This post was written by Pam Tice, a member of the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group Planning Committee
I had a little bird, Its name was Enza, I opened the window, And in-flu-enza.
Children’s Rhyme, 1918
As our 2020 Pandemic Spring unrolled over the past few months, there have been numerous articles reaching back to 1918 when the “Spanish Flu Epidemic” spread across the United States. On the 100th anniversary in 2018 historians looked back on that time, most not imagining that we would be re-living this type of historic event just two years later. As I get ready to upload this post in mid-May 2020, New York’s City’s 20,000 + deaths from the Covid-19 Flu are close to matching the number of deaths in the fall of 1918.
Back in March when New York went on “pause” I decided to learn about the 1918 flu epidemic in New York City, and then learn how the illness may have played out in the Bloomingdale neighborhood on the Upper West Side. I wanted to understand what local life would have been like at that time.
I started with the articles about 1918, focusing particularly on New York City. I looked in the academic journals, and searched the newspapers. My search was all online, of course, as all archives are currently closed. I read all the contemporary pieces where the historians discuss 1918 in light of today’s ongoing event. Nothing I found (almost) related directly to Bloomingdale. Nevertheless, I learned a lot about New York City in 1918. I decided to share what I’ve learned—about the flu epidemic, about the public health and the nursing profession, and about World War l in New York City—and how all of these things might have touched the lives of those living in Bloomingdale.
Many who have written about the 1918 flu epidemic—no one called it a “pandemic” then—note how it was barely even remembered. The disease killed 33,000 in New York City when our population was 5.6 million. In the second wave of the disease, the fall of 1918, more than 20,000 New Yorkers died. In the United States, 675,000 died. There are a few written memorials, but, in general, everyone simply moved on after it was over. In his novel “The Plague,” Albert Camus describes the many millions of bodies as no more than an intangible mist drifting through the mind. Many of us today find evidence of the 1918 flu as we research family history, stories of the long-time grief experienced when parents and siblings were lost to the epidemic. The stories aren’t always sad: a recent comment to a New York Times article tells the story of a grandmother telling of the time she woke up in the hospital in 1918, heard the bells of Armistice Day ringing, and thought she’d gone to heaven!
1918 in New York City had kicked off with a new Mayor, John F. Hylan, supported by the Democratic machine. He replaced John Purroy Mitchel, whose progressive ideals were reflected in the City’s Health Department with its work in combatting tuberculosis and other communicable diseases. In the Spring of 1918, Hylan’s first Commissioner of Health had tried to cut back the expenses of the Department and created an outcry from the public reflected in news reports. By May, 1918, a new Commissioner, Dr. Royal S. Copeland, was appointed and assurances made that the medical community and the City would work together. Commissioner Copeland was in the news nearly every day as the epidemic became apparent late in the summer.
Later, medical historians would analyze the Department’s data and conclude that February to April 1918 was the first wave of the pandemic in New York City. Medical historians saw the beginning of the U.S. epidemic at Camp Funston, part of Fort Riley in Kansas, where U.S. Army recruits suffered thousands of losses among the troops preparing to go to Europe. By summer, the flu was raging at the east coast military facilities. The disease’s arrival may have been under-reported as such news was felt to undermine our military strength. However, Spain was neutral in the War, and the flu there was publicly reported. This led to its name, the “Spanish Flu.”
It wasn’t until the second wave of the virus began on August 14th that New York City’s Health Department required that physicians report flu and pneumonia cases. Medical historians pinpoint the New York City epidemic when the Norwegian vessel Bergensfiord arrived with ten people ill (two had died at sea) and all of the sick were taken to Brooklyn’s Norwegian Hospital. Typically, at that time, vessels were quarantined at the Swinburne and Hoffman Islands off South Beach on Staten Island. At this point, the disease was often still referred to as “the grippe,” the name given during the earlier epidemic in 1889-1891. On August 15th, the Health Commissioner declared that there was “not the slightest chance of a Spanish Flu epidemic here.” By August 20th, he was describing the influenza “of a mild form” and declaring there was “no cause for alarm.”
