I have been self-quarantined since Feb. 17, in a fashion. A shoulder surgery has temporarily robbed me of the ability to drive, type or do the farmwork that is part of my life as regional manager at the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury.
For weeks, I worked alone in my kitchen, watching my family leave for work and school, my cat mocking me from the windowsill as I called into meetings. As I watched the news, I slowly realized that something was happening that had the potential to define this decade – perhaps this generation, and I looked, as I always do, to the past.
On Aug. 22, 1918, in the Newburyport News column “Newslings,” this lighthearted item appeared. “It is certainly desirable to avoid the Spanish influenza, but there are young men who will feel that the giving up of kissing is too great a price to pay for such immunity.”
Fast-forward a century later to a tipsy young man in Miami declaring, “If I get corona, I get corona. I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.”
Like COVID-19, the Spanish influenza was blamed on foreigners, and information about the spread of the disease was heavily influenced by the political climate of the time. In 1918, with much of the world fighting desperately, their press censored, neutral Spain reported the early progress of the disease, leading many to believe that the disease originated there. Experts are divided on the true genesis of the outbreak.
The pandemic spread in the first months of 1918. Much of the country, anxious about the war, and accustomed to seasonal cycles of disease and death, took little notice. The first mention in the Newburyport newspaper was in August, though there had been an unusual number of influenza cases in the city since June.
In September, it all changed. On the 10th, the News reported that 30 sailors in Boston had the Spanish flu, but Newburyport was not in harm’s way. The News reported on Sept. 18 that the influenza striking Newburyport was “of an ordinary kind.” They were wrong.
Two days later, the first two Newburyporters died – James T. Weir of Curzon Mill Road and George Leighton of 26 Charter St. – and the hospital, completely unprepared for the epidemic, closed to patients experiencing flu symptoms. The following day, 11 nurses were reported ill, and on Sept. 24, Zelda Saunders, a student nurse at Anna Jaques Hospital, died.
This is Newburyport, slow to respond to the pandemic, suddenly realizing the magnitude of the crisis. This feels, to me, like today.
On Sept. 24, 1918, Newburyport schools closed. Three teachers were already sick. Still, a community singalong went ahead. On Sept. 26, all meeting places in Newburyport were closed by the Board of Health. By then, at least seven more deaths had been reported.
The city announced that it would vigorously enforce anti-spitting rules, and shared tips to avoid infection. “Do not expectorate. Do not kiss. Do not swap handkerchiefs, towels, food, pipes, cigarettes, pencils, etc.”
The newspaper reassured the city that “while the epidemic is bad, it does not yet approach the severity of the malady of 1890.” State political conventions were in danger of being delayed, and Boston theaters were closed. It was still just the beginning.
Just as Newburyport began to brace for the mounting wave of sickness and death, Newburyport Marine Eben Bradbury Jr.’s family received the news of his death on the battlefield in France. Sometime in September, his father’s letters were returned to Bromfield Street, marked “Killed in Action.”
On Nov. 11, the guns of war fell silent and the city rushed out to celebrate, kicking off a new wave of infection. Eben’s father recorded the myriad ceremonies that the city wished them, the family of a dead hero, to attend. They stayed home, and none of the Bradbury family suffered from the flu. It is possible, though unprovable, that they were saved by their crippling grief.
So what lessons, what encouragement can we draw from Newburyport’s experience in 1918? First, stay home. Second, beware of false hope and charlatans.
The Newburyport News carried advertisements for Horlick’s Malted Milk, the “The Diet for Influenza!” and Peruna, a patent medicine whose power derived chiefly from its 28% alcohol content, claiming to “tone up the nerves and purify the blood” for flu sufferers.
And we are resilient. Families who suffered great loss regrouped and carried on. Newburyport pulled together. Doctors, nurses, volunteers, and religious leaders cared for the afflicted in their homes. They rocked babies, did laundry, and carried scuttles of coal into the densely packed tenements around Ship Street.
A community kitchen was set up on Purchase Street, and those who had recovered from influenza gave blood in hopes that it would help to develop a vaccine.
In March 1919, the city reported that 150 people had died of the epidemic. As I send my daughter off to her father’s house in the neighborhood hardest hit a century ago, I hope that we can also pull together and care for each other during the long weeks ahead.
Bethany Groff Dorau is the North Shore regional manager for Historic New England and the author of “A Newburyport Marine in World War I: The Life and Legacy of Eben Bradbury.”