Tales from 1918: The battle against the influenza pandemic in Schenectady

A nurse takes a patient’s pulse in the influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital, Washington, D.C. in 1918 or 1919.
A nurse takes a patient’s pulse in the influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital, Washington, D.C. in 1918 or 1919.

The lesson of the Good Samaritan became reality for Caroline Morrison on Monday, Oct. 21, 1918.

People were in trouble, all over Schenectady. Morrison volunteered to visit a family on Front Street.

The mother of a newborn baby had developed pneumonia. The baby and the woman’s husband also were sick. Just days earlier, another child in the family had died in a city hospital.

Morrison took off her hat and coat, and became a nurse for grateful patients. The woman who usually spent her days as principal of the city’s Hamilton Street School spent hours comforting and caring for her new friends.


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Schenectady was involved with two wars during the autumn of 1918. The first received most of the banner headlines in the Schenectady Gazette: World War I was in its final weeks, and stories about Allied soldiers and their campaign against the Central Powers dominated the front page.

The other war was the 1918 influenza pandemic, which the national Centers for Disease Control has described as the most severe pandemic in recent world history.

While there has never been universal consensus regarding the virus’ origin point, the illness that became known as Spanish Flu spread worldwide during 1918 and into 1919. In the United States, the virus was first identified in military personnel during the spring of 1918.

The CDC estimates that about 500 million people — or a third of the world’s population — came down with the virus. At least 50 million people died, with 675,000 victims in the United States.

At the time, according to the CDC, there was no vaccine to protect against influenza and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections. Doctors and nurses around the world tried to control infections with nonpharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants and limitations of public gatherings.

Such measures are familiar to people around the world in 2020. While the Fourth of July weekend means summer — a time when people consider the cold and flu season long past — new coronavirus cases are reported almost daily.

While New York has been able to greatly reduce the number of COVID-19 cases, several other states have seen more and more cases — and more and more people requiring hospital attention.

Advice given to prevent the virus in 2020 was first developed in 1918. “Wash your hands several times every day … do not put your fingers in your mouth, nose or eyes … keep at least 6 feet away from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.”

Here’s a look back at some of the pandemic people and events that made news in Schenectady during October 1918. It was a bad month for the entire world; the CDC said the pandemic killed an estimated 195,000 Americans during October alone.

Monday, Oct. 7: Closed down

Dr. Walter M. Clark, Schenectady’s health officer, estimated 1,000 people had contracted influenza, or “grippe” — another word for the flu — in Schenectady. Clark was treating more than 200 cases himself.

“One doctor remarked that he made 79 calls Sunday, and his telephone rings continually during the day and late into the night, on an average of about once every five minutes,” read a story that made the Gazette’s front page.

The big numbers convinced city Mayor Charles A. Simon to gather Clark and members of the Public Safety, Public Works and school communities for a meeting at City Hall. Clark’s recommendation became new city law: Close down all schools, theaters, movie houses, churches, lodges, pool rooms, billiard parlors, bowling alleys and places of public gathering and entertainment.

Clark also said streetcars operated by Street Railway Co. should carry only seated passengers — standing-room-only positions could threaten the public health. Streetcar drivers were told to roll down rear windows to ensure proper ventilation. In general, people were asked to stay home.

Bars and ice cream places apparently were still open. Health officials ordered the sterilization of all glasses used for beer, ice cream and “soda water.”

Schenectady residents had been told they could reduce their chances to catch influenza by using a handkerchief, gargling several times a day and by calling a doctor as soon as they felt sick. People began talking about another insurance: gum camphor sewn into a bag and worn around the neck.

“A well-known doctor remarked last night that he thought the effect was largely psychological,” the Gazette reported.

Psychological or not, people bought the idea and the pungent product, derived from aromatic plants.

“By nightfall, most of the pharmacies were sold out of their stocks,” the Gazette said, “and only a fortunate few succeeded in replenishing their small supplies. Orders for atomizers were also received in great numbers, with other supposed preventatives.”

There were some signs society was still in sync. Harriett Emma Vieweg and real estate and insurance man Armand L. Pause were married at 4 p.m. Only intimate friends of the family were allowed to attend.

Tuesday, Oct. 8: Drive for Liberty

Influenza was making news in the area — and so was the fourth Liberty Loan, the national fundraising effort that supported Allied forces in World War I. Schenectady had raised $1,576,50, and that was without counting cash expected from the General Electric Co.

Gazette editorial writers asked city residents to contribute to another cause — the elimination of the flu.