On August 20th, The New York Tribune published a list of dos and don’ts for treatment of the flu:
- Don’t use a common towel at home
- Avoid contact with anyone sneezing or coughing
- Don’t expectorate (spit)
- Burn or boil the bedclothes of anyone who is sick in your home
- Ventilate your home and workplace
- Avoid dry-sweeping that raises dust.
By late August and into early September, the news of cases if the flu and the accompanying pneumonia at military camps in New England: Camp Devens near Boston, and the naval forces in New London, Connecticut. For New Yorkers, many recruits were at Camp Upton at Yaphank, Long Island. Families in the City were allowed to visit the Camp. Soon the flu was spreading there.
Meanwhile, Copeland was still reporting that the cases in New York City were all from those coming here on ships. On September 19, The New York Times reported that three cases of the flu on Central Park West were home-grown, not from any ship’s arrival. Now the City had two jobs: isolate the sick, and prevent the disease from spreading in the healthy population.
How did the Department of Health’s new rules and warnings affect our Bloomingdale neighborhood?
First, in an early ruling on September 19, the Commissioner said that anyone in a house or apartment who caught the flu could stay at home, in strict quarantine. There was no way to monitor this, however, except through a family physician. Those who lived in tenements or boarding houses would be removed to a city hospital.
At this time, there was just one city hospital in each borough, but Manhattan had two: Bellevue Hospital and the Willard Parker on West 16th Street. Over the next few weeks, the City scrambled to add beds in each hospital as well as develop new beds, such as re-working the Municipal Lodging House down on 25th Street as a place to care for those ill with the flu. The hospital ship The Riverside was brought to the East River near the Willard Parker hospital to add beds. During the height of the crisis, the Health Commissioner admitted that the city’s hospitals were crowded, and that there was no room for women patients.
The City’s private hospitals were no doubt flooded with patients also: the Park Hospital on Central Park West at 99th Street, and St. Luke’s up on West 114th Street, to name those nearest to Bloomingdale. The Park Hospital had only 64 beds. It was originally developed by the Red Cross as a teaching hospital for nurses, and re-named the Park Hospital in 1915 when the Red Cross decided to no longer operate hospitals.
Copeland was particularly worried about the potential spreading of the virus on the transportation system: the subways, trolleys, ferries and trains. He had 10,000 placards printed, spreading them throughout the system. They warned “To prevent the spread of Spanish influenza, sneeze, cough or expectorate (if you must) in your handkerchief. You are in no danger if everyone heeds this warning.” Our Bloomingdale neighbors would have seen this placard on the elevated train along Columbus Avenue, the trolley cars on Central Park West, and the subway running under Broadway. The posters were also in store windows, at the police precinct on West 100th Street, and other public places.
Here are a few additional images of printed material:
The City started an anti-spitting campaign 20 years earlier; the Sanitary Police reinforced it in 1918. Even the Boy Scouts got involved, handing out cards to anyone seen spitting, reminding them it was illegal. The newspapers reported cases of spitting arrests, and fines were imposed.
Another area of concern was the popular movie theaters. Copeland declared that the large well-ventilated theaters could be kept open so long as no more than two rows of standees were allowed in the back, and no smoking was allowed. He also saw the theaters as a way to communicate his messages about using a handkerchief if you sneezed or coughed. Copeland also saw that he might cause panic if people saw their beloved movie theaters closed. He did appear to be against the “dirty, stuffy, hole-in-the-wall” small, unventilated theaters, and threatened to close them. In Bloomingdale, there were two that may have been small and stuffy. There was the Park West on West 99th Street near the Fire Department Training School and The Rose on West 102nd Street next to the Post Office, on the same block as PS 179.
