese checkers, begging her to tell the story again.
It always began with: The baby was very sick, and the baby died.
As if her grief were stipulated.
The baby’s twin, Eleanor, lived to be 83. She married, volunteered at a hospital thrift shop, remained loyal to the Phillies — and, according to her daughter, often wondered how life might have been had her twin survived.
The baby-carriage story inherited by Ms. Williams is just one moment among so many that unfolded almost simultaneously throughout Philadelphia, where children on the street could be heard reciting variations of a new ditty:
I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
And in flew Enza.
When even loosely assembled, these moments provide a cinematic narrative of terror, mourning and resilience that resounds today.
It resounds like the bells of the churches in the Grays Ferry neighborhood, where 9-year-old Isabel Gallagher would walk past coffins stacked outside St. Gabriel’s Roman Catholic Church. Then, at home, her father would prescribe hot toddies of whiskey, hot water and sugar.
Isabel lived to be 91, her daughter, Barbara Selletti, said. “And until the day she died, she believed that what saved her were the hot toddies.”
In South Philadelphia, nothing could save Amilia Coia, 26, a wife and mother with lustrous long black hair, from the insidious flu. Her 7-year-old son, John Angelo Coia, also developed the flu, and the sips of whiskey and the pouch of garlic tied around his neck had no effect. At some point, a Roman Catholic priest loomed over him to administer last rites.
Amilia Coia in an undated photograph provided by her family.
But the child recovered. He grew up, married, worked for 46 years as a printer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and died at 83. In his retirement, he would sip a coffee or beer with his son Anthony and summon those dark days — recalling the friends who were missing when fresh air returned to the streets.
“He would go out to play,” recalled Anthony Coia, 73, “and little Billy wouldn’t be there.”
Ms. Bader Thomas, the retired bond underwriter, is the custodian of the influenza stories passed on by her parents, both of whom grew up around the West Kensington neighborhood.
Her mother, Irene, would tell the cautionary tale of a neighbor, a big, strong German in his 40s, who drove a six-horse wagon loaded with beer barrels. “He was in superior shape to be able to do that kind of work,” said Ms. Bader Thomas, 77. “And he was gone within a couple of days.”
This was one reason Irene’s grandmother, an Austrian immigrant named Bertha, kept all her family members isolated in the house — and they all survived. Irene, in fact, lived to be 104.
Ms. Bader Thomas’s father, Walter, was 17 when he got hired to do a job few wanted: collect the dead by horse and wagon.
“They had to work fast,” she recalled her father saying. “They just threw them in the ground, blankets wrapped around them.”
He and other morgue workers drank whiskey to protect themselves from the flu and, maybe, the memories. But when those memories returned in later years, Ms. Bader Thomas said, her father would be matter-of-fact about even the horrific details, such as burying several babies in a barrel so as to be more efficient.
“It was just: This is what happened,” she said.
“You just go forward,” said Ms. Bader Thomas, self-isolating in her home in a Philadelphia suburb. “You never look back.”
Dan Barry is a longtime reporter and columnist, having written both the “This Land” and “About New York” columns. The author of several books, he writes on myriad topics, including sports, culture, New York City, and the nation.