“With its schools and all public assemblages closed, Schenectady settles down today to fight the influenza epidemic in a systematic way,” an editorial read. “If everyone cooperates with the health authorities and the physicians of the city, it may not take long to stamp out the disease.

“There will be a heavy loss all around,” the editorial also read. “That is inevitable. Businesses will suffer and not the least will be the fourth Liberty Loan campaign. That is but a part of what we must pay for the plagues that fate sends our way.”

Wednesday, Oct. 9: Lost lives

Jennie Hand, Max Miklowitz, Anna Mary Schneider, James Weir, Catherine B. Avery and Charles Groff were among the dozen people who died of the flu on Oct. 9. By noon, 57 new cases had been reported. Ellis Hospital was full and Schenectady’s Mercy Hospital was accepting patients.

Morgues also were filling up.

“We are having great difficulty in not being able to get a sufficient number of caskets,” one funeral director told a Gazette reporter. “The express company has its trouble, too. They have 13 men on the sick list and today the head of the local division jumped on the wagon, hustled ‘boxes’ aboard and then helped to deliver them himself.”

Thursday, Oct. 10: On the run

Fourteen more people died in Schenectady. Alice O’Mara, Orlando Lee, Dora Van Patten, Angelo Parone and Rose Flemingburg were among the deceased.

Dr. E.J. Senn was on the run, and offered quick words for a reporter as he completed a house call on State Street. It was his 62nd visit of the day.

“I would give $50 for the chance to go home and sleep for 12 hours,” he said. “I have not had two hot meals in two days. I grab a sandwich and a cup of coffee and jump in the machine again to begin the weary round of sick, sicker and sickest. But let’s cheer up — and go at it again.”

Doctors all over the state could tell similar stories. There had been 31,217 flu cases recorded in New York, 10,340 reported in the preceding 24 hours.

Friday, Oct. 11: New York tough

Members of the state department’s Public Health Council treated the virus seriously. The council adopted a rule that made coughing or sneezing in public — without covering the mouth or nose — a misdemeanor offense. The punishment: A $500 fine, a year in prison or both.

Monday, Oct. 14: Calling Dr. Stone

Dr. Warren B. Stone had been instrumental in Schenectady’s fight against the flu. But the city’s “bacteriologist” was wanted for Army duty and was scheduled to leave the city.

Schenectady fought to keep one of their main medical men on the job.

“To take Dr. Stone away now,” said Dr. Clark, “would be like taking the works out of a watch to make it run. This man’s presence is vital. We have no other bacteriologist who can be reached.”

Late that night. Congressman George R. Lunn sent a wire to Washington and presented his case for Stone’s continued residence to the Surgeon General’s office.

“It is imperative that he remain here, for the present at least, the situation being one of extreme danger to our city,” Lunn wrote.

Wednesday, Oct. 16: Medical center

The Red Cross asked city residents to donate old linen and tablecloths. Volunteers were cutting up the material to make handkerchiefs. There were other requests: Electric plates for cooking, containers of jelly and broth, cribs, cots and mattresses.

The Women’s Motor Corps needed drivers to deliver blankets, pillows, sheets and cots. Women were asked to volunteer for work behind the wheel. Wealthy families who employed chauffeurs were asked to give their drivers work breaks, time the men could use to run errands.

Some businesses pitched their products as remedies. Flaxolyn was advertised as a nature cure made from roots, herbs and pulverized fruits. The medicated vapors of Vick’s VapoRub were supposed to loosen phlegm, open air passages and stimulate the skin. Mustarine was sold to bring “blessed relief” to people suffering from cold chests and sore throats.

Hoover also wanted a piece of the action. The company said its “electric suction sweeper” was the dustless and sanitary way to remove dirt and germs from carpets.

Thursday, Oct. 17: Cracking down

Numbers of new influenza cases in the city remained high — 172. Many cases were not being reported, officials said, because some newcomers to America were afraid to visit the hospital.

Public health officials said people had to stop packing streetcars. They said too many were riding cars during rush hours, morning arrival and late-afternoon departures from the General Electric Co. and American Locomotive Co.

Volunteers desperately were needed as hospital helpers. Dr. Clark needed help from pharmacists. He asked some drugstores to stay open all night.

“We need this innovation very badly,” Clark said. “If the different druggists would get together and make arrangements for first one and then another to take turns keeping open nights, it would be a great help during the epidemic. There are often times when medications are needed immediately, and it is impossible to get into a drugstore.”

Friday, Oct. 18: Working nights

Drugstore owners answered the challenge. Riker-Hegeman at State and Clinton Streets, and Arthur Goldsmith on Broadway in Schenectady’s Bellevue section, announced plans for 24-hour operations. Others soon followed.

