As World War I raged in Europe, New Englanders died at home from a foe more deadly than bullets: the 1918 flu epidemic.
The granddaddy of infectious disease epidemics, it killed as many as 100 million people and striking young adults hardest. It could have killed as many as 10 percent of all young adults in the world.
More people died from the 1918 flu epidemic in a year than from the Black Death in a century. It killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS killed in 24 years. In fact, no other disease in history killed as many people.
The close quarters and massive troop movement of World War I quickened the spread of the disease and helped it mutate. The Boston area was especially susceptible because of the soldiers and sailors moving through the city.
The 1918 Flu Epidemic Comes to Boston
On Aug. 27, 1918, several sailors on Commonwealth Pier in Boston were reported to have the disease. The next day, eight cases were reported. On the third day, the toll rose to 58 cases.
The sailors were sent to Chelsea Naval Hospital, from which the disease spread to Boston and the rest of Massachusetts.
On Sept. 8, the 1918 flu epidemic traveled 40 miles to Fort Devens, which held 50,000 soldiers. By Sept. 23, there were 10,500 cases of the flu reported at Devens — as many as the other 24 army camps combined.
The military camp became a hellhole of death. Soldiers clutching blankets lined up outside the hospital in the rain while cots overflowed into hallways and onto porches. Doctors had to step over piles of corpses to watch an autopsy.
100 Deaths A Day
A doctor at Fort Devens wrote a letter to a friend describing the 1918 flu epidemic:
“This epidemic started about four weeks ago, and has developed so rapidly that the camp is demoralized and all ordinary work is held up till it has passed. All assemblages of soldiers taboo.
“These men start with what appears to be an attack of la grippe or influenza, and when brought to the hospital they very rapidly develop the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the coloured men from the white. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate.
“It is horrible. One can stand it to see one, two or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies sort of gets on your nerves. We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day, and still keeping it up. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a new mixed infection here, but what I don’t know.
“My total time is taken up hunting rales, (crackling sounds from the lungs) rales dry or moist, sibilant or crepitant or any other of the hundred things that one may find in the chest, they all mean but one thing here — pneumonia — and that means in about all cases death.”
The impact of the 1918 flu epidemic spread beyond the military camp to the nearby town. The doctor wrote,
…the little town of Ayer is a sight. It takes special trains to carry away the dead. For several days there were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce, we used to go down to the morgue (which is just back of my ward) and look at the boys laid out in long rows. It beats any sight they ever had in France after a battle.
By late September, the flu epidemic struck 50,000 residents of Massachusetts and spread beyond the commonwealth. So many young men got sick the Army canceled a draft call though it badly needed them for the war effort.
By Oct. 1, Massachusetts alone had 75,000 cases of the flu. The next day, the city canceled its Liberty Bond parades and sporting events, closed churches, canceled school and put the stock market on half-day. By Oct. 7, t least 1,023 people died from the 1918 flu epidemic in Boston alone.
Doctors could do nothing to contain the disease. They desperately searched for a vaccine and treatments, but failed. They could do nothing but wait and hope.
The flu epidemic began to subside in mid-October. Later estimates put the number of Massachusetts flu deaths at 45,000 from Sept. 1, 1918 to Jan. 16, 1919, but public health officials now consider those numbers low.
On September 11, the first case of flu in Connecticut was reported in New London. Within a week it spread throughout the state. In Hartford, four Yale students walked into the hospital. They felt ill on the train to New Haven and decided to get off. Twenty-four hours later, all four had died.
Doctors turned the Hartford Golf Club into an emergency hospital. Within five weeks, there were 325 reported deaths in Hartford; 294 in Waterbury, 209 in; New Haven and 69 in Bridgeport had 69 deaths. Still, the flue epidemic didn’t hit Connecticut as hard as Massachusetts. The commissioner of health urged all nurses and doctors to resist requests for help from Massachusetts.
Elsewhere in New England
After Massachusetts and Connecticut, the flu epidemic hit Vermont hardest. Public health officials reported 6,000 cases during the last week in September. The largest outbreaks occurred in Middlebury, St. Johnsbury, Lydonville, St. Albans, Montpelier, Barre, Randolph and Northfield.
In Portland, Maine, hospitals overflowed with flu patients. A Maine doctor asked the surgeon general to quarantine ships in Portland Harbor because he feared Canadian soldiers returning from the war would inundate the city’s hospitals.
The disease affected rural New Hampshire less than the rest of New England, but still killed many. At the epidemic’s peak, a public health worker in Berlin wrote,
It is hardly possible for me to describe the conditions in this community. I am the only experienced public health worker here with the exception of the staff. Saturday, I cared for forty patients, from four to nine sick in one family.
One of the first flu deaths reported in Rhode Island was of John Stanley Hardman, a hospital apprentice in the Naval Reserve. He died 36 hours after contracting the disease while nursing two flu patients in late September. His fiancee sat by his side as he died; they had intended to marry on Oct. 1.
Rhode Island public health officials opened emergency hospitals in Pawtucket, Woonsocket, Warwick and Westerly.
This story about the flu epidemic was updated in 2019. If you enjoyed this story, you may also like to read about the great throat distemper epidemic of 1735 here.