Your Turn: The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, from New London to Norwich
Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series.
The Spanish Influenza pandemic in Connecticut is said to have started in New London on Sept. 1, 1918, when the active port debarked passengers and, a few days later, sailors from the U.S. Naval Base returned to port ill.
By Sept. 12, 1918, the New London Submarine Base was closed to anyone outside and prohibited even sailors living off base to leave.
The Spanish Flu’s name was derived in an odd twist, because during the First World War, only neutral Spain was willing to admit cases there, but the pandemic did not originate there.
A close examination of The Norwich Bulletin tells the story of the impact of the virus close to home. The disease spread fast and took young, healthy lives even faster.
The Bulletin on Sept. 24, 1918, listed Robert E. Harrington, a 34-year-old physician in Montville, as having succumbed to pneumonia caused by influenza. The son of a physician, he had come from Massachusetts a year and a half earlier to take over a practice from a retiring physician.
By Sept. 25, Norwich Public Health Officer E.J. Brophy declared that influenza was on the wane in the city and that schools could stay open with teachers “noticing” sick children and sending them home. All this was despite Harrington having died and the only other doctor in town feeling ill as well.
Backus Hospital in Norwich was so overcrowded with the largest inpatient population in its history, people were implored not to call.
In fall 1918, Slater Mills shut down. The Federal emergency public health committee sent doctors and nurses to the hardest hit areas, including New England, from all over the country and even Canada.
On Sept. 27, all facilities for public gathering (except saloons!) were closed by order of Brophy. Schools and factories closed, churches held services monthly at first, then closed, some deployed as temporary influenza wards.
A day later, Brophy and Dr. John T. Black, Connecticut Commissioner of Health, ordered all schools closed, including NFA. Black would later serve on a national committee examining the influenza’s statistics and working toward the development of a vaccine.
It was generally accepted that the pandemic would return. Some scientists are now convinced that during three waves in a little over a year, the flu virus was able to mutate.
By Oct. 3, 1918, the Bulletin reported that influenza had struck in 43 states and the District of Columbia. Most reports centered on military bases and shipyards, with the pandemic heavily affecting the U.S. response to World War I, both in recruitment and, especially, training. Close quarters and recruits coming to training facilities from all over the country exacerbated the spread.
On Oct. 14, The Bulletin announced that the Federal Public Health Service had taken over direction of the flu pandemic response. This included sending nurses and physicians into 30 states including those in New England.
“Women who have not had regular training” were especially recruited to assist nurses in order to mitigate the overwhelming work load.
A few days later, the U.S. Employment Service was credited with ensuring adequate workers during the “epidemic period” for the mills and munitions factories. “School boys,” for instance, were employed while schools were closed.
Doctors began making phone calls to patients for an early version of “telemedicine” instead of risking home visits, but the state Board of Health suspended receiving phoned-in case reports from doctors.
On Oct. 18, 1918, The Bulletin reported that Brophy agreed to re-open schools, including NFA, with the proviso that teachers exclude those with a cough or who were sneezing. He admonished parents whose children exhibited the same symptoms to keep them home, to avoid the embarrassment of being rejected upon arrival.
Brophy also now gave permission to theaters, churches, lodges and similar organizations to reopen, allowing the adults to self-quarantine if they were coughing or sneezing. Factories were cautioned to keep their afflicted workers home until the symptoms had abated.
Remarkably (at least as of Oct. 18), the Norwich Sanitarium, or tuberculosis hospital, remained free of influenza, possibly due to its quarantine, staff being careful to wear masks and the common practice of good hygiene.
By Oct. 19, 1918, 1,434 deaths were reported in Connecticut and 62,619 illnesses; by Oct. 22, those numbers had risen to 2,626 and 180,000. By Nov. 19, more than 6,000 deaths had been recorded.
By comparison, by Nov. 30, 2020, Connecticut had seen 5,000 COVID-19 deaths and 113,000 cases. In Norwich, from March to the end of November 2020, COVID had made 1,171 sick, causing 18 deaths. In roughly six weeks, from Sept. 9 through Oct. 23, 1918, Norwich recorded 193 deaths from flu.
By the third week of October 1918, The Bulletin made it appear that any risk had vanished. In fact, the Slater Hall concert series was suspended on Oct. 18, 1918, not due to the pandemic, but in order to use the money for “patriotic purposes” instead.
But by Oct. 19, The Bulletin was reporting that along the East Coast, the pandemic was resurging.
On Oct. 25, Massachusetts reported that cases were waning. Nevertheless, many colleges cancelled major gatherings like Founders Day at Mt. Holyoke. Conn College held classes on Saturdays to make up lost time. Boston re-opened schools Oct. 21. Some public schools in eastern Connecticut would also later opt to add Saturday classes and forego Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday breaks to make up time. In addition, many schools added hours to the day to catch up.
At NFA, Henry Tirrell scheduled school on Saturdays and New Year’s Day to replace those lost when the Academy was closed between Sept. 25 and Oct. 13. His reasoning was the students would prefer to attend classes in the winter rather than at the end of the school year.
Schools were obliged by state law to be open for 36 weeks, and although it was proposed, lifting the requirement did not initially pass the senate.
Many towns were denied needed school funds, having closed too many weeks. This issue would be discussed for months.
On Oct. 27, 1918, though still under “strict” quarantine, the Conn College Choir was outdoors for its traditional vespers service, with Loretta Higgins, NFA class of 1916, singing.
