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Masked Chicago sanitation workers are inspected by officials, also wearing masks, during the 1918 Spanish Influenza outbreak. The pandemic killed 8,510 people in Chicago in eight weeks

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Coronavirus’ impact on Chicago recalls the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19

Kissing was discouraged, public dancing was outlawed, and spitting on sidewalk became a police matter, as the Sun-Times reported in this story originally published Oct. 16, 2005.

Masked Chicago sanitation workers are inspected by officials, also wearing masks, during the 1918 Spanish Influenza outbreak. The pandemic killed 8,510 people in Chicago in eight weeks
| Sun-Times file

Marine Pvt. Edward Flood was fighting overseas in World War I, but he had to rush home to the South Side for a double funeral for his father and 19-year-old brother — both victims of the flu.

West Side resident John Wagar was a janitor, mopping up floors at the old 17th Precinct police station. He and four police officers died of the bug within days of one another.

And up north, Lake View resident Harry H. Latham, 59, was a captain of industry who was prominent in amateur athletics and had once helped build railroads in the “Wild West.”

He lasted less than 16 hours after he caught the flu.

After ravaging points around the globe, the Spanish influenza swept through Chicago in the autumn of 1918 — killing 8,510 people in just eight weeks.

The most deadly flu outbreak in modern history, the pandemic killed 20 million to 50 million people worldwide in 1918 and 1919 — 675,000 of them in the United States.

It was fast and fierce, and it hit the young and healthy the worst.

And it turned Chicago into a city under siege as officials scrambled to stop the spread of a deadly germ they knew little about.

Kissing was discouraged. Public dancing was outlawed. Spitting on the sidewalk became a police matter. Events from football games to union meetings were banned.

So many people died that fall of the flu or the pneumonia it often sparked that the Chicago Daily News reported 324 city deaths in one day under a headline announcing “Epidemic on Wane.”

Today, health experts are studying the Spanish influenza as they gird for the possibility that the Asian bird flu will rival its destruction.

Scientists have re-created the 1918 virus and determined that it, too, originated in birds. But so far, the current Asian bird flu — which has killed at least 65 people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia — seems only to travel from birds to humans.

1918 MUTATION

The Spanish influenza of 1918 mutated into a form that humans could catch from one another, allowing it to spread around the globe like a biological brushfire.

Public health officials are hoping history does not repeat itself.

It was called the Spanish influenza, but no one is certain where it actually originated.

The unusually virulent bug first surfaced in the United States on March 11, 1918, at Fort Riley, Kansas, and bounced around U.S. military bases before spreading to civilians.

In the Chicago area, it first hit sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Base on Sept. 8, 1918. Over the coming weeks, 4 percent to 5 percent of those afflicted at the base in North Chicago would die — five times the civilian death rate.

But the early headlines showed little sign of what was to come.

“Grip Epidemic at Great Lakes Under Control,” the Chicago Tribune announced in its Sept. 19 edition, using the then-popular term for the disease over a report on 1,000 cases of “a mild form of influenza” at the base.

SUBURBS HIT FIRST

No one believed such blissful optimism on the North Shore.

From Great Lakes, the disease spread across the north suburbs, and local officials scrambled to try to stop the spread of germs.

Theaters were closed in Waukegan and North Chicago in late September. And schools and churches up and down the North Shore soon shut their doors.

In Lake Forest, police patrolled the streets, breaking up any small knots of people they found. Military “home guard” troops did the same in Winnetka and Glencoe.

Country clubs were pressed into service as makeshift hospitals in Highland Park, Wilmette, Kenilworth and Hubbard Woods.

In roughly four weeks in September and early October, the disease moved like a deadly cloud across the city to the south suburbs.

Schools in Hazel Crest and Homewood were closed in early October after Sister Malvilla died and two other nuns fell ill of the flu at the St. Mary Magdalene School in South Chicago.

‘NO CAUSE . . . FOR ALARM’

The first death in Chicago came Sept. 21, 1918. And 57 cases of the disease were reported within days.

Was the city in the grip of the epidemic?

Chicago’s health commissioner, Dr. John Dill Robertson, laughed at the suggestion Sept. 24.

“There is no cause whatever for alarm,” he said.

But Robertson quickly stopped chuckling.

