Editor’s Note: This is another in the series of articles, part of a citizens’ initiative for Reading’s 375th Anniversary Historical Essay Project.
On September 20, 1918 the Reading Chronicle reported the “Sad Deaths of Two Young Men.” William Henry Sargent, 17, and Benjamin Albert Legro, 18, were visited by the “death angel” as they fell victim to influenza. These young lives, “full of hope and promise,” were just two of many Reading residents to be struck by the Great Influenza of 1918.
From August through November 1918, the Reading Chronicle teemed with reports about the flu. Filling the pages were obituaries, accounts of rising numbers of cases, and notices about the closure of schools, churches, and theatres, as part of a “ban on everything of a public nature.” The only other topic to gain as much attention was World War I. The Great War was winding toward its end while the flu reached its peak.
The 1918 annual report from the Reading Board of Health noted 891 cases of influenza, seconded by chicken pox at 28, and victory measles, also known as German measles or rubella, at 22. Apparently during wartime even measles couldn’t have a German moniker. These influenza cases made up 90% of the contagious diseases that the town was mandated to report to the State Board of Health. There were only five cases of flu in 1919, while in 1917 influenza was not even a reportable disease. It was clear that in 1918, Reading was in the midst of the pandemic.
25% of U.S. population sickened, 675,000 died
Striking hard at the end of World War I, the influenza pandemic caused between fifty to one-hundred million deaths worldwide, at least three times the total number dead in the “war to end all wars.” Estimates indicate that twenty-five million people in the United States, one-fourth of the population, suffered from flu in 1918 - 1919, with deaths estimated at 675,000. Effectively summarizing the destructive effect of the 1918 influenza pandemic, the eminent historian Alfred W. Crosby wrote, “Nothing else, no infection, no war, no famine - has ever killed so many in as short a period.”
Past strains of the flu primarily impacted the very young and the elderly. Yet in 1918 - 1919, most flu victims were in the prime of life at between twenty and forty years of age. The obituary notice for eighteen-year-old Reading resident Benjamin Legro stated that the flu took the life a young man “with everything to live for.” Death rates for fifteen to thirty-four-year-olds in 1918 were more than twenty times higher than in previous years.
The first reports of flu in Reading newspapers concerned the town’s service members who were stationed overseas during World War I. Several articles and letters focused on the death of Private Stanwood Elliott Hill who died of influenza in France on “the night of our great national holiday (July 4).” Just three days before his passing, Stan sent a letter home to his parents: “I feel great again,” he wrote, “Just think, next Thursday is the Fourth of July.” Despite his brief recovery, Stan did not survive. He was “buried with full military honors” at the Les Baraques Military Cemetery in Calais, France.
Mr. and Mrs. Hill of 86 Summer Ave. publicly shared many of the letters they received upon Stanwood’s death. These letters from their son’s comrades and commanding officers reveal complicated feelings about dying from disease during wartime.
In a letter sent five days after Hill’s death, delayed because of “quarantine restrictions,” H.A. Hayworth, one of Stan’s comrades in arms, told of the “number of times” than Stan “made the remark that if it was willed for him to die in France he would rather die under fire.” Hayworth reflected that Stan “died for his country,” but “he was simply denied the glory of dying on the battlefield.” Louis Lovett, Hill’s commanding officer wrote, “it takes far more heroism and faith to reconcile oneself to death of a youth by disease rather than enemy fire.”
While the origins of the deadly 1918 influenza continue to be examined, its occurrence at the end of a world war was a key factor in its pandemic status. As the war moved soldiers, laborers, and civilians around the world, the flu would follow the same wartime paths.
Influenza arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in late August by way of sailors returning from the war. The first few shipmen with symptoms of influenza, including high fever, sore throat, headache, chills, difficulty breathing, crackling lungs, pneumonia, unconsciousness, and even blue-tinged skin due to a lack of oxygen, reported to the sick-bay at the receiving ship on Commonwealth Pier on August 27th. Within two days there were fifty-eight cases. The epidemic was under way in the Bay State. It would not be long before the disease came to Reading.
Influenza arrives in Reading
It took only a few days before the hospital at the Commonwealth Pier was inundated with flu victims. With no room left, sick sailors were transported to the Naval Hospital in Chelsea, just across the harbor from Boston. The Chelsea Naval Hospital also struggled with space for those suffering with the flu. An “Army and Navy” notice in the September 20th Reading Chronicle reported, “The ambulance has been busy between Camp Plunkett and the Chelsea Naval hospital with influenza.” Current Reading residents know Camp Plunkett as Camp Curtis Guild, a Massachusetts Army National Guard training site, but during World War I the site was operated by the U.S. Navy as Camp Plunkett. Ill sailors must have been housed in the wooden barracks located at the site.
Civilian cases and deaths of Reading residents began to appear in the Reading Chronicle on September 20th. “If rumor were true,” declared the editor’s note on the front page, “it would take less space to enumerate those who have not had the influenza than those who have.” The paper’s obituaries give a sense of the lives that were lost.
In addition to the “sad deaths” of two teens, William Sargent and Benjamin Nigro, many other young Reading residents were struck down. Max Prail, a Russian immigrant, died of the flu at age 33 leaving behind a wife and four children. The owner of a shoe repair shop on Haven Street, Prail was “a hard worker, ambitious for his family, and a good citizen.” Four days later, his eleven-year-old daughter Annie followed him in death.
