Caskets lined the streets like wooden mountains. Men pushed carts looking for bodies as families decorated doorways with mourning crepe — white for a child, black for the middle aged and gray for the elderly.
No one was safe.
Country folk, city dwellers, soldiers and, most surprisingly, those in the prime of life became targets for the devastating global flu epidemic in 1918.
Every 30 to 40 years an aggressive flu virus emerges, one that has changed just enough that people's natural defenses are caught completely unprepared. In 1918, the flu and world events collided. The result — a fast, catastrophic spread of a deadly form of the disease. World War I occupied the planet's most powerful countries at the time. In the spring of 1918, as news of the war splashed across the world's newspapers, a solider at Fort Riley in Kansas reported to the camp hospital complaining of aches, pains and fever — common symptoms of the "three-day flu." By week's end, 500 army personnel had come down with the disease and 48 men, all fit, young and healthy, were dead.
Few took notice, though, as news of young boys perishing in foreign trenches from bullets and bombs took precedence. In any case, by late summer the strange flu seemed to have disappeared. The spring outbreak, however, was only the beginning.
That summer and autumn more than 1.5 million American soldiers crossed the Atlantic for war. A few of the men from Kansas brought onboard a silent passenger: the flu virus. Almost immediately, ships became floating hospitals instead of battleships. Some doughboys never made it to the European battlefields. Instead, they died at sea. The survivors carried the disease to the front lines of the war.
The virus that causes influenza is a changing creature, and the circumstances of war created an even greater opportunity for the virus to remake itself. As it traveled and passed through one body to another, meeting different immunological makeups and adapting to overcome each new environment, the microbe mutated and became viciously contagious and more deadly. In the mud and the rain of the war's front lines, a trenchmate's sneeze carrying virus particles could contain more killing power than an enemy's bullet.
The flu ignored hostile borders and traveled into Italy, Germany and France. Soon the British were laid low with the new illness as well, and the Spanish was especially devastated. In fact, the pandemic became known as Spanish Influenza, not because it originated in Spain but because so many Spaniards caught the disease — an estimated 8 million.
In the autumn, the virus landed back in the United States, this time at Camp Devans. The army base just outside Boston served as an important supply line for the exchange of soldiers to and from the war. A case of the flu was diagnosed on September 12, and the disease spread explosively after that. By the end of October, more than 17,000 cases had been reported in Devans. Nearly 800 men, all in their peak years of prowess, had died.
Autopsies of flu victims revealed swollen, wet lungs filled with enormous quantities of thin, bloody fluid. In the passages leading to the throat the fluid mixed with air and created a bloody froth.
In a matter of months, the flu pushed into the general population of the country. Instead of ships and trenches, other activities now spurred the flu's movement.
Large, flag-waving crowds packed along hometown streets for money-raising Liberty Loan drives. People strained to hear rousing speeches and witness red, white and blue parades. All the while, people sneezed and coughed on each other. In Philadelphia, 200,000 gathered for one such day of support for the soldiers war. Shortly afterward, the flu swept through the city. At its peak, more than 11,000 people died in one month — many healthy in the morning and lifeless at night.
Cities and small towns continued to encourage large crowds in narrow streets for Liberty Loan drives. The virus traveled the highways and railways bringing small and large towns to their knees with sickness. Those who had experienced the devastation on the East Coast attempted to warn those on the other side of the country.
Halt the Spread
In an attempt to halt the spread, cities and towns closed theaters and churches, and enacted a law requiring everyone to wear gauze masks when in public. But porous gauze could not stop the tiny microbe from escaping into the air.
The flu continued its deadly circle of the globe. By the time the disease beat a slow retreat in November 1918, at least 21 million people worldwide had died, 600,000 in the United States alone. In 10 months, more people had died in America from the flu than in combat in all the wars of this century.