Schools closing, churches canceling Sunday services, public events canceled, panic buying, concern about the capacity of the health system to handle the number of sick people — we have been here before, but it’s been 102 years.
Several years ago I was reading through my great-grandfather’s journal. He lived in Penn Yan and kept a notebook between 1916 and 1920. In the fall of 1918, alongside his notes on the rumored armistice that would end the Great War in Europe, were these: “epidemic of Spanish influenza in Penn Yan,” ”Thousands of cases and deaths from influenza,” “Churches all closed; influenza the cause,” “Spanish influenza raging; schools closed.”
This got me interested enough to dive into the Yates County Chronicle and the Penn Yan Democrat from that time period to see exactly what impact the flu epidemic had on Yates County.
First, a little background information. It was called “Spanish flu” at the time. The reason was that it swept across Europe at the time of World War I. All countries involved in the war controlled the flow of news and didn’t want anything to weaken the morale of their people. Spain, which was neutral, openly reported on the disease causing disruption in their country, including their king becoming gravely ill. People assumed the “flu” originated there, but it was later determined to have started on an army base in Kansas in March of 1918.
Carried to Europe by U.S. soldiers, the flu ravaged the trenches in Belgium and France through the summer of that year, affecting all armies. It was suspected to be biological warfare introduced by the Germans or a side effect of mustard gas. From Europe it spread around the globe, including the islands of the Pacific and the Arctic. The virus was brought back to the U.S. by our troops returning from Europe.
Starting in Boston and New York City in September, it swept across the country in a matter of weeks, killing nearly 700,000 Americans. The peak month was October, when more than 200,000 Americans died from the flu. Globally, an estimated 50 million died from influenza in 1918-1919. Some experts put the number as high as 100 million. Unlike common influenza, it most affected people between the ages of 20 and 40. In some people it struck very quickly. One anecdote told of four women playing bridge in the evening; three were dead from influenza by the next morning. In the worst cases, the flu turned quickly into an aggressive pneumonia and people died from the buildup of fluid in the lungs.
A crowd disease
In mid-September of 1918, the New York State Health Commissioner issued a statewide warning concerning influenza — including the fact there was no known cure. The U.S. Surgeon General released a statement that “Influenza is a crowd disease. Therefore keep out of crowds as much as possible.” There was no indication of concern in the local Yates County newspapers until the first week in October. On Oct. 11, 30 influenza cases were reported by doctors in Penn Yan and there were 10 to 12 new cases being reported each day. At that time, Yates County Health Commissioner Dr. Joseph T. Cox ordered an end to all public assemblies until further notice. School was canceled, theaters were closed, churches suspended worship services, public funerals were not allowed for flu victims, and organizations around the county canceled their meetings. Before the order was lifted on Nov. 17, Dr. Cox himself had contracted influenza and died at age 52.
Between mid-October and early December, newspaper community columns from all over Yates County included the names of those sick with flu and the names of college students who came home because their colleges closed. By late October, 250 cases were reported in the village of Penn Yan. Elsewhere, Dresden and Rushville were hit especially hard by the epidemic. This comment was in a Rushville column: “No one appears on the street unless it is absolutely necessary. There is no school or church or gatherings of any kind and the days pass slowly with nothing to distinguish one from another with the ‘flu’ the chief topic of conversation and the helping to care for the sick the only alternative left for the well ones.” There were only two doctors in Rushville; one reported making 57 calls in one day.
Caring for the sick was a major concern. There was an acute shortage of doctors and nurses throughout the county. In Penn Yan, four doctors were serving in the Army at the time. As mentioned earlier, Dr. Cox died from the flu on Oct. 24 and by late October, five other doctors were reported sick and not seeing patients. This was compounded by the fact that Susannah Hatmaker had closed down her private hospital on East Main Street the month before the influenza epidemic hit Penn Yan.
It was mentioned in the newspapers that entire families were sick and there was no one to care for them. That led to the one positive result of the influenza epidemic in Yates County. For years there had been a movement underway to build a hospital in Penn Yan, but not much progress had been made. The epidemic created support and financial backing that had not been there earlier. In January of 1919, a month after the last mention of influenza in the local papers, meetings were held to start the ball rolling to build a permanent hospital in Penn Yan. The influenza epidemic of 1918 was the catalyst that resulted in Soldiers and Sailors Hospital opening its doors to patients in 1924.
MacAlpine is the author of several books on local history. Among them is “Steamboats On Keuka Lake: Penn Yan, Hammondsport, and the Heart of the Finger Lakes” which he co-authored with Charles R. Mitchell. It is sold at book retailers all around Keuka Lake as well as on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.