I like to run through Salem’s larger cemeteries because I’m not the best runner so I really don’t want a (live) audience. Last weekend I did something to my back, so instead of jogging yesterday morning, I was walking around Greenlawn Cemetery rather awkwardly. I would not call this exercise, as I had to stop and read nearly every gravestone I passed by, and at one point, I found myself right in the midst of a collection of graves of people who had all died in 1918. They were not related; the only thing they had in common was the year of their death. None were very old, and most were quite young. Almost immediately—as I looked all around in this one little section of a large urban cemetery and saw that year everywhere I turned—I realized that this was a special moment, during which I could grasp just a semblance of how horrible that early fall was exactly 100 years ago, when young men were far away fighting a terrible war while also falling victim to a plague of influenza that was attacking the home front at the same time. I’m not sure that all the markers with 1918 inscribed on them testify to deaths by war or flu (although I will find out), but just for that moment, I could feel the magnitude of the loss–and assault—by both forces.
The city of Salem has a “Veterans’ Squares” program through which intersections across the city are named after veterans who lived nearby. I happen to live near “Trask Square”, named in honor of Private George C. Trask, who died of pneumonia (often the end game of the flu) in Angers, France; his fellow Salemite Wallace C. Upton also died of disease much closer to home, in the Chelsea Naval Hospital. At precisely this time a century ago, influenza was raging in Boston and schools, churches, theatres, and even bars had been closed. The Massachusetts Historical Society has a great blog post featuring the diary of a young Salem wife and mother named Edith Coffin Colby Mahoney whose life changed quickly from late summer outings to the Willows to notices of deaths and “epidemics everywhere” from August to September 1918. She was right: as least 50 million* people died of the “Spanish Influenza” worldwide and perhaps 5000 people in Boston, which was the third hardest-hit American city after Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In a report issued on this very date in 1918, the U.S. Public Health Service records the number of Salem flu cases at 1500, confirming Miss Colby’s impressions recording in her diary on September 26: “Torrential rain for 24 hours beginning at 3am today, some thunder in the P.M.. Most depressing day after bad news from Eugene. He died at 6:40am. Several thousand cases in the city with a great shortage of nurses and doctors. Theatres, churches, gatherings of every kind stopped. Even 4th Liberty Loan drivers parade postponed.”
And the city was still bearing the scars of the great fire just four years before……BUT the Red Sox won the World Series that year.
*I’m going with the CDC estimate; some are much higher. (https://www.cdc.gov/features/1918-flu-pandemic/index.html)