Byron O. Champlin: Concord and the Great Influenza of 1918

  • In this October 1918 photo, St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps personnel wear masks as they hold stretchers next to ambulances in preparation for victims of the influenza epidemic. Library of Congress

  • In this November 1918 photo made available by the Library of Congress, a nurse takes the pulse of a patient in the influenza ward of the Walter Reed hospital in Washington. Library of Congress

  • In this November 1918 photo (location unknown), a girl stands next to her sister lying in bed. The girl became so worried she telephoned the Red Cross Home Service, which came to help the woman fight the influenza virus. Library of Congress; The Crowley Company

  • In this 1918 photo made available by the Library of Congress, volunteer nurses from the American Red Cross tend to influenza patients in the Oakland Municipal Auditorium, used as a temporary hospital. Library of Congress

For the Monitor
Published: 9/23/2018 12:30:02 AM

A century ago this month, as the First World War ground to a close, Concord citizens marshaled against a new and pitiless threat on the home front: the Great Influenza. By the time the epidemic had run its course, at least one in five residents would be stricken and more from this city would die from the flu than would fall on the battlefield in Europe.

“Spanish influenza, or grippe, led by Pallida mors (pale death) bearing sickle and hour glass has invaded villages and cities, camps and homes garnering victims of every age then moving to regions as yet untouched but marked for woe,” lamented Concord Probate Court Judge Charles C. Corning in late September. “What causes it or what prevents it nobody tells us.”

The “Spanish influenza,” or “la grippe” in the vernacular of the time, was actually American in origin. Historian John M. Barry argues persuasively that it sprang up in rural Kansas in the spring of 1918, spread to soldiers being shipped to France and there mutated from a run-of-the-mill flu into a virulent killer. Warring nations, fearful of damaging wartime morale, remained silent about the epidemic. It was only when it arrived in neutral Spain that news of the Great Influenza spread around the world.

Re-crossing the Atlantic in late summer of 1918 the deadly virus spread quickly, “as fire shrivels the fields,” in Corning’s words. The epicenter in New England was Camp Devens in Ayer, Mass., where by early September more than 45,000 young men were crammed into a facility built for 36,000. It was a perfect breeding ground for the disease. Devens’s hospital, designed for 1,200 patients, would eventually house more than 6,000 sick and dying men.

Traffic between Concord and Camp Devens was constant, even at the height of the epidemic. Families returning from a visit to the camp or soldiers home on leave likely carried the virus to the city.

Flu in the city

Although the first mention of the epidemic did not appear in Concord newspapers until early September, influenza undoubtedly was already afoot in the city.

The first fatality caused by the disease may have been Clara Morrill, a 74-year-old Penacook housewife whose death by heart failure in late August was attributed to the flu. Carl Wilhelmsen, a 30-year-old stone cutter who died at his home on Electric Street on Sept. 16, was the first Concord resident whose death was directly attributed to influenza. Many more would follow.

Concord’s citizens could be forgiven if they felt, as the crisis built, that the severity of the threat was being downplayed by local authorities.

Dr. Charles Duncan, of the state Board of Health, pronounced the influenza “situation” as “one which should command the thoughtful consideration of every public spirited citizen,” admonishing that “we want a calm, cool public citizen to work with and not one ‘panicky’ and ‘jumpy,’ who will think a hand clap is a clap of thunder.” As news columns filled with death notices and news of neighbors housebound with influenza, editorialists at the city’s two newspapers offered up such bromides as “The grippe is on the run, like the Hun (German); but both need to be watched very carefully” and “Care, not scare, should be the watchword against the grippe.”

By Sept. 25, 80 cases of influenza were reported in Concord. The next day, 102 and the day after that 204. City officials eventually acknowledged 427 cases in September and 521 in October. “Deaths unprecedented follow faster and faster and the plague is not abating,” Corning wrote in his diary. “Concord thus far while suffering is not prostrate. Physicians and nurses are inadequate to relieve the situation owing to service in the camps and on the battle line. Funerals jostle one another, so the sable procession goes on.”

