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A Cautionary Tale

John Conway - Sullivan County Historian
Posted 3/27/20

The Spanish flu epidemic that came to light in 1918 and killed perhaps as many as 100 million people worldwide before it ran its course, remains a confusing and misunderstood chapter in the history …

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A Cautionary Tale

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The Spanish flu epidemic that came to light in 1918 and killed perhaps as many as 100 million people worldwide before it ran its course, remains a confusing and misunderstood chapter in the history of mankind. Even its name—the Spanish Flu—is shrouded in mystery, and yet the entire tragic experience can serve as a particularly valuable cautionary tale right here, right now.

In Sullivan County, officials were slow to recognize the threat, and even slower to take action, and accurate statistics are difficult to obtain, but the epidemic's impact is undeniable.

When the rapid spread of the disease began in March of 1918, local newspapers were busy keeping readers informed about the ongoing war in Europe and the fate of their hometown boys in the armed services, and there was a concerted effort to keep the news upbeat, so not a lot of space was typically allotted to what seemed like nothing more than a seasonal flu outbreak.

By that fall, it had become apparent to many that this was not a typical flu bug, yet no coordinated response was forthcoming. And the patriotic fervor of the day— well-attended local rallies, parades, and benefits in support of the war effort—merely helped to spread the disease.

“Lacking a vaccine or even a known cause of the outbreak, mayors and city health officials were left to improvise,” writes Dave Roos of the History Channel. “Should they close schools and ban all public gatherings? Should they require every citizen to wear a gauze face mask? Or would shutting down important financial centers in wartime be unpatriotic?”

Ultimately, for the most part, response came not from the national, state, or even county level, but from even more local officials and varied greatly from place to place. For example, in October of 1918, the Board of Health in the Town of Cochecton ordered schools and churches within the town to close. Many other schools remained open.

“Whereas the disease known as the Spanish Influenza is now epidemic in certain parts of Sullivan County, therefore be it resolved, that all schools and churches in the town of Cochecton be closed until further notice,” the Board decreed. “That no public meetings be held without permission of the Board of Health. That stores and the barrooms of hotels close at six o'clock p.m. That all postmasters shall close post offices as early as permissible under the post office regulations. That notices be posted in all stores, hotels and other public places, requesting that no crowds assemble. And be it further resolved, that this act take effect immediately.”

Yet, in its October 24, 1918 edition, the Sullivan County Record newspaper, published in Jeffersonville, was reassuring the public that there was nothing to be alarmed about.

“Jeffersonville Still Free From Influenza Epidemic,” the front page headline announced. “No Restriction on Public Gatherings— Not Advisable to Close Schools.”

The accompanying story, which was presumably written by proprietor and publisher William Lieb, was overshadowed by stories about the war effort with headlines such as “Jeffersonville Goes Over its Loan Quota” and “More Young Men Called Into Service,” and it took on an almost breezy tone.

“Jeffersonville has not as yet felt any serious effects from the so-called Spanish influenza,” the article read. “There are and have been mild cases of grippe, influenza and cold around here, but nothing to cause alarm, and no restrictions have been placed on public gatherings here by the Health Board.

“Dr. Schonger, health officer of this town, says it is not deemed advisable to close the schools except in extreme cases. Teachers have been instructed to exclude from school all pupils with acute coryza—sneezing and coughing —or with any other signs of disease, particularly communicable diseases. Promiscuous coughing and sneezing, expectorating in public places, and the use of common drinking and eating utensils should be avoided, says the health officer.”

The article noted that the schools in Bethel, Youngsville and Callicoon had already been ordered closed, and in Liberty “the school, churches and moving picture theatre have been closed. Soft drinks and ice cream cannot be sold for consumption on the premises.”

The lack of a coordinated response was not confined to Sullivan County, and an estimated 195,000 Americans died from the Spanish flu in October of 1918 alone.

As horrific as those numbers sound, historians now know that many of the statistics recorded by health officials back then were grossly inaccurate.

“The lowest estimate of the pandemic's worldwide death toll is twenty-one million, in a world with a population less than one-third of today's,” writes John M. Barry in his 2004 bestseller, “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.” “That estimate comes from a contemporary study of the disease and newspapers have often cited it since, but it is almost certainly wrong. Epidemiologists today estimate that influenza likely caused at least fifty million deaths worldwide, and possibly as many as one hundred million.

“Yet even that number understates the horror of the disease, a horror contained in other data. Normally, influenza chiefly kills the elderly and infants, but in the 1918 pandemic roughly half of those who died were young men and women in the prime of their life, in their twenties and thirties.

“One cannot know with certainty, but if the upper estimate of the death toll is true, as many as 8 to 10 percent of all young people then living may have been killed by the virus.”

More on the Spanish flu's impact on Sullivan County and the world next week.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com, and ask how to order his latest book, “In Further Retrospect.”

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