How the 1918 Flu Pandemic Affected the Small Town of North Andover and the Nearby City of Lawrence
Ted Tripp Sr. Political Reporter
Boston Broadside April 2020
In 1918 the country was fighting a war in Europe and the newspapers were filled with stories of Allied progress, military battles and the fate of local residents.
Against this backdrop, North Andover, a town of about 6150 at the time, began the year like many others. A coal shortage had driven up prices and caused concerns about the affordability of heating public buildings, the textile mills and even private dwellings. In June, Johnson High School graduated 19 seniors with 6 going on to higher education. One student, Charles M. Tucker, to the delight of school officials, was accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The class poem that year was “America the Beautiful,” by Katharine Lee Bates.
The Board of Health was complaining that its $700 budget had been cut by $100 from the previous year. It had actually hoped for additional funds to address the issues of infant mortality and milk inspection. Board members noted that the entire budget had to pay all their expenses, including those for “any person ill at any hospital with any contagious disease, the expense of our citizens in the Tuberculosis Hospitals, the expenses of placarding and fumigating, the expenses incident to the free distribution of diphtheria antitoxin, vaccine, and diphtheria and typhoid examinations, and the salary of the Slaughtering Inspector.”
Much of the summer saw citizens raising money for the war effort by selling Liberty Bonds. On the agricultural side, the town’s Moth Department noted that residents could purchase arsenate of lead for insect control at the low price of 12 cents/pound. On August 24th the Stevens and Osgood Mills began their annual 10-day shutdown for equipment maintenance and workers’ vacations.
School started Wednesday, September 4th, with several new teachers because some teachers were lost to other districts where men went off to war. Early September also brought a lot of excitement with the Red Sox travelling to Chicago to face the Cubs in the 1918 World Series.
Unknown to the residents up to this time, of course, the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 had already started. It had begun in March at Fort Riley, Kansas where over 500 soldiers had contracted the so-called Spanish Influenza. Also, at the end of August, many sailors in Boston had become sick with the grippe, as the flu was commonly called at the time, and the overflow of patients had to be sent to the Chelsea Naval Hospital. Finally, in September hundreds of soldiers at nearby Camp Devens became ill and scores were dying every day.
Although there had been several stories in the newspapers about the sickness, area residents first heard about the severity and extent of the problem on September 23rd when the Lawrence Telegram published three front-page stories: “Local Soldiers Ill at Camp Devens,” “Spanish Grippe on U.S. Transport” and “No Abatement in Grippe Epidemic.” Front-page stories about the epidemic continued for about a month, although news about the War always – always – took the headlines no matter how many died from the flu.
On September 26th, at the urging of state officials, the Lawrence Board of Health closed all public, private and parochial schools and theaters until at least October 7th. By noon the next day, Lawrence had reported 279 cases of influenza or the flu. Up to this point, North Andover only had a handful of non-serious influenza cases. This was about to change.
On October 1st, the Lawrence Telegram reported in a front-page article that Lawrence health officials “Have the Situation Under Control.” They were badly mistaken.
Also on October 1st, the Board of Health and selectmen in North Andover closed Johnson High School and the eight elementary schools until further notice. Also ordered closed were the Stevens Library and Red Cross Center. The Methodist Episcopal Church and St. Paul’s Church suspended Sunday services.
By October 2nd, the North Andover Board of Health had reported 50-60 cases of influenza, but only a few were serious. Still, Boston’s Cardinal O’Connor decided to close a two-week mission which had just begun at St. Michael’s (Catholic) Church.
The next day, Massachusetts health officials reported 8000 new Spanish Influenza cases with 151 deaths statewide, in just the previous 24 hours. They urged but did not require that all churches across the commonwealth be closed. Influenza cases were still increasing throughout the area.
On October 4th, the North Andover Board of Health urged the pastors at all five local churches to suspend their services on the upcoming Sunday. That Sunday, October 6th, Rev. George W. Haley cancelled masses at St. Michael’s – the first time in 50 years a pastor had done so.
By October 7th, two of the town’s three primary physicians, Dr. F. S. Smith and Dr. J. J. Daly, had become ill with influenza and were unable to help others who were sick. On the same day, North Andover reported the deaths of Mabel England, 17, Ernest Kennett, 27, and William Thomson, 32, all from the epidemic.
The North Andover Board of Health thus put out an urgent call across New England to all physicians for help, but since many towns were struggling with influenza problems of their own, no doctor was available. Then a stroke of good luck came along. The U.S. Public Health Service realized just days earlier that there would be a physician shortage and, with an emergency $1 million grant from Congress, set out to hire 1000 doctors and 700 nurses from around the country to help where most needed. Thirty physicians from Indiana who volunteered were pressed into service and sent to Boston. One of these, Dr. William Conner, although “fatigued from his trip,” immediately reported to North Andover. When he came he pronounced that “He was all ready to fight.”
