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The Spanish Flu

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CCHS

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by Rachel Dworkin

Apparently, this year’s strain of flu is spreading faster than usual. Luckily for me, I’ve always made a point of getting a vaccine since I found out my maternal grandfather’s parents died of Spanish Flu in 1918. They were in good company. Nationwide, over a quarter of the population was infected while approximately 600,000 died. For comparison, the yearly average is somewhere around 20,000. There are no definite numbers due to poor recordkeeping, but somewhere between 20 and 100 million people died of Spanish Flu worldwide making it the second deadliest epidemic after the Black Death.

The Spanish Flu hit Chemung County in October of 1918 and it hit hard.  It started small, oddly enough, with an outbreak of what the City Health Department insisted was polio, despite the fact it didn’t fit the contingent model for the disease. By the start of October, Spanish Flu was killing 200 people a day in Boston, and Elmira officials were desperate to avoid a panic. On October 5th, the paper reported that ten Elmira College students were under quarantine for the flu, but City Health Officer, Dr. Dr. Reeve Howland, continued to insist there was no epidemic in the city. Five days later, there were over 100 people sick with the flu in Horseheads and the town had decided to shut down schools and churches in an ultimately fruitless attempt to contain the spread. The City of Elmira finally conceded to reality and followed suit on October 15th, shutting down schools, churches, theaters, and all public gatherings. 

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It was too little, too late. Between the start of October 1918 and the new year, there were 3,549 reported cases of the flu in Elmira. That is to say that somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of the city caught it. Approximately 150 Elmirans died of Spanish flu during the 1918-19 flu season. Over 100 of them died in October alone. The Elmira Herald reported that there were between six and ten deaths per day at the height of the epidemic. 

The city struggled to cope with the sheer number of sick people. Arnot-Ogden and St. Joseph’s both ran out of beds and the Elmira Board of Health created a make-shift overflow hospital at the Hotel Gotham on State Street. Families struggled to survive as parents fell sick. The entire Wilcox family of Pearl Place was stricken except for the eight-year-old daughter who eventually had to call the police to help take her parents to the hospital. The Red Cross established a kitchen at the Federation Building to feed children whose parents were too ill to cook. At the height of the epidemic, they feeding some thirty families. 

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By the time the war ended on November 11, 1918, the worst of the epidemic was over. Schools, churches, and theaters were re-opened on November 3rd. People were still falling ill (there were 12 new cases on November 12th) but that was way down from 60 new cases a day in October. The emergency hospital at Gotham Hotel was closed on November 15th and, just like that, the city was back to normal. Except, of course, for all the dead people.

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Rachel Dworkin is the archivist at the Chemung County Historical Society. This originally appeared HERE in January 

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