A hundred years ago, as winter gave way to spring in Kansas, a particularly virulent strain of influenza struck some overcrowded Army camps, filling the infirmaries and straining the ability of doctors and nurses to cope.
Few outsiders noticed and most of the men recovered.
As quickly as the flu struck, it faded. But when the soldiers hustled off to the battlefields of northern France and across the world, they carried the virus with them.
Somewhere along the way, that strain of the flu grew ever more dangerous, striking down more and more people.
Late in the summer of 1918, it came back to America, first among troops in the Boston area and soon most everywhere, including Maine. It proved deadly enough to wipe out more people across the globe than World War I.
Maine’s vital statistics report for the year, which tallied up the deaths of everything from smallpox to the mumps, called out the influenza epidemic as “perhaps the most momentous of all time in the history of our state.” Nothing in the years since has surpassed it.
By the time the pandemic ceased in 1919, more than 4,500 Mainers had died, many of them in the prime of life, and at least 10 times that many had suffered through an illness that decimated a generation.
It closed churches and pool halls, sent college students scurrying home and overwhelmed a public health system that couldn’t begin to offer succor to so many all at once.
It remains the prime example of how an ordinary illness can become an overwhelming threat.
Yet, it has been largely forgotten.
Just after Labor Day in 1918, two Bates College graduates watched at Fenway Park as the Boston Red Sox — led by the team’s famed slugger and top pitcher, Babe Ruth — defeated the Chicago Cubs on the Sox’s way to winning the World Series.
They may have been among the 15,238 people who showed up on a Wednesday night at the ballpark to see the sixth and final game of the showdown, won 2-1 by Boston.
One of the pair, Albert “John” Johnson, president of his 1906 class, “was full of hopes and plans for the future,” recalled the friend, Ralph Kendall, who watched the game at Johnson’s side.
Neither man could have imagined that a month later, Johnson would be dead, one of the millions carried away across the world by the worst influenza pandemic in history, a wave of death shocking even amid the slaughter in the troop-filled trenches of Europe.
It may have killed as many as 50 million people globally — and about one in every 10 young adults all over the world.
New England didn’t feel the brunt of the assault until the second wave of the flu swept through Camp Devens, a training base about 35 miles west of Boston, just as the city celebrated the World Series victory.
It didn’t stop there.
The first case at Camp Devens occurred on Sept. 7, 1918, when a single soldier among the 45,000 at the camp entered its infirmary screaming in pain. Doctors thought he had meningitis.
But a day later, more than a dozen men from his unit followed him into the sick beds. And then it got far, far worse.
An Army report said the influenza there “occurred as an explosion,” bringing down 1,543 in a single day. Doctors and nurses were stricken, too, and patients were left to die in their barracks.
“The military camp became a hellhole of death. Soldiers clutching blankets lined up outside the hospital in the rain while cots overflowed into hallways and onto porches. Doctors had to step over piles of corpses to watch an autopsy,” according to the New England Historical Society.
One doctor at the camp, Roy Grist, wrote they initially appeared to have “an ordinary attack” of the flu but would then “very rapidly develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later” would begin to turn blue “extending from their ears and spreading all over the face.”
In a matter of hours, many would die, Grist noted.
“It is simply a struggle of air until they suffocate. It is horrible,” he wrote. “We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day,” so many that bodies “piled up something fierce” with no coffins left to bury them. Special trains came to haul away the corpses, Grist said.
Among those who raced to lend a hand were 10 nurses from Central Maine General Hospital in Lewiston. It didn’t take long for the outbreak at the camp to spread into Boston and then, nearly as fast, to the rest of the region.
The first cases in Boston itself were noticed on Sept. 14, a Saturday.
The flu comes to Maine
As the situation worsened at Camp Devens, Mainers began to notice.
On Monday, Sept. 23, the 36-year-old secretary of the Maine Senate, Capt. William Lawry, visited the camp. He died shortly after his return home.
Two days later, the Maine Department of Health warned the disease could spread through coughing, sneezing and sharing towels and utensils. Lewiston doctors declared they hadn’t yet seen anything worse than some nasty colds.
By Thursday, Sept. 26, worry was growing. Portland’s police chief warned anti-spitting laws would be strictly enforced.
By Friday, the risk was becoming obvious. Four Portland nurses had died. Undertakers couldn’t keep up with growing demand. And the state health commissioner declared that movie theaters ought to be shuttered.
That weekend, the Androscoggin County Fair in Livermore Falls was postponed.
The mayor of Lewiston, Charles Lemaire, said if people followed safety precautions the flu could be kept at bay. The Lewiston Evening Journal outlined the rules: “Don’t travel in closed, crowded street cars when you can walk. Don’t spit on floors, sidewalks, streets or cars. Don’t visit, or greet cordially, any person showing symptoms of cold or grippe.”
Despite the efforts, by month’s end, the flu hit hard.
Within days, the flu struck down so many that officials from Lewiston and across Maine scrambled to try to keep people safe.
Authorities in Lewiston and Auburn agreed that schools, churches, theaters, libraries, pool rooms, dance halls, the business college — indeed, almost every major gathering spot except Bates College and the factories — had to close.
It may have helped, but a century later the toll still seems staggering.
During a normal year at the time, about 210 Mainers died annually of the flu. In 1918, the state Department of Health’s Division of Communicable Disease counted 2,554 deaths, most occurring in a single month, October.
The epidemic continued into 1919, when 1,959 perished of the flu, mostly in the first few months of the year. There were also about 700 excess deaths from pneumonia, probably a direct result of the flu.