City officials in late September closed theaters, soda shops, barbershops and other places where people congregated. Churches discontinued Sunday services. Schools closed and public meetings of all sorts were voluntarily canceled in hopes of slowing the contagion. At the B&M railroad yards, passenger coaches were swept, washed and disinfected daily and sulphur candles burned within to damp down the disease. Yet these efforts were diluted by the September Hopkinton Fair, where 3,700 people from the region rubbed elbows, and the decision to extend banking hours in Concord to sell war bonds.

Besides the speed with which it could kill, perhaps the most terrifying aspects of the Great Influenza was what a Monitor editorial writer called “its tendency to choose its victims from among our young, vigorous and actively useful men and women.” The influenza virus would develop into what one doctor described as “the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen.” Fighting the flu, the body’s immune system filled the lungs with destroyed cells, fluid and blood; victims turned dark blue as the lungs stopped transferring oxygen to the bloodstream. Sometimes blood oozed or spurted from noses and ears and eye sockets. Death could come within hours. Ironically, the vigorous immune response of healthy young adults was often their death sentence.

The toll among Concord’s young professionals began to mount.

Death in Concord

Judge A. Chester Clark, 41, of the Concord Municipal Court died Sept. 23 after a week’s illness. Clark was a highly regarded jurist, active in state political and civic organizations. “He was a good judge. Let there be no mistake on this point,” editorialized the Manchester Union newspaper. “A Democrat, and named for office by a Democratic governor, he made so clean a record, made his judgement such a model of industry, probity and impartial and energetic law enforcement, that a Republican governor continued him in office.”

The Concord Committee on Public Safety had not yet restricted funerals to immediate family members to stem the influenza’s spread, so Judge Clark’s service at the Unitarian Universalist Church was heavily attended by the legal community, fraternal organizations and friends. Ten days later, 26-year-old Rev. Rees Williams, who officiated at the funeral, succumbed to the flu. “His life was full of promise, and his loss to the community will be widely felt,” the Monitor reflected. “Few young men have in so short a time made such an impression upon the people of Concord.”

Twenty-four-year-old Esther Fleury, a well-known Penacook nurse, died at Concord’s Memorial Hospital, “another to sacrifice her life in helping others to live,” the Monitor reported, “for it was while nursing patients with the prevailing epidemic that she contracted the disease which caused her death.”

Page Belting Company lost Eben Willis, its dynamic general manager, to the flu in only eight days. “So closed a life of less than forty-eight years, a life full of promise, and apparently destined to an even larger measure of successful service,” memorialized the company’s official history.

Calls for help

The city’s two hospitals were quickly overwhelmed.

At Margaret Pillsbury Hospital, 25 of the 26 nurses soon contracted influenza. Eight of the hospital’s doctors were with the army in France or at military bases and several of the remaining physicians split their time between Pillsbury and Memorial Hospital. “Doctors are few and some are touched by the distemper while skilled nurses are rated at a premium,” Judge Corning observed. “I have never known a visitation like this. Strong young men are suddenly victims dying after a sickness lasting not a week.”

A call went out from the Red Cross asking those with first aid nursing training to step forward and help. Those with automobiles, like Grace Woodworth, daughter of a prominent Centre Street family, drove nurses and volunteers to the homes of the sick. Mary Niles, daughter of the late Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, made two quarts of gruel a day for the District Nursing Association to feed to influenza victims. In Penacook, Nettie Banker and Annie Bliss prepared broths, custards and gruel and delivered them to the homes of sick families.

An emergency hospital was opened in the former Elks Club building on North Main Street, funded by the Red Cross and staffed by the District Nursing Association and volunteers. Patients in the emergency hospital “in almost every case were taken from homes where absolutely no care could be provided, not a person or a child to even give a drink of water,” the district nurses reported. In one home, a girl of 15 was found taking care of her mother and six sick siblings.

