East Liverpool Historical Society

East Liverpool during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, By Atty. Timothy R. Brookes, 31st Annual Tri-State Pottery Festival June 11,12,13

East Liverpool during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918


Few persons today remember the so called "Spanish Flu" epidemic of 1918. Occurring toward the end of the Great War, the Spanish flu, in only a few months managed to surpass the death toll in what was, at that time, the bloodiest conflict in world history.

Globally, the flu killed more than twenty million people before it disappeared as rapidly as it came.

The origins of the Spanish flu are still mysterious and scientists and medical researchers are still studying it, most recently by examining long-forgotten tissue samples from some of its victims and even exhuming bodies from the Alaskan permafrost.

A springtime virus in March 1918 had caused few fatalities and little concern but by August 1918, the flu had mutated to create a more deadly strain. Doctors were awed by the speed and deadliness of the virus which caused its victims to drown from an intense buildup of fluids and blood in the lungs. Many of the fatalities were incorrectly reported to have died of pneumonia due to the circumstances of the deaths.

Modern researchers now believe that the worldwide spread of the pandemic was attributed to troopships carrying American soldiers to Europe. The flu took rapid hold in the dozens of military training camps which brought together large numbers of individuals and caused an unbelievably rapid spread of the disease.

East Liverpool was no more prepared for this public health catastrophe than were the overwhelmed doctors of the military camps. In the year before the epidemic, local newspaper stories reported many times on public health matters. In March 1917, Dr. C. B. Ogden, the city's health officer, was awarded a bonus of more than $ 2,200.00 for his services during an outbreak of smallpox.

Less than two months later Dr. Ogden would resign when Council cut his salary from $40.00 to $25.00 per month. Simultaneously, the Health Board found it necessary to publicly reprimand its employees' for "attending picture shows" during work hours. The school nurse reported that smoking by children was responsible for numerous health defects.

Perhaps in response to recent difficulties with smallpox, the Health Board in March, 1918, urged City Council to purchase a "pest house" in which to quarantine victims of contagious diseases.

As the Spanish flu spread nationwide, East Liverpool awaited its appearance here with dread. The first recorded local victims were stricken in the first week of October, 1918. Dr. J. W. Chetwynd, the new health officer, ordered the dosing of saloons, poolrooms and movie theatres, but not schools or restaurants. Five days after the first mention of any local outbreak, there were reports of fifty cases in the city. Nearby East Palestine was at the, same time claiming 1,800 cases and 36 deaths.

On October 19, The Morning Tribune announced a total of 148 cases and that the city had decided to use the West End fire station as an emergency hospital. One week later, with a death toll of seven, the Tribune was carrying letters protesting the action of the Health Board which had dosed City Hospital to influenza casts. By the end of the month, nine more residents had died including Joseph Judge,' age 3,, a city councilman. Modern researchers have noted that unlike Ordinary flu which preys upon the very young, the sick and the elderly, the 1918 virus seemed especially deadly to those in the 25 to 35 year range.

On Nov. 1, with a slackening in the number of new cases both of the city's daily newspapers reported that the flu was on the wane. By mid month most of the restrictions had been lifted due to the 'urgent requests of businessmen." Almost immediately the number of new cases skyrocketed with 44 reported on the lath, 45 on the 20th, 35 on the 21st and 33 more on the 22nd. The death list continued to grow with multiple deaths occurring on a daily basis. On Nov. 23, the same day that three members of the Hancock family of Bank Street died, city health officials banned public dances for the duration of the epidemic.

By Nov. 26, City Hospital opened its doors to flu patients and the emergency hospital was closed due to an inability to secure help and nursing staff there. It was reported that the funerals of the many victims were forced to be delayed as there were not enough grave diggers available.

New cases continued to develop into December and city school children were given an early Christmas present when schools were ordered closed from Dec. 6 until Jan. 6th. Musicians and theatre owners continued their protests against the Health Board ban which would eventually be lifted on Dec. 21. On the 27th the Tribune, with no new cases reported the previous day, proclaimed in large headlines "BACKBONE OF FLU IS BROKEN HERE."

During its three month run in East Liverpool, the Spanish flu claimed a total of 135 lives. When one considers that the fatalities among city servicemen in World War One totaled nearly forty men, the extent of the devastation caused by the flu epidemic is clear. Adding further to the deadliness of the disease is the fact that nearly half of the servicemen deaths were attributable to the flu.


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