Déjà Flu

Déjà Flu

The last time New Haven saw a pandemic Christmas, more than 350,000 people had already died nationwide of influenza type A subtype H1N1, better known as the “Spanish Flu.” Yet the pages of the New Haven Evening Register in December of 1918 show the city’s preoccupation with even bigger news: the end of the Great War.

Casualty lists, “News of New Haven Boys in Service” and front-page headlines on peace negotiations dominated the newspaper. Even its advertisements played on the war’s impending end. “Lightless Nights Have Passed,” trumpeted The Electric Shop of the United Illuminating Company. “Time to Retrench,” proclaimed Chase & Company Men’s Clothiers. “Make This a Victory Christmas,” suggested The Michaels Maurer Company.

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While peace was being negotiated in Europe, the pandemic battle continued. Like many American cities, New Haven had suffered devastating losses that fall. On October 13, the Hartford Courant reported on “a steady and somewhat startling growth in the number of Spanish influenza cases” in New Haven. In Three Centuries of New Haven (1953), historian Rollin G. Osterweis charts some numbers: “On the seventh of the month 861 cases with 43 deaths had been reported… On October 8 the number of cases passed the 1000 mark; on October 9 there were over 1300…” A later item in the Courant reported 505 deaths in New Haven in October alone.

An October 12 article in The Bridgeport Times scolded that city’s residents and Americans in general for not taking the pandemic seriously enough. “lthough Spanish Influenza had given abundant evidence of its dangers, it was met on American soil, by the health authorities of most American cities with a lack of imagination, and with a lack of statistical understanding,” the Times complained. “In Bridgeport matters have gone precisely as in most other cities… The people are told that it is a crowd disease, without much being done to diminish the amount of crowding.”

Yale began a campuswide quarantine on October 3, and on October 14, according to the digital Influenza Encyclopedia, New Haven’s Board of Health prohibited “‘promiscuous indoor public gatherings,’ such as dances and parties. Soda fountains, restaurants, and similar establishments were ordered to sanitize their utensils thoroughly. Theaters and movie houses were given strict orders to maintain proper ventilation and to exclude patrons exhibiting symptoms of colds.”

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These measures appear to have worked. By December, cases in New Haven had waned, and life seems to have returned to normal. A play called Chu Chin Chow was onstage at the Shubert, the New Haven Country Club met and elected its new board, a Yale athlete won his way into a national squash championship. Shoppers were encouraged to buy diamonds, furniture and toys.

The Register’s annual holiday appeal for funds to help impoverished families tells another story, however. “The approach of Christmas brings with it the need once more to appeal to the readers of the Register to help not the neediest 10 cases as in the past, but the neediest 20 cases in the city,” the editors wrote in the December 8 edition. “The ravages of the recent influenza epidemic had produced so much want that it was found necessary to double the list of those to be helped.”

Other than that somber appeal, the flu made its most prominent appearance not in news items but in advertising that employed alarmist headlines and copy disguised as news to sell products including Horlick’s Malted Milk, Father John’s Medicine and Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery, whose ad included the subhead “Do Not Fear When Fighting a German or a Germ,” thus taking advantage of both current crises. In fact, the Father John’s advertorial pointed out a statistic that the news side of the paper seems to have ignored: “Influenza More Deadly Than War,” it proclaimed. “Disease Quite Likely to Return.”

It was correct on both counts. The flu had not yet run its course, and it had already claimed more than three times as many American lives as the war. By the following spring, six times as many Americans would have lost their lives to influenza as died in the war: about 675,000 flu victims as compared to approximately 116,500 soldiers.

“Wright Denies Return of Flu,” reads a below-the-fold headline on the front page of the December 7 Register, quoting a health department official. “The increasing frequency of the rumors of a fresh outbreak of the influenza epidemic here have caused considerable unrest among many of the people of the city during the past few days,” the article begins. “The records at the department of health office and the office of the registrar of vital statistics, however, do not indicate any serious return of the malady at this time.”

Three days later, a localized surge began at St. Francis Orphan Asylum on Prospect Street. “The orphanage had closed its doors to the outside work on October 1 as a way of protecting the 464 children, sisters, and staff. Only the school supervisor was allowed to enter,” writes the Influenza Encyclopedia. Then, on December 10, a staff member came down with the flu. “From there, the infection exploded. By January 7, there were 424 cases and seven deaths. Of the stricken, 398 were children, prompting Mayor Fitzgerald to issue a broad appeal for help… Finally, by the end of the first week of the new year, the asylum had come out the other end of the ordeal. With these last remaining cases on the mend, life slowly returned to normal in New Haven.”

Sources differ on whether New Haven ever closed its schools—the Influenza Encyclopedia says the city was one of only three (including New York and Chicago) that kept its schools open, while Osterweis says the schools were closed for two weeks in October—but Mayor FitzGerald apparently stuck with his thinking, reported in the Courant, that closing schools and theaters was unnecessary because the illness would soon peak and disappear. According to the encyclopedia, 1,200 doses of an experimental vaccine created at Yale’s Brady Laboratory were administered to hospital nurses and Winchester Repeating Arms Company employees, but the untested serum turned out to be ineffective. Medical science was still working out its basic understanding of viruses and bacteria as “separate and fundamentally different infectious entities,” according to a scientific history of the pandemic published in the journal Antiviral Therapy (2007).

In the end, the flu, which entered Connecticut via Navy personnel stationed in New London in September, had run its course by late winter 1919, but it had killed 8,500 people in Connecticut alone in a population of just over 1 million. Many were young adults.

Our own hoped-for victory this season comes in the form of a vaccine, not a treaty. But just like New Haveners of 102 years ago, we look forward to a better new year.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image—of a poster issued by the Connecticut State Council of Defense, published here in an October 1918 edition of the New Haven-based publication Illustrated Current News—sourced from the Connecticut State Library.

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