Recently someone stopped me and asked, as a historian, how I liked living in a historical moment. I said I prefer my history in the past, looking back at it.
Museums are aware that this year’s pandemic is a historical moment and are collecting everything they can about it. The Geneva Historical Society is encouraging people to share their thoughts, stories and objects of the last several months. First-person accounts of events as they happen are more powerful, to me, than later analysis.
The 1918 global influenza pandemic has been mentioned a lot this year. In March in the Finger Lakes Times, Rich MacAlpine wrote a good explanation of the flu’s spread and effects. It was often called the Spanish Flu because Spain was the only country that openly reported it. Other countries, including the U.S., were entangled in World War I and didn’t want to lower national morale.
In March and April 1918 influenza was found in military training camps. It spread quickly in early April after the U.S. entered World War I and began moving troops around the country and to Europe. The April 19 Penn Yan Democrat mentioned a higher death rate “in many of our northern [military training] camps” than the previous report due to influenza and bronchitis. Critics felt authorities should have taken preventive measures much sooner to stop the spread of infection.
Unlike other influenzas, the 1918 strain had a high mortality rate among young adults. A number of Geneva soldiers died from pneumonia, a complication of the influenza. Frank Balestreri died at Camp Wheeler in Georgia and Howard Mulvey died at Camp Dix in New Jersey. William Kelly and Leigh Kennedy both passed away in France. More Geneva men were listed on the war fatality list as “died of disease,” which may have been influenza related.
In the fall of 1918, the second global wave of the flu hit the U.S. Most infections and fatalities happened from September through November. The Geneva Daily Times “Year in Review” gave brief details of the flu in the city. On Oct. 9, the “Board of Health suspended Theaters and other public places owing to the Spanish Influenza epidemic.” Three days later public schools were closed. “Saloons and ice cream places, 5 and 10 cent stores, and pool rooms” were still in business but had a 6 p.m. curfew. By Oct. 25, the “Board of Health announce[d] that influenza pandemic ha[d] reached its height. Bans on churches, theaters and schools were lifted on Nov. 2.
Alice Seward, who lived on Hamilton Street in what is now McCormick House of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, kept a diary during World War I. This was her account of the influenza.
“The majority of [Geneva’s 1,000 cases] were among the very poor and were induced by crowded quarters and unsanitary conditions. The Hospital was more than full, and for lack of nurses our young women came nobly to the front, and I heard of Hester Rose, Mollie Wells, Isabella Burrall, Lilian Endicott and others, Red Cross Nurses Aids, taking their turn at washing dishes, carrying trays, answering bells and doing what they could to help the patients. We have had broth, jelly, custards, etc. made in our homes and carried to the sick poor. It was a relief when the end came and we could lead a normal life.”
A return to a normal life was, and remains, a common hope. Widespread illness subsided after October but the flu didn’t disappear. The Hobart Herald newspaper noted two deaths at the end of 1918. Gerald Fisher of Benton died Nov. 29 and Carlos Darling passed on Dec. 21. Both men had been in the Student Army Training Corps at Hobart.
There was a third wave in the first half of 1919. William Gavin of Geneva died in France in February, while waiting to return home. In the U.S, the flu was confined to larger cities but still claimed thousands of lives. Globally, the flu continued to affect countries until 1920.
We are in the middle part of this pandemic event. We’re still wondering when it will end, are measures too drastic, or not tough enough. There have been Internet jokes about future grandchildren asking, “Tell me what 2020 was like.”
What will our children remember about this year?
Marks is curator of collections at the Geneva Historical Society.