By October 10th, over 200 cases of influenza had been reported in North Andover and they were increasing at the rate of 30 per day.
This would turn out to be the high point in the epidemic. On October 11th, the North Andover Board of Health would for the first time report fewer cases than the day before.
On Monday October 14th, North Andover health officials reported there were only 15 new cases over the weekend and none were serious. Also, the Lawrence Telegram, for the first time in weeks, had no stories on the front page about the influenza epidemic. As quickly as the epidemic had hit, it started to rapidly decline.
Tent City in Lawrence to treat 1918 influenza victims – Lawrence History Center
Even though the worst was over, caution was still the rule. The North Andover schools would not reopen until Monday, October 28th, thus being closed for a total of four weeks. Some churches would not resume Sunday services until early November.
Dr. Fred Smith, the school physician, reported that there was a recurrence of the flu in the schools in December, but it was a “milder type” and no deaths were reported.
The official tally for 1918 flu in North Andover was 312 cases of influenza with 18 deaths. Another 14 died of pneumonia, which at that time was difficult to distinguish from influenza deaths. Some of these could have easily been caused by the Spanish Influenza. All this was out of a population of about 6150.
The consensus was that North Andover had been lucky with so few deaths, particularly compared to Lawrence where over 2000 had perished from the epidemic. The town’s Board of Health said: “That our death rate was surprisingly low, was due in a very great measure to the untiring faithfulness of Dr. Conner. The Town of North Andover is rightfully thankful that so able a man as Dr. Conner could help in the time of its great need.” Dr. Conner was the physician from Indiana who had volunteered to come east and help fight the epidemic.
Dr. Conner was obviously helpful, but the real reason North Andover got off easy was probably more due to its rural nature and the suspension of public gatherings. Conversely, Lawrence was much harder hit because of its crowded conditions and high population — about 92,600 or 12,200 more people than today — and the refusal of its Board of Health to close the city’s “saloons.” It was not politically possible to shut down the saloons or bars because many of the male mill workers congregated there after their shift and during the day many merchants conducted their business in such places.
One of the more interesting aspects of researching the influenza epidemic is how the area newspapers of the day treated the health problem. The front pages still allocated a majority of the space to the war in Europe, even during the worst of the Spanish Influenza crisis.
The simple answer for this distribution of news is twofold. First, the war was big news and soldiers were dying at a fairly high rate, including many local residents. Entire communities were committed to support the effort with the involvement of many of their citizens. Second, deaths due to illness, and particularly from contagious diseases, were still fairly common at the time.
North Andover in that era recorded about 100 deaths a year. The 1917 listing by cause reported: heart disease – 13; pneumonia – 10; apoplexy – 9; carcinoma – 8; phthisis [tuberculosis] – 7; old age – 3, diphtheria – 2; typhoid – 1. Although there was no separate listing for influenza, some of the pneumonia deaths could have easily been caused by the common flu. Note that the communicable diseases that are rare or unheard of today still took lives at the time. Also, the Board of Health that year reported “placarding” 14 houses with notices of a contagious disease present.
A similar situation existed in Lawrence, but worse. While over 2000 died from the 1918 epidemic, deaths from flu were common due to the crowded living conditions. For example, in 1917 Lawrence reported 1391 deaths due to influenza and in 1919, 1280 deaths. What made the difference in 1918 was the high rate of infection and the high death rate, both in a very short period of time.
Overall, the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 killed more than 550,000 Americans and an estimated 20-50 million people worldwide.
1918 Public Health Notice
Rules to Avoid Respiratory Diseases
(By the Surgeon General of the U. S. Army)
1. Avoid needless crowding – influenza is a crowd disease.
2. Smother your cough and sneezes – others do not want the germs which
you would throw away.
3. Your nose, not your mouth, was made to breathe through – get the habit.
4. Remember the three C’s – a clean mouth, clean skin, and clean clothes.
5. Try to keep cool when you walk and warm when you ride and sleep.
6. Open the windows – always at home at night, at the office when practicable.
7. Food will win the war if you give it a chance – help by choosing and
chewing your food well.
8. Your fate may be in your own hands – wash your hands before eating.
9. Don’t let the waste products of digestion accumulate – drink a glass or
two of water on getting up.
10. Don’t use a napkin, towel, spoon, fork, glass, or cup which has been
used by another person and not washed.
11. Avoid tight clothes, tight shoes, tight gloves – seek to make nature your
ally not your prisoner.
12. When the air is pure breathe all of it you can – breathe deeply.
This article originally appeared in the Boston Broadside Please visit their website: http://www.bostonbroadside.com/
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