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)
September 27th, 2018 at 7:03 pm
You noted that as many as 50 million people died of the “Spanish Influenza” worldwide, straight after WW1 ended, which must have been more people than died during the four years of war 🙁 Can we assume that was because people lived so badly during the war that they were weakened by the cold and starvation, and that the flu spread like wildfire?
September 27th, 2018 at 7:10 pm
Great question—yes, there were far more casualties of the flu than there were of the war and doubtless many died because they were depleted by wartime conditions, but more important is the fact that the war had tied the world together, amplifying and intensifying this very contagious disease.
September 27th, 2018 at 7:35 pm
Another great piece. Your jog in the cemetery brings to mind that great tragedy of 1918, the Spanish Flu epidemic. My uncle John Boland of Lynn died of the flu on September 21, 1918 at the age of 24. I have a picture of him and my mother (she was about 18 at the time) taken at Canobie Lake the previous summer. What a handsome, strapping young man!
The Lynn Public Library reference staff found his two obituaries for me in the Lynn Item and Lynn Telegraph. Recall how small the print was in those days. In addition, I found so much information about WWI and the epidemic on these front pages. All of those who succumbed in the accompanying obits, like my uncle, were in their prime – not the very young or the very old. Other articles on those pages described the war on the Western Front.
Mention was made of a quarantine at nearby Fort Devens. The spread of the endemic was related to the movement of troops during the conflict.
As we approach the centennial of the Armistice of November 11, 2018, it is well to remember those who died of the Spanish Flu also.
September 27th, 2018 at 7:40 pm
look up Fort Devens 1918.
September 27th, 2018 at 7:53 pm
I know, around 1500 deaths a DAY.
September 27th, 2018 at 7:52 pm
Yes, I’ve referenced the epidemic here, Helen: the juxtaposition of the two horrors is what makes the fall of 1918 so very poignant, I think.
September 27th, 2018 at 8:35 pm
Thanks for another wonderful post. The effects of the 1918 epidemic, though, might have been even grimmer than you note: as many as 50 million is an older estimate that is now at the low end of the current estimated death toll – it might have been as high as 100 million, more than the deaths of both World Wars combined. See for instance http://time.com/5018802/spanish-flu-death-toll/.
September 27th, 2018 at 8:41 pm
I know– I went lower but you’re right, the estimates are way up there. I think I’ll go back and scrutinize them a bit more.
September 28th, 2018 at 7:52 am
My wife’s grandfather died of the influenza in that epidemic. He was in his early 30s. He left a wife and four children.
September 28th, 2018 at 8:02 am
It’s unimaginable for us, I think, to comprehend the losses.
September 28th, 2018 at 9:48 am
That’s what I love about Salem. You turn a corner and slow down and you have history right in front of you.
September 28th, 2018 at 11:06 am
Heartbreaking letter. Please read A letter from Camp Devens/American experience/ PBS.
September 28th, 2018 at 7:28 pm
Just today came across a 17-year-old relative in my research who died that year (in December). I almost always assume the influenza epidemic in those cases. It was a horrible time!
October 1st, 2018 at 12:39 am
It was still active in these parts in December; not sure about the rest of the country.