Jan. 12, 2008
By Scott DeSmit
“The 1918 has gone: a year momentous as the termination of the most cruel war in the annals of the human race; a year which marked, the end at least for a time, of man’s destruction of man; unfortunately a year in which developed a most fatal infectious disease causing the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Medical science for four and one-half years devoted itself to putting men on the firing line and keeping them there. Now it must turn with its whole might to combating the greatest enemy of all – infectious disease.”
– >From the American Medical Journal, Dec. 28, 1918.
1918 was a momentous year, for the world, our country and locally.
The year would see the end of a war that killed more than 10 million people worldwide and hundreds of local servicemen.
It paled in comparison to how many the Spanish Flu would kill by the end of 1919.
Local historians, librarians and others are revisiting that time in our history as part of the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project in Genesee, Wyoming and Orleans counties.
This year’s Tale features The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen. The book is about the fictional Pacific Northwest town of Commonwealth that quarantines itself in an attempt to prevent the flu from coming to town.
Such quarantines were prevalent, including in Batavia, where health officials shut down all places of “public amusement.”
Genesee County Historian Sue Conklin is planning two lectures in late February at Richmond Memorial Library to discuss the Spanish Flu of 1918 and its relation to how health officials today are preparing for a pandemic, should it ever strike.
“Our focus is on what happened here,” she said. “I didn’t see a whole lot of balking. People weren’t whining. They had just come through a major war, saw people coming home with mustard gas contamination, they hadn’t seen anything like that in our history. Then this happens and all of a sudden they are told that everything is going to be shut down. And they accepted that.”
The flu crept into Western New York slowly. News articles from the time reveal, in hindsight, that no one saw it coming.
“That was the way it started,” Albion Historian Neil Johnson said. “It’s the flu. They called it grippe but it was something everyone got for years and years and still do today. It was nothing to worry about.”
Yet there were signs.
Batavia Health Officer Le Seur issued numerous small statements regarding the flu, beginning in October 1918. He, too, felt there was nothing to worry about.
“I am of the opinion,” he said in a Daily News article on Oct. 3, “that the following prescription is an efficient prevention of the grip, Spanish as well as American.”
He told readers all they had to do was spray some olive oil and eucalyptol in their noses to prevent the flu.
This as the obituary pages began filling up with victims of the flu and its complications.
Six days later, LeSeur again tried to downplay the situation.
“There are very few cases in Batavia of anything that looks like Spanish influenza,” he said. “These illnesses are of a mild type and there is no case that has been definitely diagnosed as Spanish influenza.”
Health Officer LeSeur addes that even colds have been avoided by those who have used the eucalyptol spray recommended by the State Department of Health.
Yet, even as LeSeur was speaking those words, one of the city’s doctors, someone LeSeur knew well, was dying from the flu. Dr. Merle from Batavia Hospital succumbed to the flu and on Oct. 11 LeSeur attended his funeral.
LeSeur asked that the funeral be private and ordered that “no more public funerals be held in the city.”
LeSeur, still downplaying the situation, ordered that the city would now be in a “quarantine period.”
On Oct. 11 all schools, churches, theaters, bowling alleys, dance halls and other “places of amusement” or anywhere people gathered in numbers was shut down. Indefinitely.
The same was happening in every town in Genesee, Wyoming and Orleans counties.
Masks were distributed. Travelers entering villages and cities weren’t allowed to stay overnight. Many drove through wearing masks.
Daily notices of who was sick were in the newspaper, as were notices of who was dead and hundreds upon hundreds of advertisements for various flu remedies.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” an ad for Leadley Drug Co. said. “This is an old saying but a true one, as has been proven in hundreds of cases during the past two weeks right here in Batavia.”
It didn’t work.
Stringent orders issued by health officials didn’t, either. The flu continued to take its toll and by year’s end, more than 200 obituaries appeared with deaths related to the flu from October to January 1919.
Western New York was hit with the second wave of the flu. The first wave struck the Midwest, believed to have begun in Kansas with the death of a soldier.
According to Stanford University research, the second wave came from Boston in September 1918. Boston was a busy port where soldiers returning home likely brought the second wave. The virus killed more than 200,000 in October alone and in November the end of the war became a “complete disaster, public healthwise” as people gathered in throngs to celebrate.
That happened here, too. LeSeur’s quarantine was scheduled to end on Nov. 11, 1918. That morning the war officially ended and great celebrations erupted in the city.
An estimated 675,000 people died during the pandemic, 10 times more than in the war. A fifth of the world’s population was affected, with as many as 40 million dying as a result.
“Nobody expected what was going to happen,” said Albion historian Johnson, who is giving a lunchtime lecture at Swan Library on the topic Feb. 20. “It turned so virulent so fast.”
Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation