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Spanish Influenza of 1918, Part 1: The First Six Weeks of Epidemic in the United States, Sept. to Oct. 1918

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The Spanish Flu, which swept the globe for more than two years and killed as many as 100,000,000, was misnamed. The origins of the 1918 pandemic have been debated, but it is generally accepted that the disease was prevalent among the troops from Germany, France, and Great Britain fighting World War I. Because of the war, the press was censored in those countries. Spain was neutral and the press was not censored. Hence, the early reports of the spread of infection suggested that Spain was the vector. It was not.

Whatever the source, Boston was the first location in the United States to experience an outbreak, probably because of the troop ships and merchant marine vessels returning from Europe. In 1918, between September 10 and October 21, the disease grew exponentially and spread throughout the U.S. as seen in this national news coverage.

On September 10, 1918, the Fort Wayne Sentinel announced in a headline: Epidemic of Influenza Among Sailors in Boston.

Nearly 100 sailors of the merchant marine suffering from influenza, who have been stationed aboard training vessels in Boston harbor, were removed for treatment today to tents pitched on the summit of Corey hill…

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The next day the Pawtucket Times reported that

A campaign against spitting in public places to restrict the further spread of the epidemic of influenza, from which thousands of persons in and about Boston are suffering, was undertaken today by health authorities.

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By mid-September, the disease was spreading and causing deaths. The Macon Daily Telegraph reported that

The epidemic of influenza among officers and enlisted men in the first naval district which began recently, continued to spread today, reports of 210 new cases reaching headquarters. A total of 1,693 cases had been discovered since the disease became prevalent, resulting in 34 deaths.

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On September 18 the Duluth Sunday News Tribune reported that

Spanish influenza now has become epidemic in three army camps, Surgeon General Gorgas announced today. There are 1,500 cases at Camp Devens, Mass.; 1,000 at Camp Lee, Va., and 350 at Camp Upton, N.Y.

Immediately below, the same Minnesota paper also recorded that

Influenza and pneumonia caused more than 70 deaths in New England within the 24 hours ending tonight….In Brockton and nearby towns, where the shoe factories have been badly crippled by the spread of the disease, 12 deaths from influenza were reported.

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A week later the Columbus Ledger of Georgia reported that the city of Boston was said to be “panic-stricken by the epidemic.” The article stated that the disease “is sweeping toward the west and south like a medieval plague and threatens to overwhelm the whole country.” The news was grim:

People are being stricken down in the street, offices, subway, theaters and shipyards….over 6,000 soldiers are down with the disease at Camp Devens, while civilian cases in the Boston district number at least 10,000....Whole families have been wiped out.

The article continues, suggesting Boston was slow to realize the dimensions of the threat.

Inclined at first to regard the epidemic as nothing worse than a visitation of bad colds, Boston has now bitterly learned that Spanish influenza is something far different....Having been aroused to the danger, Boston is now taking extraordinary precautions against the further spread of infection. Big placards posted all over the city threaten dire penalties to spitters. Telephone transmitters are being disinfected. Visiting at the prisons has been prohibited. Public schools are being closed down, over 500 pupils having been stricken. Wellesley college girls have been forbidden to visit Boston.

The health commissioner advised citizens

to keep away from crowds, to keep their feet warm and dry, not to let another person to sneeze or cough in their direction without protecting their mouth and nostrils, to gargle their throats three times a day, and to send for a doctor at the first sign of a cold.

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The disease gained momentum, and by October 2 the Macon Telegraph published an account of the spread headlined

14,000 New Cases within 24 Hours. Spanish Influenza Epidemic is Growing Hourly. Pneumonia Also Causes 300 Deaths.

The article reported on the epidemic in army camps and included a collection of reports from around the country.

More than 14,000 new cases were reported to the office of the surgeon general during the twenty-four hours ending at noon today. This was an increase over yesterday [sic] 3,600 cases.

Indeed, it appears to have been a fourfold increase in one day.

The total number of influenza cases in all camps now is 88,000, while pneumonia cases number 6,769. Deaths since the epidemic began number 1,877.

These victims were almost all presumably healthy young men.

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On October 4 the Idaho Statesman reported the further spread as “U.S. Authorities Take Drastic Action to Prevent Epidemic Sweeping Country.” Based on daily reports by “the public health service and at the office of the Surgeon General,” the article stated:

New cases developing in army camps totaled 12,004, with reports lacking from Camps Sheridan, Ohio; Taylor, Ky., and Jackson, S.C. where the disease has reached epidemic proportions.…The total number of influenza cases reported in the camps since the epidemic began Sept. 13, is 113,737. Pneumonia cases total 8575 and deaths 2479.

The Statesman also reported on civilian numbers and included reports from far-flung cities, including Chicago, Salt Lake, Washington, D.C., and Wilmington, Alabama.

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The next day the same newspaper’s headline was

Country Sees Rapid Spread of Influenza. Disease Assumes Epidemic Proportions in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maine, Delaware, Virginia and Alabama.

According to the article, Philadelphia had decreed that

All places where liquors are sold, even private clubs, have been prohibited from dispensing intoxicants until further notice.

Further, “all amusement places have been closed and public gatherings, even outdoor Liberty Loan meetings, were suspended.” In New York City “health authorities Friday took steps looking toward a readjustment of the city’s business and industrial life until the epidemic has abated.” One strategy proposed by the city’s health commissioner called for employers to rearrange “business hours so as to prevent the massing of great numbers of people all intent upon arriving at their respective working places at the same hour in public conveyances.”

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The same day the Oregonian reported on events in several cities, including Seattle where

Every place of indoor public assembly….including schools, theaters, motion-picture houses, churches and dancehalls have been ordered closed….Only public gatherings in the open air will be permitted.

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On October 10 the Augusta Chronicle in Georgia declared, “Influenza In All Parts Of Country. Epidemic in Several New States and Spreads in Army Camps...” The paper reported that

Influenza is epidemic in Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina, Maryland, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Missouri, Nebraska, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, parts of Arizona and many other states….The disease is reported from many parts of California, while in Texas the malady has been reported from 77 counties….A slight decrease is noted in Massachusetts, but in the District of Columbia the malady is spreading rapidly, more than 2,000 new cases being reported.

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Six weeks after the first reports of the initial outbreak in Massachusetts, the Aberdeen Daily News in South Dakota reported, “Influenza Epidemic Checked In Boston.” The good news was that

Normal conditions were resumed in this city today when places of public assembly were allowed to reopen by health officials. The places had been closed for nearly three weeks…

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Early American Newspapers, Series 1-16, 1690-1922, is a rich source of reportage about this global pandemic which lasted almost three years. Thousands of additional newspaper articles enable students and scholars to follow the story as second and third waves engulfed many countries.


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