The “movie palaces” on Broadway at 96th Street, the Riviera and the Riverside, stayed open. The “Shubert-Riviera” advertised on October 2nd that the film “The Very Idea” would be showing, with orchestra seats for the evening show at $1. There were other larger movie theaters in the neighborhood.
Copeland also warned about using shared cups and utensils. Drinking fountains in city parks had cups hanging on them. Soda fountains were targeted as they often did not wash drinking cups and food utensils between users. Like the people caught spitting, soda fountain operators were brought to court and fined, with their names printed in the news.
Wearing a gauze mask became common, first by hospital workers, and then by others. The most-often printed photos of the 1918 flu show a New York City postal worker, a sanitation worker, and a police officer wearing masks. This young women workers photo has been shared a lot too.
By early October, the cases of the flu and pneumonia were mounting fast. There was great pressure on the Commissioner to close the schools, although it was not clear until later that children were not particularly targeted by this disease. Young adults 20 to 45 were more likely to get sick. Later, after the data collected was analyzed it was generally thought that older people, in their sixties and older, had some protection from the 1889-91 epidemic they had lived though.
Since 1897, the schools were part of the City’s disease prevention system. In 1908, Dr. S. Josephine Baker, a leading expert in public health, had taken over the Department of Health’s Child Hygiene Bureau, leading 192 medical inspectors and 195 nurses who worked in the schools to check for signs of illness. In Bloomingdale, PS 54 at 104th Street, PS 165 on West 108-109th Streets, and PS 179 on West 102-103rd Streets would have been part of the system.
In October and November 1918, children were directed to report directly to their classroom in the morning with no loitering in the schoolyard. Teachers looked for signs of the flu, and, if found, the medical inspector took over and made sure the child went home and was seen by a family physician or public health doctor.
Dr. Copeland and Dr. Baker thought that this system of daily inspection was far better than letting all the children stay at home. They were also able to send flyers home with the children on how to handle family members who caught the flu. Public Health and education about disease was so important at this time that the American Museum of Natural History had a “Public Health Hall” where exhibits visited by many New York schoolchildren added to their classroom work.
Private schools may have had a different outlook. A newspaper reported that Dr. Copeland’s son caught the flu and his school, Ethical Culture, was closed.
There were daily newspaper reports, by borough, of new cases of flu and pneumonia. By October 5, the Surgeon General was calling for New York City to close its schools, churches and theaters, but Copeland was still insisting that we were not stricken in the same way as Boston; he also said that half of the 1,600 cases that day “were in 600 families.” However, that day the Health Department issued new rules that asked stores, offices, textile manufacturers and “other manufacturers” to stagger their hours so that crowding on the subway could be lessened. Copeland’s solution seemed to be to “keep calm, and go about your business.”
As often happens during a crisis, multiple events take place. For New Yorkers, that happened on October 6 when the T.A. Gillespie munitions-loading plant near South Amboy, New Jersey, blew up in a succession of explosions, causing buildings all over Manhattan to tremble, and all the bridges and “tubes” closed in fear that they would be compromised. Hundreds died, and nurses and doctors rushed to the scene.
The next day, the reported flu cases increased to over 2,000. Copeland set up a “Hospital Clearing House” to assign patients to one of the city’s hospitals, and asking the private hospitals to suspend all elective surgeries. Medical students who were nearly finished with their training were released from their universities to help. Many doctors and nurses were called upon to help at the explosion site in New Jersey, leaving the city’s facilities badly understaffed. The war had also taken many doctors and nurses away, with estimates as high as 30% of the City’s medical workers serving in the military and the Red Cross.
In 1918 nursing care was the primary treatment for the flu. There were no antiviral medications, although during much of the autumn, the Commissioner kept mentioning that a vaccination might be happening soon. Nurses kept a patient warm, nourished with chicken soup, and with bed linen kept clean. If there were signs of pneumonia, a “pneumonia jacket” might be used; this was another warming technique—some had coils of rubber tubing arranged to cover the chest that circulated hot water.
