The Pandemic of 1918

by: John Stanton

The epidemic hit the island like a thundering wave. Everybody knew what was happening on the mainland. The now-iconic photos were simply the news of the day then: New York City cops wearing surgical masks, tents filled with patients lined up on Chicago streets, Army barracks turned into makeshift hospitals. Mass graves filled with bodies waiting to be buried, signs telling people to sleep with their windows open and city ordinances requiring people to wear surgical masks.

But that was the mainland. Nantucketers figured their island and their distance from the mainland would provide a barrier to the worst of the Spanish influenza pandemic. Some even thought that the island’s sunlight and pure air would work to keep the disease at bay. And then one morning they realized it wouldn’t.

An emergency hospital at Camp Funston, Kansas during the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918.

“Coming almost like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky, Nantucket is now confronted with an epidemic of influenza,” wrote The Inquirer and Mirror in the first week of November 1918.

“Up to this time Nantucket has been practically free from the disease and the inhabitants were congratulating themselves on their good fortune,” read the story. “Last week a contagion broke out in a mild form among the school children, which in itself did not indicate influenza. But gradually, one by one, cases of the illness among adults were reported and early this week the realization came that Nantucket was up against it.”

The 1918 Spanish influenza was an H1N1 virus. The first week in April of 1918, the first U.S. cases of the disease appeared at an Army base in Fort Riley, Kan.

A few months later, on Aug. 17, two sailors housed in a naval barracks at Commonwealth Pier in Boston reported to sickbay. By the end of the week that sickbay saw more than 100 cases of influenza among the sailors stationed there. The Chelsea Naval Hospital began to fill up.

The first world war did not end until Nov. 11 of that year. Two months before the war ended some 45,000 troops were still being trained at Camp Devens, an Army base just outside Worcester, and preparing to deploy to Europe. Most of them would never make it to the killing fields of France. They had found their own killing fields without leaving Massachusetts.

By the end of that month influenza had overwhelmed the Army hospital there. Deaths averaged 100 a day.

The Worcester Telegram wrote that there were 8,000 sick men looking for help at a hospital with the capacity to treat 2,000.

“Extra bodies, living and dead, were stashed in halls, corridors and outlying buildings,” the newspaper wrote.

A reporter from the Associated Press made his way to Nantucket and reported that by Tuesday and Wednesday of the second week of November, there were 137 confirmed cases and seven deaths. Three were children and four were adults. The demographic danger group for the Spanish influenza was not confined to older people. It also struck children and young adults.

The situation got worse when two of the doctors on-island contracted the disease. One was the island’s primary-care physician, Dr. George Folger.

It is tempting to say that today’s COVID19 pandemic is the first time that islanders have faced anything like this, or that this is the worst we have ever seen. In many ways, however, the 1918 Spanish influenza was both worse and similar. Despite the advances in medical science over the 20th century, much of how we are dealing with our own pandemic is not much different than what came before.

Social distancing was not a phrase anybody knew yet, but the town’s emergency health committee instinctively understood the theory behind it. The first thing they did was close the schools.

That first story of the island’s influenza outbreak shared front-page space with a story about a Nantucketer named Charles Chinnery, who had gone to Alaska during the gold rush and was now feared lost in the sinking of the steamer Princess Sophia, off Alaska in a storm. The front page also carried news of a new anti-spitting law.

The town ordered all churches closed and there was a ban on public funerals. General public gatherings were prohibited. Pool rooms were closed immediately. Soda fountains were told to use only paper straws. And, of course, there was no spitting.

Selectmen appointed W. Prentis Parker and William Wallace to coordinate a local Public Health Service. Island authorities took control of the hospital. The state promised to send nurses to help the staff.

The “Here and There” column advised “protecting yourself to protect others.”

“Influenza has reached Nantucket, in spite of our fond hopes that it would pass us by,” read that column. “Now let us pull together and work together to squelch it. If you are sick or if any member of your family is sick, if you need a doctor, telephone the emergency health office at 159.”

One front-page headline tried to put a positive spin on the situation. “Epidemic Reaches Nantucket; Situation Encouraging.” A few pages later readers found the headline, “Nantucket Depressed.”

“A heavy pall is hanging over Nantucket, and the feeling of depression has entered every household,” the story read. “Several deaths have occurred the past week which has been almost staggering to a community which has been priding itself on its freedom from the epidemic which has been ravaging towns and cities on the mainland. In the midnight hours of Monday last the Grim Reaper claimed Ethel, wife of Edward C. Barrett.”

That week Walter Douglas, Chester Holmes and three young children who went unnamed also died.

The state board of health was called and sent a doctor to the island to assess the situation.

“He realized the need for more nurses and physicians to care for the already sick ones,” wrote the newspaper. “The local force was wholly inadequate to meet the situation which had so suddenly developed.”

Even that week’s weather seemed like a metaphor for the epidemic. The story ended on that note.

“The weather for four days has in itself been more depressing and everybody was praying for the sun to appear once more and the wind to blow the fog and rain seaward.”

People did what they could to help. A notice on that same page informed the public that H. Marshall Gardiner, “is willing to bring medicine or other necessities to households in need.”

The next week’s newspaper ran a story on the front page with the headline, “Emergency Health Committee Doing Good Work.”

“The health department on Nantucket since our last issue is encouraging and there is every reason to believe that the epidemic is being checked,” it read.

There had been two more deaths in the last 48 hours, and close to 300 cases had been diagnosed since the virus first reached the island.

In the middle of all this, World War I ended. Some Navy reservists stationed on-island jumped the gun a bit. Relying on an unconfirmed report that Germany had surrendered, they got into church towers and began ringing the bells. Two days after the newspaper was on the stands, Nov. 11, Germany really did surrender. Nantucket set aside influenza worry to celebrate peace with a bonfire, fireworks and a parade.

In the fall of 1918 there were 337 cases of Spanish influenza reported on Nantucket, and nine islanders died. In January of 1919 there was a second wave of the virus, but it seemed to miss Nantucket. In the end, there were 50 million deaths worldwide, with 675,000 here in the United States. The recentlyended war, by comparison, had killed 153,402 Americans.

The week after the war ended, the town’s emergency health committee relinquished control of Nantucket Cottage Hospital and returned it to its board of directors. The ban on public gatherings was lifted. Both wars seemed over now. Slowly, life began to return to normal. ///

John Stanton is a documentary filmmaker, writer and an associate editor of Nantucket Today.