A hundred years after the event, October 1918 is being remembered as one of the deadliest months in America because of the sheer number of deaths brought about by the so-called Spanish flu. By the time that the pandemic subsided in 1920, over 675,000 Americans are dead, leaving life expectancy down and thousands of children orphaned.
Spring 1918's 'Three-Day Fever'
The first phase of the illnesses began in the spring of 1918. What was then known as the “three-day fever” came seemingly out of nowhere, the first case of which was recorded in a U.S. Army training camp in Kansas.
It all began with cook Albert Gitchell, who complained of flu-like symptoms in the morning, and by lunchtime, 107 soldiers were already affected. Within five weeks, over 1,000 soldiers were infected, 47 of whom died before it subsided when summer came.
Fall Flu Comeback
In the fall, the illnesses re-emerged and this time far worse than it did in the spring. Some patients reportedly died within just hours of the emergence of the first symptoms, while others perished after a few days, when their lungs had filled with fluid and eventually suffocated to death.
Back then, news of the outbreaks was kept quiet in the United States, France, and Great Britain, but in Spain, a spring outbreak in Madrid was reported. It was because of this that the fall pandemic was eventually dubbed the “Spanish flu” even if it did not necessarily come from Spain.
Devastation In Cities
Soon, the illness made its way to also affect the civilians, with both rural and urban areas affected by the flu. Cities scrambled to contain the public, both in terms of public health and in terms of a potential panic spreading across the masses. Without a centralized agency to contain the problem, cities had to deal with their territories on their own.
Among them, Philadelphia was one of the hardest hit after a public health director refused to cancel a parade, which was attended by over 200,000 people. Within three days, Philadelphia hospitals were filled, and the city was on the verge of collapsing.
In October, public places such as churches, schools, and theaters were shuttered, businesses had to change their opening and closing hours so as to minimize rush-hour crowds, and people had to wear face masks. Those who did not were dubbed as “mask slackers” and would sometimes be rejected from public transportation. In Philadelphia alone, over 11,000 people died that month, including 759 who died on what was considered the worst day of the outbreak.
By then, drivers of open carts would circle streets, yell “Bring out your dead!” and collect the bodies of those who perished, to be deposited in mass graves. Over 195,000 Americans died in October 1918 alone, and by the time the illnesses began to abate in 1920, over 675,000 Americans had died.
Life expectancy dramatically dropped from 51 to 39 that year, and thousands of children were left orphaned. Within just months, the so-called Spanish flu killed more people than any other illness in recorded history, as it affected one-fifth of the population worldwide. In total, the Spanish flu killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide in just one year.
American Distrust Begins?
Doctors and scientists were at a loss for what had caused the public health disaster and how to save more lives because of the mysterious cause of the illnesses. Rumors even began to circulate that it was caused by poison gasses released in American ports. Some also believed that the German company Bayer had tainted their aspirin tablets.
Although October 1918 is not always mentioned when it comes to devastating events in history, some believe that is was one of the events that fueled the Americans’ fear of foreign elements and the wider world, especially since it occurred at the same time as a war.