Lillian Wald had started what became the Visiting Nurse Service down on Henry Street in 1893. She was well-regarded for her work in public health, and so Copeland consulted her in forming the New York City Nurses Emergency Council in early October as a way to coordinate trained nurses and volunteers with experience in care for the sick to help them. All the nurses who worked in the various bureaus of the Health Department, such as those assigned to schools, became part of this effort.
To this cadre of women was added the Women’s Motor Corps, an organization formed for war work, but now asked to drive nurses and assistants around a neighborhood, stopping to see those who had requested nursing help. Women supplied their own cars—many women with access to cars were driving electric cars that did not need hand-cranking. They were supplied with linens, soup, and pneumonia jackets to take care of the sick. They were also expected to help with the household if a woman was a patient, making sure the children were tended to. Trained nurses were accompanied by volunteers, women who had some experience in care of the ill, who could help the nurse with more mundane tasks.
On October 10, the Department of Health set up a city-wide “influenza clearing house” in 150 neighborhoods, to provide a place to go to ask for help with nursing a patient at home. In Bloomingdale, this was at the Bloomingdale Clinic, part of the outreach program at St. Michael’s Church, at 225 West 99th Street. There were also outreach centers established at Bretton Hall on Broadway at 86th Street, at the neighborhood house of the Free Synagogue on West 68th Street, and at the Young Women’s Hebrew Association on West 110th Street.
By October 17th, the reported number of flu cases was over 10,000. However, based on the death rate, Copeland said that he thought only 50% of the cases were being reported. Undertakers were now experiencing problems handling the deceased. Florists were unable to fulfill orders.
The Department of Health issued orders to arrest landlords who did not supply sufficient heat with the wartime limits on fuel lifted.
The Mayor and Copeland attacked private physicians with “profiteering” by overcharging. The private physicians shot back that the publicly-paid physicians made no effort to arrest the disease when it came to New York. Rabbi Stephen Wise gave a speech at Carnegie Hall that the Department of Health had become less skilled and effective. This open criticism was matched by conspiracy theories such as the fact that German spies had come to the city “via submarine” and had released the flu in a crowded movie theater.
The peak day on the epidemic curve seems to have been October 20. The New York Times reported on October 22 that there had been 37,025 cases of the flu and 4,332 cases of pneumonia in the preceding week, October 14-21. Deaths from the two were 5,372 that week.
A few stories of difficulties with undertakers emerged in the newspapers. One was labeled “coffin fraud” when two undertakers were accused of receiving bodies of soldiers who had died in the training camps and placed in coffins with a government stamp, of removing the stamp and reselling the coffin. In what may have been a typical story, the newspaper reported a “West Side family” contracted for $60 with an undertaker to handle a burial. When the time came for the funeral, the undertaker told them the charge would be $150; when the family sought another undertaker, the first one refused to release the death certificate. The Health Department answered their appeal, turning the undertaker over to the District Attorney. The newspapers reported that, in general, coffins were scarce, and profiteering and extortion were common.
One undertaker in Bloomingdale, was at 68 West 106th Street. There may have been others. Poor people and those of modest income may have held funerals at home or in a local church with the undertaker removing the body for burial. For middle and upper class New Yorkers on the Westside, the Frank E. Campbell “Funeral Church” building on Broadway between 66th and 67th Streets was the place to go.
In a newspaper listing of deaths on October 27, 1918, there were 109; for the same day in 1917, there were 45. Not all deaths were attributed to the flu or pneumonia, but the deceased’s age, in the 30s and 40s, or the use of the word “suddenly” gave a hint of the reason for the death.
While the flu epidemic was expanding across the City, our Bloomingdale neighbors were also coping with the demands of their lives caused by the U.S. entry in April, 1917, to World War I. War demands were often about changing behavior. In the spring of 1918, “American Wheat Wasters,” people living on West 76th and 77th Streets, were severely criticized for their alarming indifference to food conservation. The Department of Health accompanied garbage wagons along these streets and actually counted and weighed the food waste, criticizing the people who lived there, described as “sufficiently well-to-do so as to have the services of two to six servants”. A cook commented that the family she cooked for did not eat toast that had gotten cold.