By Dec. 12, the fortune of Conn College ended and it was forced to close until Dec. 30. Thirty students were “hospitalized” in a makeshift infirmary in Thames Hall, overseen by the rare female physician, Dr. Helen Todd.
The lack of a proper infirmary generated rumors that a faculty residence might be re-purposed or the college might build a new structure in response to the lack of a facility.
Holidays like New Year’s Day were cancelled in lieu of replacing lost class time, but a program was scheduled for New Year’s Eve. Sadly, a number of “girls” were not allowed to leave because they were deemed a risk to the public and placed in quarantine. The holiday programming, including plays and a concert, was rescheduled for the first two weeks of January 1919.
With the proximity of holiday breaks, many colleges around New England and public schools in greater Norwich followed Conn’s lead.
Some towns and cities instituted volunteer canvassers going house to house to count those afflicted; brave souls willing to help the cause and their neighbors. In late November, a nurse in Willimantic reported having made 259 house calls in October alone.
On Jan. 5, 1919, parishioners at St. Patrick’s in Norwich were asked to send a prayer for Mary McCloud of Norwich, ill with influenza and chief nurse at “a Hospital in Washington, D.C.”
On Nov. 25, Dr. T. Eben Reeke of the state Council of Public Health used The Bulletin to implore the public against large Thanksgiving gatherings in private homes, particularly where someone was ill.
On Dec. 26, 1918, The Bulletin reported that the state had 300 new cases, but many physicians failed to see the value of reporting cases they diagnosed. By December. The Bulletin also claimed the Norwich death rate was back to “normal.” Although doctors had been earlier ordered by Brophy to report all cases, many delayed, possibly because their time was overwhelmed caring for the sick.
By Jan. 4, 1919, backlogged cases made it appear that there was an upsurge.
Toward the end of 1919, Hart Transportation Company was asking the Chamber of Commerce for a loan because the Spanish Influenza had so adversely affected its business. Hart operated the New York & Norwich Steamship line, originally founded by Henry Barnard Norton, one of NFA’s original incorporators. The line carried people over Long Island Sound before most had cars, nor were there adequate highways to make it a quick trip to New York City and back. While steamships offered outdoor seating, in sub-freezing weather, most people probably preferred sitting inside. Crowding would have made that a dangerous proposition during the flu pandemic.
By the end of January, because of ice on the Sound and striking workers, Hart had suspended its services.
On Jan. 8, 1919, The Bulletin reported that its own composing room staff was decimated by the flu; three members were too ill to report. But the flu did not stop charity events like the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union strikers relief fund masquerade ball held on Jan. 9, 1919 at the T.A.B. Hall.
The pandemic also did not stop accidental deaths like that of 9-year-old Helen Johnson, who fell into the Yantic River from the bridge at Otrobando Avenue on her way home from school. She and a friend had stopped to play, but she slipped through ice into the river and drowned.
By Jan. 18, 1919, Conn College would once again invite students and the public into the gymnasium for concerts and plays. Unfortunately, by February, the campus was again under quarantine; this time due to an outbreak of diphtheria which spread far more effectively than had the flu and forced the last minute cancellation of the Sophomore Dance.
With cases slowing, there were still many notable deaths, particularly among young, promising Norwichians like William Smith who, with his sister Alice, had acquired, built and operated successfully a grocery and butcher shop on Town Street in Norwichtown. He died on Jan. 12, 1919. The entire family, parents, brothers and sister resided above the business and had lost another brother in Hartford to the pandemic less than two weeks earlier.
On Jan. 9, 1919, Backus Hospital released its annual report for its 25th year, stating that it had been the institution’s busiest, and most difficult. Two young nurses were lost to the flu.
On Jan. 27, United Workers, in its annual report, thanked Backus Hospital for sterilizing equipment and delivering healthcare services at their Sheltering Arms, City Mission and Rock Nook Home facilities.
United Workers also reported that for five weeks at their temporary shelter for children at Second Congregational Church, an un-named “excellent woman” managed the facility but refused to receive any form of compensation or recognition. During all of this, the tuberculosis sanitarium reported not a single case. Their hygiene and PPE habits were already significantly in place to protect them.
On Feb. 1, 1919, the editor of The Bulletin noted, “By all reports it would be a futile effort to take a trip around the World to escape the influenza.”
Just as is the case today with COVID-19, some profited handsomely from the flu pandemic without even trying. The Norwich Cemetery Association was a for-profit, stock company. For 1918, it enjoyed a significant increase in earnings, and this allowed the company to issue stock dividends to members and at the same time add to the perpetual care fund.
WWI’s disruption of cultivation of the European sugar beet, combined with preferential sales to the American military, created a sugar shortage in 1919 (and into 1920). The U.S. government responded by admonishing women to use molasses.
All went sweetly until Jan. 15, when a huge flood of molasses caused by a burst storage tank at Boston’s Purity Distilling Company created a shortage of molasses. Molasses can be fermented to produce ethanol, the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages and a key component in munitions. By the end of January, Brer Rabbit brand took out a huge ad in The Bulletin (and probably every newspaper in the land) asking customers not to blame their grocers.
By May 1919 the Slater Museum had re-opened and the Spanish Influenza pandemic began to fade from memory.
Vivian F. Zoë is director of the Slater Memorial Museum in Nowich.
Your Turn is a chance for readers to share stories and commentary. To contribute, email at email@example.com.
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