1918 influenza pandemic exacted deadly toll on Western Pennsylvania, world 100 years ago
The worst influenza outbreak the world has ever seen squeezed its grip around Western Pennsylvania a century ago this month.
The 1918 influenza pandemic struck in three distinct, deadly phases. The first appeared at an Army base in Kansas on March 11, when a private reported before dawn to the infirmary at Fort Riley with an aching head and muscles, a cough, sore throat and chills from a raging fever.
An ill corporal soon arrived, then a sergeant, followed by two more soldiers. Before lunch, 102 men had piled into the sick ward.
By the end of the week, the number had grown to 500.
Kansas officials reported that 48 soldiers died on base that spring, their cause of death listed as pneumonia.
In truth, they were the first recorded causalities of an influenza pandemic that soon would circle the globe, shipping off with some of the 1.5 million U.S. soldiers who headed to Europe to fight in World War I.
That spring, the virus decimated military troops of France, England and Germany. By July, it had surfaced in China and Japan.
On Aug. 27, the second wave arrived on U.S. soil, with the flu virus reappearing at Camp Devens, a Massachusetts base near Boston, as troops began coming home.
Soon after, a Navy ship left Boston and docked in Philadelphia — which “was about to become the American city with the highest, most rapidly accumulating death toll in the worst pandemic in recorded history,” a 2001 article in Navy Medicine stated.
Before it the pandemic was over, the City of Brotherly Love watched the flu kill more than 12,000 of its 1.7 million residents after the first case in that city was reported on Sept. 18, 1918, according to the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.
The virus knifed its way into Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania three weeks later.
“Everybody knew this disease was coming, but nobody knew what to do,” said Thomas Soltis, an assistant professor of sociology at Westmoreland County Community College who has researched the local impact of the 1918 influenza pandemic.
The outbreak earned the nickname “Spanish flu” or “Spanish Lady,” though it did not start there. An early news report focused on an outbreak in Spain that sickened 8 million people, including King Alfonso XIII.
“A strange form of disease of epidemic character has appeared in Madrid. The epidemic is of a mild nature; no deaths having been reported,” Reuters reported that summer.
The pandemic eventually would infect between a third and half of the world’s population, killing at least 50 million people — perhaps as many as 100 million, researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
Doctors and researcher at the time knew nothing of viruses. Today, it is believed that the virus strain originated in animals, possibly birds, and migrated to humans and then passed from person to person through airborne particles.
The illness brought fevers that could reach 105 degrees, severe muscle and joint pain, coughing and fatigue. The worst cases developed into pneumonia, leading some to call it “The Purple Death,” according to a 2003 article in Pitt Med titled “Drowning in their own blood.”
Victims’ faces first turned as “blue as huckleberries,” the article quoted a doctor as reporting at the time. The condition worsened and patients turned a blue-black or dark purple as their lungs became inflamed and filled with blood.
Death rates were 5 to 20 times higher than expected, the CDC reported. An estimated 650,000 Americans died, a staggering number that temporarily lowered life expectancy in the United States by 12 years.
About 2,000 people died in Westmoreland County, where Soltis estimated some 90,000 people caught the flu.
Red Cross officials in Pittsburgh at the time expected to see as many as 200,000 flu cases.
Pittsburgh had the highest death rate of any major city in the United States. The flu killed at least 4,500 people — more than one in every 100 residents. Nearly 24,000 patients sickened by the flu sought treatment at city hospitals.
At its height, someone in Pittsburgh got the flu every 70 seconds and someone died from it every 10 minutes, according to reports made to the city health department. Doctors on Oct. 29 reported 176 flu deaths, the most seen in a single day during the epidemic, according to “Pittsburgh in the Great Epidemic of 1918,” a 1985 article by Kenneth White in the Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine.
The Army took over Pittsburgh’s Magee and Mercy hospitals and transformed the Concordia Club in Oakland into a convalescent hospital for soldiers, many of whom were training on the campuses of the University of Pittsburgh and what is now Carnegie Mellon University.
Other temporary hospitals were set up at the Kingsley House in East Liberty, the Moose Lodge in Beechview, the old county courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh, the Presbyterian Church in Sewickley and the public school auditorium in Edgeworth. A 300-bed tent hospital went up in Westinghouse Park in Homewood, according to White’s article in the Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine.
Among the countless other emergency hospitals were ones set up in Scottdale, Tarentum, Natrona, Washington, Etna-Sharpsburg, McKees Rocks, Rankin, Braddock, Carrick and Turtle Creek.
In early October, state and city officials closed all public places of amusement — bars and saloons, billiard halls, theaters, cinemas, bathhouses and swimming pools.
Some schools eventually closed, and Pittsburgh’s mayor canceled church activities and closed playgrounds.
Pittsburgh street cars were ordered to keep their windows open and had to be disinfected daily.
College and high school football games were called off, as were Greensburg’s Columbus Day parade and Halloween festivities.
In Ligonier, signs posted on the Lincoln Highway warned motorists, “You stop at your own peril,” as the town was under quarantine. The town reported at least 25 deaths by Dec. 10.
Pittsburgh and other communities banned spitting, threatening to arrest people and fine them $100 or put them in jail for a month. Some people wore face masks or turned to folk remedies, such as eating onions, in an attempt to ward off the flu.
A study of the American Red Cross response to the pandemic in four U.S. cities notes that the Pittsburgh chapter took an aggressive approach to ensure resources would be available for its immediate service area. In addition to supplying nurses for emergency hospitals and home visits, the chapter placed large orders for everything from bedpans to caskets and required local suppliers to not ship their goods outside of Allegheny County.
Officials at the organization’s national headquarters criticized the tactics, pointing out that chapter leaders were “thinking in terms of (Pittsburgh) only,” thus making it “difficult for nearby small towns to handle their influenza situations.
“Supplies, caskets, nurses, etc., were not allowed to leave Pittsburgh on the pleas that Pittsburgh needed them more than the outlying communities,” officials at the national headquarters wrote.
A casket shortage developed across Western Pennsylvania, including Greensburg.
“Manufacturers in Pittsburgh are unable to guarantee immediate shipments,” the Daily Tribune reported on Oct. 28, 1918. “Surplus stocks have been exhausted.”
Pvt. Charles W. Brinker of Crabtree died of the flu and was buried at sea on Oct. 16, followed by Wade Hixson of Greensburg, the newspaper reported that November.
Among the local flu fatalities were volunteer Red Cross nurses in Monessen and Latrobe, newspapers reported.
By Oct. 30, officials decided that the worst had passed, though they warned that it would not be completely gone until at least the spring of 1919.
Pittsburgh children were allowed to trick or treat for Halloween, “although the traditional downtown celebrations by the adults were canceled because they included throwing confetti, and everybody knew that confetti spread germs,” White wrote.
Pittsburgh’s mayor announced that as of 5 a.m. Nov. 3, the city no longer would enforce the ban on places of amusement and allowed churches to reopen that same day.