In the Spring of 1918, the second enrollment for the draft was called. Bloomingdale’s Local Draft Board 134 was at 2875 Broadway. The New York Times printed 500 names of those selected that day, including Board 134’s selections, and they left for Camp Upton a few days later. Rafael Albert, 331 West 101; Isidore Rosenblum, 160 Manhattan Avenue; William Kuhn, 972 Amsterdam Avenue; and Jack Carlos, 230 West 107th Street were chosen.
For young women, the war created opportunities. The trolley cars recruited women to be conductors. At the West Side Y.M.C.A. there was an auto school to train women as drivers and mechanics. The Westinghouse Lamp Company on 512 West 23rd Street, a clean, well-lit factory, with fresh air, advertised for girls at 20 cents an hour with a 10-cent increase in two weeks.
The Red Cross was very active, leading the effort to organize knitters, collecting donations, even organizing a big parade as a way to demonstrate patriotism. There was a big knitting event on the Central Park Mall.
Some Bloomingdale lives may have been upturned in early September 1918 when a day-long “hunt for slackers” took place all over the city under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Justice. Young men were stopped on the street, and, if they could not produce a draft card, they were first taken to the local police station—in Bloomingdale, the 32nd Precinct on the south side of 100th Street—and then put into automobiles and driven to the Armory on 25th Street where they were signed-up. Over 20,000 agents fanned out over the city that day.
On September 1, The New York Times announced that the third draft would be held on September 12. Draft Board 134’s registration site that day was at PS 165 on West 108th Street. Police and firemen were generally exempt, along with men in “war work” jobs.
Simultaneously, the newspapers were printing lists of soldiers and sailors killed in the War, printing the exact address for the New Yorkers. Typically, the listing showed a summary of the number who died, and the reason, as “in battle,” or “of wounds,” or “injured,” and then the actual names by service rank. Maurice Longstreet, a young man who worked as a butcher on Columbus Avenue, was severely wounded on August 17, 1918, but recovered, and was discharged in February 1919. He appeared in the 1920 census, living on West 106th Street. The October 4 report printed in The New York Times announced that Pvt. Fletcher Battle, 72 West 99th Street was killed and Corporal M. A. Lynch of 107 West 98th Street was severely wounded.
Mrs. Merriles on West 107th was written about in a separate article. Her son, Charles, was killed in an explosion in an ammunition shop and a foster son, Leslie, was killed in action in France. Two other sons were in the Navy.
Another concern in Bloomingdale, site of the Lion Brewery on Columbus Avenue, would have been the September 7 story in the Times that all the nation’s breweries would have to be closed down by December 1. The Fuel and Food Administration would be cutting off supplies of grain and fuel to conserve materials needed to win the war. One observer imagined that beer would be an obsolete drink six to eight weeks after the breweries closed. We have to assume that this action was not implemented but, of course, it would not be long before Prohibition happened, and the brewery was affected.
Another neighborhood activity in October 1918 was voter registration. The newspapers printed lists of where to go to register. Several churches in the neighborhood were listed: Grace Church on West 104th, St. Michael’s on West 99th Street, and the Presbyterian Church at 105th Street and Amsterdam. Registration was also at the Home for Aged Hebrews, on West 105th Street and the Half-Orphan Asylum on Manhattan Avenue. The neighborhood schools were also sites.
Election Day was November 5, the first in New York State when women were able to vote. The State Constitution had been amended in 1917 to grant women suffrage; the U.S. Constitution was still waiting to be amended in 1919. In Bloomingdale, the polling places, listed by Election District, were numerous: barbershops, laundries, tailors, and shoe stores along Columbus Avenue, perhaps reflecting that men were more comfortable in these places of business. PS 179 was also used. Mary Garrett Hay of West 112th Street, New York Suffragist and good friend to Carrie Chapman Catt, was quoted: “It seemed as natural as breathing, and I felt as though I had always voted.”