By the end of the first week, 18 Chicagoans had died. One of the first was Mary O’Leary, 76, a single woman who lived at 212 E. Erie.

The city toll reached its peak on Thursday, Oct. 17, 1918, when the combined death toll from influenza and pneumonia was 381.

Hardest hit were men and women between the ages of 20 and 40.

Gertrude McCue, a 26-year-old switchboard operator at the Standard Club, died after just one day in the hospital.

Naval Ensign Orville Chase Wetmore died in his parents’ home in the Kenwood neighborhood on his 24th birthday, not knowing that his wife had given birth to a son just days earlier.

The tragedy unfolding before their eyes prompted officials to seek remedies that would seem comic if not for the underlying desperation.

‘SPITTING PROSECUTED!’

People were advised to salute rather than shake hands. A group of Chicago doctors urged that “No Kissing” signs be hung in homes.

Paper napkins used as tissues were to be burned, and soiled handkerchiefs were to be boiled in water or soaked in disinfectant.

Chicago police were launched on an “anti-spitting crusade” and were asked to arrest “open-face” sneezers — people who don’t use a handkerchief.

The police superintendent declined the latter request, but he did issue an order requiring all officers to ask such people “in a courteous manner” to use a hanky and to explain why it “is imperative.”

And he posted signs in streetcars, theaters and other public places warning, “Spitting Arrested and Prosecuted!”

Smoking was also banned on all streetcars to cut down on spitting and to purify the air.

“I don’t see how any germs or anything else can live, let alone spread, in some of these smokers on a cool morning rush hour,” a guard on the Evanston Express confided to a passenger.

‘STINGY LANDLORD LIST’

When Robertson first suggested that people wear sterilized gauze masks to prevent the spread of germs, the Tribune felt compelled to assure its readers that the health commissioner said it “in a manner that convinced his hearers he was serious.”

Indeed, Robertson donned one of the gauze “sneeze masks” himself when he met with reporters to announce he would seek to prosecute landlords who added to the problem by not providing heat.

“Bring me the stingy landlord list!” he asked his secretary through the mask.

Within days, the masks had become so commonplace that the Tribune printed diagrams instructing readers how to make homemade “germ screens.”

Robertson also banned dancing in cabarets and dance halls, saying, “There is no greater menace.”

“Not only do the dancers become overheated and make themselves susceptible to colds, but the close contact and unusually heavy breathing while dancing makes for contagion,” the health commissioner said.

By mid-October, the situation was so dire that theaters and motion picture houses, skating rinks, lodge halls and other places of amusement were ordered closed to prevent people passing germs in large crowds.

‘THE SPEECHLESS CAMPAIGN’

Also banned were athletic events, banquets, union meetings, club meetings, lectures and political gatherings — leading to what some politicians dubbed “the speechless campaign.”

Funerals were ordered limited to 10 close relatives and friends, and police were told to break up any that became too large.

Saloons and billiard halls were not closed, however.

Churches also were spared on the “ground that religious activity is essential to the morale of the community,” the Chicago Daily News reported.

But the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago instructed pastors to add ushers to spot people who sneezed or coughed and ask them to leave the mass.

Officials debated closing the city’s public schools, but they didn’t. Instead, windows were ordered kept open, and children were allowed to wear their “street wraps” in the belief that cold, fresh air was an elixir.

Also allowed was the city’s massive “Liberty Parade” to help sell war bonds. But parade-goers were given strict instructions.

“Go home, remove all clothing and rub the body dry and put on warm clothing,” a flier urged. “Take a laxative when you reach home, and you will minimize your chances of catching the disease.”

On Oct. 31, with the daily death toll down to 195, Robertson announced that he would soon allow most public gatherings to resume. But he said the smoking ban on L’s and streetcars would be made permanent.

‘NOT UNNECESSARILY DISTURBED’

“So long as there is smoking on cars it will be impossible to prevent expectoration,” he later wrote.

With the election just days away, the Daily News predicted, “There is going to be oratory galore in the closing days of the campaign.”

In his official report shortly after the pandemic subsided, Robertson conceded it was “purely speculative” whether the closings saved any lives. But he concluded the city did a good job.

“The people were not unduly alarmed,” he wrote. “The public schools remained open and with the exception of restrictions as to public gatherings of almost every kind, the life of the city was not unnecessarily disturbed.”

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