Mrs. Lillian Rowean, a soprano-soloist at St. Agnes Church and Red Cross volunteer, was thirty-years-old when she died from flu-related pneumonia. “Grief was widespread” for Mrs. Rowean. To those who served on Reading branch of the Red Cross: “it was hard … to believe the news of her decease.” Mrs. Bessie Ellison of Grand Street also passed away quickly. She was “ill only a short time” before she died from the flu, leaving behind a husband and three children. As a public-school teacher, “daughter, wife, and mother,” Mrs. Ellison’s death was an “an irreparable loss.”
From mid-September through late-October every weekly edition of the Reading Chronicle featured the obituaries of Reading residents who died from the flu. Nearly all of those who succumbed were young to middle-aged. They were beloved by family and connected to the community. All their deaths were sad and shocking. Noted for striking in the prime of life, when victims had “everything to live for,” Dr. Harvey Cushing of the U.S. Army Medical Corps declared that those who passed were “doubly dead in that they died so young.”
Local schools, churches and the library were closed
By late September, as Reading faced nearly 700 cases of influenza, public meetings and services were shut down. A notice from the Board of Health instructed that “Reading churches are requested... not to hold services … during the epidemic.” Nor were “public meetings of any nature to be held.” Schools were closed. The Board of Health suggested that all funerals “be private...during the prevailing epidemic.” These closures were in line with recommendations from Lt. Governor, and future president, Calvin Coolidge. “Without exception,” agreed local pastors and school administrators, “closing [was] the thing to do in the interests of public safety.”
It must have been a quiet and eerie few weeks for Reading residents. Included in the closures and cancellations were Meadow Brook Golf Club’s “Saturday evening suppers and hops,” meetings of the Boy and Girl Scouts, dance classes, and fundraisers for the local Red Cross. The Reading Theatre was closed “on account of the epidemic until further notice,” and the Reading Public Library was shuttered. Reading Custom Laundry did not shut down, but it did ask its customers “to bear with us if deliveries are somewhat delayed” due to the shortage of help during “the prevailing sickness.”
The flu also impacted public safety. With Reading Police Chief Cullinane sick with the flu, and other officers ill or in the U.S. Service, the “police department [was] temporarily depleted by influenza.” In early October, Acting Chief George Stock was the “only member of the regular force on duty.” The fire department was also short, with only two permanent firemen available to serve. At the Post Office, “sickness played havoc to such an extent,” that one day Postmaster Gray had to cover one of the carrier’s routes and later that evening fill in as janitor.
The flu’s occurrence during wartime also impacted civilian access to healthcare. Beginning that August, physicians under age 40 who were “fit to fight,” along with “reserves under 55” were “to be called on for army, navy and civilian service when necessary.” In early September, Dr. Ernest D. Richmond left his practice in Reading to report for training at Camp Oglethorpe in Georgia. “His extensive practice will not be turned over to any particular physician,” the Reading Chronicle reported, “as all local practitioners are subject to call and others are likely to follow him.”
The few doctors and nurses who remained in town faced a daunting task. The Reading Chronicle proclaimed: “Reading physicians are home so little they have hardly a speaking acquaintance with their families.”
In late September, it was reported that the visiting nurse was “sick in bed.” In October, Mrs. Minnie Brown, the substitute for the nurse who “had been taken ill,” died of flu-related pneumonia. Leaving behind a husband and two sons, Brown “sacrificed herself for others,” as she “worked unsparing of self and unyielding to fatigue.”
By November, both WWI and the pandemic were over
Almost as quickly as it had begun, “the terror began to slip away.” Following a few weeks of reporting on declining cases, “the epidemic has practically died out here,” announced the Reading Chronicle on October 25th. Epidemiologist Shirley Fannon explains, “it probably ran out of fuel, it probably ran out of people who were susceptible.” By November there was much to celebrate. Not only had the influenza pandemic in Massachusetts come to an end, but so too the war to end all wars with Armistice Day on November 11th.
Nearly a month after it commenced, the Board of Health declared the ban on public gatherings “to be off.” “Normal conditions will prevail,” for there “had been so much improvement.” Reading’s church services would again be held, public schools would open, and “moving picture lovers” would be able to see William S. Hart in “The Tiger Man” at the Reading Theatre. In the October 18th Reading Chronicle, the Board of Health expressed its gratitude to the public for its cooperation, during a time in which it had to make “a number of quick, and rather radical decisions.”
Science writer Steven Johnson declares that “epidemics create a kind of history from below.” While “they can be world changing, their participants are almost inevitably ordinary folk.” The 1918 pandemic serves as a reminder of the devastating impact that flu can have. The harmful, and at times deadly, effect of the 1918 influenza pandemic on the town’s residents, including children, teens, parents, soldiers, workers, and community-oriented employees, emphasizes the human toll of this disease.
Local municipalities like Reading played a key part in the public health response to the flu. Journalists at the Reading Chronicle and members of the town’s Board of Health worked to inform and educate residents about the influenza pandemic, taking steps to prevent the spread of illness in the community. Recognition must also go to the police, fire, and health care workers who, while being burdened by the disease, toiled to keep the town’s residents safe. Reading residents themselves played an important role in the town’s response to the flu as they respected and followed the health and safety closures and precautions. Marked just this past fall, the 100th anniversary of the influenza pandemic, provides an apt time to remember the “period of trial and apprehension” that the 1918 flu brought to Reading.
Kara Gleason is an educator in the History department at Reading Memorial High School. A history teacher for 18 years, Ms. Gleason recently obtained a School Library Teacher Post-Master’s Certificate from Simmons University, where coursework allowed her to blend her passions for education, research, history, reading, and multiple literacies.