The number of new flu and pneumonia cases dropped during November and December, but grew again the first seven weeks of 1919. It also came back in the winter of 1920 but Commissioner Copeland declared it to be of a milder version. However, in 1918 the excitement of the war ending, on November 11, and then the parades celebrating the Armistice dominated the news more than flu stories, leaving families to deal with the illness on their own. The Women’s Motor Corps operated in the winter of 1919.
One especially heartbreaking effect of the widespread illness, particularly its effect on young adults, was the number of orphaned children created by the epidemic. Jewish families, in particular, were appealed to, to take in orphans. Perhaps of use in the Bloomingdale neighborhood was the Manhattanville Day Nursery, an emergency shelter for babies where “forelorn fathers” who could afford the $5 weekly boarding fee would send their infant children if the mother was ill. Other infant-care institutions that sought private homes where an infant could be cared for, as it was recognized that private home care was better for the child. The Department of Health counted 650 babies that it helped during the time of the epidemic.
On November 17, 1918, Commissioner Copeland was interviewed by The New York Times and gave himself high praise for remaining calm, preventing panic, and allowing the city to “go about its business.” While he was still Health Commissioner in 1923, Copeland was elected to the U.S. Senate, and served until his death in 1938.
After the data for the 1918 flu epidemic was sorted out, New York came in with a lower “excess death rate per 1,000”, reporting 4.7 compared to Boston at 6.5 or Philadelphia at 7.3. Public health historians gave the city credit for its disease management techniques. Newspapers also compared the deaths from the war to the deaths from the flu epidemic, noting the alarming numbers for the epidemic.
One of the impacts of the epidemic may have been in the numbers of fairly young widows and widowers observed in the 1920 federal census for Bloomingdale. The census district pages show about one-third more, especially adults in their 30s and 40s, compared to a similar district in 1910. The war, of course, may have added to the numbers.
As I finish writing this piece, the deaths in New York City from our 2020 Pandemic have reached over 20,000 and are still climbing. Local historians have begun working on how we will document and remember this time.
Aimone, Francesco, “The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in New York City: A Review of the Public Health Response” Public Health Reports (1974-) Volume 125, Supplement 3, April 2010, pp 71-79. (downloaded March 14, 2020)
Federal Census data at www.ancestry.com
Gladwell, Malcolm “The Deadliest Virus Ever Known” The New Yorker September 22, 1997. Accessed online, March 2020
Keeling, Arlene W., “Alert to the Necessities of the Emergency: U.S. Nursing During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Public Health Reports. Accessed online on April 20, 2020
New York City Department of Health, Annual Report 1918. Available at: www.tlcarchive.org (The Living City Archive at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University)
Newspaper articles from The New York Times online archive, newspapers accessible online at GenealogyBank. com, and newspapers at the Chronicling America collection at the Library of Congress (The New York Tribune, The Evening World, The New York Herald, The Sun, The New York Daily Tribune)
Olson, Donald R., Lone Simonsen, Paul J. Edelson, Stephen S. Morse and Edwin D. Kilbourne, “Epidemiological Evidence of an Early Wave of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in New York City” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America Vol 102, No. 31 (August 2, 2005) pp 11059-11063 (downloaded March 29, 2020)
Stern, Alexandra Mina, Mary Beth Reilly, Martin S. Cetron and Howard Markel, “Better Off In School: School Medicine Inspection as a Public Health Strategy During the 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic in the United States,” Public Health Reports (1974-) Volume 125, Supplement 3, April 2010, pp 63-70. (downloaded March 26, 2020)
Wallace, Mike, Greater Gotham: A History of New York City, 1898-1919, Oxford University Press, New York, 2017
“Women of the Red Cross Motor Corps in World War I” available online at the website of the National Women’s History Museum.