Family tragedies

The toll on families was terrible.

Nettie English, a 31-year-old housewife with an infant son, succumbed at her home on Perley Street on Sept. 29. Her mother, Sarah Ramsey, 71, who had arrived from Wentworth a few days before to nurse her, was taken by the influenza the next day. Their double funeral at St. Paul’s Church on Oct. 1 was followed a day later by another double funeral at St. John’s Church for Alexander McDonald, a 34-year-old A.T.&T. lineman, and his sister Margaret Langley, 27; they had died three days apart.

Mary Boland, a telephone operator, passed away late on the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 13, just hours after the Concord burial of her sister Margaret, taken by influenza in Washington, D.C. The flu had already claimed their sister Catherine, a nurse at Manchester’s Sacred Heart Hospital, the week before.

Adding to the pathos, Everett Blake, a 35-year-old fireman with the Boston & Maine Railroad, died in the emergency hospital in mid-October. His son Walter, 7, died of pneumonia at their home on South Street two days later, followed by 6-year-old Hannah two days after that. Blake’s wife, Elizabeth, was the sole survivor of her family.

The Concord Board of Health lifted the four-week ban on public gatherings at the end of October, warning that “the city is not yet entirely free of the dreaded Spanish influenza.” The emergency hospital closed its doors Oct. 28. Although the contagion trailed off, cases continued into March 1919, taking victims from every strata of society.

Nellie P. Chamberlin, a wealthy widow, returned to Concord from a New York horse show on Nov. 14, weak with influenza. Entering Memorial Hospital two days later she died on Nov. 19. She was 64. “Rich but not generous,” in Corning’s estimation, Chamberlin nevertheless left her home at 44 Pleasant St. to the Women’s Club of Concord.

Elna O’brink, cook in the household of Grace Woodworth’s mother, Mary, another Concord grande dame, took ill at the same time. By Nov. 16, the 35-year-old Swedish immigrant was “so ill she at last gave in and went to hospital,” Mary Woodworth recorded in her diary. Five days later doctors gave O’brink no chance of recovery; she died at Memorial Hospital about midnight Nov. 21. The Woodworths bought O’brink a new blouse for her small funeral at Perkins Chapel and placed her body in a Blossom Hill Cemetery tomb until O’brink’s brother could arrive from Sweden to claim it.

On Nov. 29, Frank Dustin died at his home on North Main Street in Penacook. The 47-year-old brick mason, widowed the previous year, left six orphaned children, aged 15 to 5. The children were separated; three were taken in by one neighboring household, two by another and one child by a third.

The Great Influenza is estimated to have killed 675,000 Americans and 50 to 100 million people worldwide. But Concord authorities were at a loss to state conclusively how many in the city contracted or died from the flu.

“It is impossible to say with anything like exactness just how many have had (influenza),” the Concord Board of Health reported at the end of 1918, explaining that “many have the disease, especially in the mild form, who never employ a physician and as a consequence such cases do not become a matter of record.” Although only 18 of the year’s deaths were directly attributed to influenza, the board acknowledged that most of the epidemic’s fatalities were caused by “some form of pneumonia, usually the bronchial type” stemming from the flu.

By adding pneumonia cases to the total, the board extrapolated that at least 168 people died in Concord in 1918 from the epidemic – more than four times as many from the city as died in combat during the First World War. Using the 1918 mortality rate as a guide, the board projected that the small city of less than 22,000 souls had suffered 4,200 cases of influenza in that year alone. Adding the cases that occurred in the first three months of 1919 would of course drive those numbers even higher.

“This total is, of course, only an estimate but is unquestionably somewhere near the truth,” the Board of Health concluded. Concord, as Judge Corning observed, had suffered, but was not prostrate. Yet it had remained on its feet only after paying a terrible price.

(Byron O. Champlin is an independent historian researching Concord’s involvement in the First World War. He can be contacted at chamby@comcast.net.)


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