Bars and ice cream shops remained open; barbershops and restaurants also were serving customers. Health officials suggested antiseptic masks for barbers and said more care was necessary in dining establishments; many people who rented rooms in the city depended on the family-owned restaurants for their meals.

The pandemic continued: 4,000 new cases were reported across the state.

Mrs. Arthur Krida, in charge of city nurses, shared stories of tragedy with the Gazette.

“A nurse went into a home in Front Street one day this week and found a mother dead in her bed from the plague,” Krida said. “Two little children played about in the dirt … it was the home of the poor. There were three other children in the bed with the body — no, do not shudder. Life is very real these days. Presently the father came reeling through the doorway, mumbling and cursing. He was drunk … ”  

Saturday, Oct. 19: Letter to home

The disease tore through Army camps. Lewis F. Willis, who once lived at 321 Clinton St., survived a flu infection at Camp Taylor, Kentucky. His letter to home was published in the Gazette.

“I will say the flu is a dreadful disease,” Willis wrote. “You’ll say so when you lie between life and death and see your pals on both sides being taken out on stretchers. You will wonder when your time is coming.”

Sunday, Oct. 20: Keep fighting

Dr. Clark coached people to stay the course.

“We all must continue to be very careful,” Clark said, in an appeal to flatten the 1918 curve. “We must not relax our careful attention to little things. A clean handkerchief is a real weapon against this disease.”

Clark also asked people not to congregate in crowds and advised locals to avoid overheated rooms.

Funeral directors also were working long hours. Some conducted double funerals. One told the Gazette he had scheduled nine services for Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 21 and 22.

Wednesday, Oct. 23: Delivery from Emmanuel

Emmanuel Baptist Church led a church movement to deliver hot meals to people down with the flu.

Foods included broths and custards for the sick; soups, jellies and puddings for people recovering; and roast lamb, meatloaf, sweet potatoes and baked apples for nurses, caretakers or older children who could not cook.

“The meals are not only sent to poor families, but in many instances to well-to-do homes where the housekeeping arrangements are broken up by illness and there would be no midday meal, simply because there is no one to prepare it,” the Gazette reported.

While people were still sick in bed, the New York State Basketball League announced plans to begin play in November. Schenectady’s “Smart Set” was one of the teams, along with squads from Utica, Ilion, Fort Plain and Herkimer.

Thursday, Oct. 24: San Francisco scene

News reached Schenectady that California had more than 50,000 cases of influenza. The situation had prompted San Francisco’s Board of Health to pass a new law: All city residents now had to wear gauze masks when they were outside. If people refused and were caught, they paid the price: Penalties ranged from $5 to $100, or 10 days in jail.

Tuesday, Oct. 29: Halloween halted

During the early 1900s, children celebrated Halloween by playing pranks in their neighborhoods. John K. Alexander, the city’s commissioner of public safety, changed the rules during the pandemic. No disorder would be permitted on the streets. Tricksters would face arrest.

Thursday, Oct. 31: Masked marvels

A good sport sent face masks — not protective models — to the Children’s Home in Schenectady. The 17 kids in residence celebrated the season with candy, apples and popcorn.

“The party was especially appreciated by the children,” the Gazette reported, “as they have been kept in the house and grounds for the past month.”

November: Slowing down.

By early November, news on both the war and influenza fronts had improved. On Nov. 6, city doctors reported only 10 cases of influenza.

During the early morning hours of Nov. 11, the State Department announced armistice terms had been signed. The world war would end later in the morning.

While medical officials had asked people not to gather in large crowds, people flocked together to celebrate the Allies’ victory. “Everything on wheels that could move — women, men and children; automobiles, horses and motorcycles … all fell into line and paraded through the principal streets,” the Gazette reported. “Big moving vans and trucks were loaded with children, all shouting themselves hoarse for the Stars and Stripes and America.”

More college football teams returned to action. People also ventured out on Election Day and chose their favorite candidate for governor. Democrat Alfred E. Smith won.

Celebrations to toast the end of the war continued. Two thousand people bought tickets for a dance at the Schenectady Boat Club, a benefit for Scotia soldiers. The Mohawk Club hosted a victory dinner. A Thanksgiving “sing” took place at the city armory. And on Monday, Dec. 2, 1,525 jammed the Van Curler Opera House to see the silent World War I film “Hearts of the World.”

The virus was still around. Just before Christmas, 156 cases were reported in less than two days. There had been 900 new cases in Schenectady since the middle of the month.

The CDC said another influenza wave hit the country during the winter and spring of 1919, killing many more people.

Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-641-8400 or at [email protected] 

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