In short, as many Mainers died of the flu in six months as the disease normally claimed during three decades. What made it especially tough was how it felled so many young adults who appeared hale and hearty rather than culling the elderly, the usual victims.
Half of those who perished were between the ages of 20 and 40, a group that rarely died of the flu, even then.
One of the victims was “earnest and cheerful” Wendell Harmon, a 1913 Mechanics Falls High School graduate who had gone on to Bates College and then planned to study at Harvard University’s medical school.
Drafted in 1918, the Army sent him to Camp Jackson in South Carolina, where he soon fell ill with the flu, one of the 8,255 cases recorded in the military post that fall.
At first, it looked like Harmon would recover. After several days, he returned to his unit, but on Oct. 2 his “slumbering influenza changed into spinal meningitis,” according to a story in the Bates student paper. He lost consciousness and died the next afternoon.
By the end of November, 412 soldiers succumbed to the disease at Camp Jackson alone.
Across the entire military, tens of thousands died, including about 550 Mainers who had entered the service.
Add them to the civilian toll in Maine itself and the number of state residents killed in the pandemic easily topped 5,000.
Trying to cope
For those tasked with protecting the public’s health, the pandemic showed the limits of what they could do. It didn’t help that physicians and nurses were too few to cope with the surge of illness, and that hospital beds quickly ran short.
Smaller communities created makeshift medical facilities, including the conversion of a Grange hall in Norway into a 20-bed hospital and the creation of a 30-bed hospital in Columbia Hall in Lisbon Falls.
In Lewiston, the Board of Health debated everything from whether to close down schools to the risk posed by theaters. One thing it never sought to shutter, though, were the all-important factories churning out material that the troops in France needed for the war, which didn’t end until Nov. 11, as the outbreak began to trail off.
After initially trying to close places where the public congregated, even pool halls, the health board learned that locking the doors sometimes didn’t work out as intended.
It turned out, for example, that for many immigrants — especially those from Quebec — crowded into freezing tenements, the mills and theaters were one of the few places some could get warm.
In the case of Lewiston’s schools, officials opted to keep them open because the child care issues that arose from shutting them down were more worrisome than concern the disease might spread in classrooms.
Churches became a particular sore spot in Lewiston, with the head of the health panel debating in public with priests who disagreed with an order banning people from gathering to worship.
At one point in early October, the Lewiston Board of Health ordered the closure of all of the city’s churches, an edict that didn’t sit well with the Rev. Michael McDonough, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church.
Dr. Samuel Epstein, a health board member, said the city “learned from Boston that we need to act before the epidemic takes off” and close off public gatherings as much as possible.
In a confrontation reported in detail by the Evening Journal, McDonough questioned whether the factories and mills were public gatherings as well.
“Not in that sense,” Epstein responded. “The factories and mills are necessary to sustain life.”
The pastor queried whether churches, too, are essential.
Epstein said they are, but not in the same way.
“I believe there are no halfway measures,” McDonough said. “If you’re going to close public gatherings, I would close everything.”
Epstein said the epidemic was serious, but he could not order the factories shuttered in wartime.
“They say that you can’t close the mills. Why? Because they are essential,” McDonough responded. “Some of us believe the churches essential — very essential indeed. We should not be denied the privilege of appealing to our Heavenly Father.”
Epstein said the health board had the power to make the decision.
The pastor then asked, “If I should open my church next Sunday, you might call in the police and close me up?”
“We have the right to go as far as we like in the interests of public health,” Epstein answered.
McDonough said he did not think churches should be at the mercy of “an incompetent jury” of a health board consisting of “men lacking the time, the money, the poise, and the character to deal with a great emergency and pass judgment upon delicate and vital questions.”
He said parishioners “work 54 hours a week in the mills; they are one hour a week on the Lord’s Day, in church. Our greatest asset is the religious gathering on the Lord’s Day; and it is the least menace!”
“In view of these facts, I cannot stand by and see the church penalized and penalized unfairly,” McDonough said. “The doctors do not know everything.”
In the end, the health panel agreed, over Epstein’s objection, to allow outdoor church services, which apparently mollified the ministers who had complained.
Some of those lost
It’s impossible to tally all that Maine lost in the pandemic.
Only a glimpse of it is possible from the bare biographical facts that can plucked out of the past. There were so many, with so much promise.
Take 21-year-old Esther Knowlton, trained at Central Maine General Hospital, who got sick shortly after taking on her first nursing assignment. She died within days.
Jesse Donahue, 26, an Edward Little High School graduate from Auburn who went to seminary in Bangor, was among the first to perish in Maine.
Franklin Austin, a 34-year-old mechanic in Farmington, left behind a wife and two young children. Johnson, the baseball fan, did the same.
Cecil Earl Brown, who had just opened a law practice in Norway and served on the local draft board, was ordered to Camp Devens on Sept. 10, a newly minted private in the U.S. Army. Fifteen days later, he was dead.
Roland “Pury” Purinton, a musically gifted Bowdoinham resident who left Bates after his junior year to fight for his country, died of the flu at a Boston hospital.
Mellen Adams of Belgrade, a 23-year-old Bates graduate who was teaching in a high school, was drafted and sent to Camp Devens near Boston, where he died of influenza as well.
And in South China, Marjorie Webber, just shy of turning 8, died within 24 hours of her grandmother. Two days later, on Halloween, her 9-year-old brother Richard perished, too.
Today, a pair of tiny marble markers note the resting place of the two Webber children along the shore of Three-Mile Pond in the South China Village Cemetery.
The Kennebec Journal took note of their funeral: “When earth and lake and sky were blended in one great beauty, the two little bodies were placed in one grave.”
All over Maine, they buried the dead and carried on, as people must.