Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Epidemic in the City

This blog post is part of a series about the Gibson family and the lead-up to the 1920 presidential election, which promised "a return to normalcy" after many years of social upheaval. Read about Boston's experience of World War I here and the Gibsons and suffrage here.

In the spring of 1918, in the midst of World War I, an influenza virus called Spanish Flu (or “Grippe”) because it was believed to have originated in Spain, spread through the United States. A lethal second wave began that summer in Boston. Much like the waves of the COVID-19 pandemic we are currently experiencing, the influenza of 1918 turned daily life upside down. 

Influenza cropped up in Boston in late August of 1918 at Commonwealth Pier, where sailors trained before going overseas. Like the rest of the country, Boston was fully immersed in wartime efforts. Over 100,000 male Bostonians between the ages of eighteen and forty-five registered to be drafted in early September. The federal government’s Liberty Bond campaign to offset the cost of war was in full swing, with Boston expected to raise 129 million dollars through the sale of bonds at Liberty Loan parades and drives. 

Boston Globe, September 2, 1918.
A “Win-the-War-for-Freedom” Labor Day parade held on September 2, 1918, consisted of 4,000 people; civilians, soldiers, and sailors from Commonwealth Pier mingled, spreading the virus among Boston residents. The parade wound around Boston Common, quite close to the Gibson family home at 137 Beacon Street. 

Rosamond Gibson and grandson in Nahant, c. 1924.
Gibson House Museum
As they had done for the past eighteen years, members of the Gibson family spent the summer of 1918 at 40 Steps, their home in the beachside town of Nahant north of Boston. The Gibsons’ home on Cliff Street was directly across from “Lodge Villa,” the summer home of the prominent  family of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. By and large, the family was protected while the influenza epidemic engulfed Boston. 

Because of the Gibsons’ wealth and social status, they were less likely to be affected by the epidemic. A society column in the Boston Post from October 1918 speaks to the privilege of upper-class Bostonians who could “bask in fresh air, sunshine and nature” outside the city. 

Meanwhile, back in Boston, sailors at Commonwealth Pier first reported the influenza in late August. By mid-September, 2,000 sailors had become infected. At Camp Devens to the west of Boston, where between 45,000 and 50,000 military recruits trained, 195 soldiers had fallen ill by September 5; the following week, over 1,000 soldiers reported sick in one day. Dr. Roy Gist described the rapidity and magnitude of the virus’s destruction in a letter, writing that men were “dropping like flies.” About one third of the population at Camp Devens would develop the influenza over the course of September and October. 

Battling “the Grippe”
Like today, city officials in 1918 worried about where to put those becoming ill in epidemic numbers. The Chelsea Naval Hospital and the hospital on Gallops Island in Boston Harbor were put into use for soldiers and sailors. Sick sailors from Commonwealth Pier were also moved to an open-air hospital created in Brookline by the Massachusetts National Guard.

Camp hospital in Brookline, September 13, 1918.
National Archives
As sick Bostonians crowded into Boston City and Massachusetts General Hospitals, state and city officials moved to implement social distancing and promote sanitation. Much like our recent “lockdown,” schools were closed, on September 25. Within a few days, funerals were limited to close family members and hospitals barred visitors. Theaters, movie houses, saloons, bowling alleys, and soda fountains shut down. Public gatherings were discouraged, and the Boston police were supplied with masks.

Rules around sanitation and cleanliness were put into force, such as an anti-spitting law: one man, Acelino de Coste, was charged for spitting in a streetcar tunnel in early October and had to pay three dollars. Smoking was no longer allowed on subways and elevated trains. To stop the spread of germs, elevated train cars were cleaned daily, and more cars were put into use so that social distancing could be maintained as much as possible.
Boston Globe, October 19, 1918.

Essential workers, although they were not called that, were vital during the influenza pandemic. But because the U.S. had joined World War I a year earlier, nurses and doctors were away at various military camps across the country and in Europe. As an anesthesiologist at Mass General Hospital, Mary Ethel Gibson’s husband Freeman Allen signed an affidavit from Mass General in September 1918 to help support a committee working on war efforts, not on the influenza outbreak. 

Even though the war was consuming the public’s attention, some officials were focused on fighting the influenza. State Representative Frederick Gillett and Senator John Weeks appealed to Congress for a million dollars for the U.S. Public Health Service to stem the tide of the outbreak. 

To wear or not to wear a mask
Though civilians were not required to wear masks, Boston Health Commissioner William C. Woodward strongly encouraged the use of masks, especially among nurses and doctors. On September 28, the Boston Globe printed an article instructing readers on how to make gauze masks. A Boston Post article dated October 6 featured Red Cross volunteers who gave out gauze masks and information about the pandemic from a “cottage” on Boston Common. At the time, officials debated the efficacy of masks, partly due to improper mask usage and a lack of appropriate supplies. 

“Open Sesame” or “Boston is wide open once more”
Cases of influenza and deaths peaked in October, but by the end of the month social distancing was over. On October 8, stores were reopened with shortened hours and fewer employees per shift. Boston’s hotels remained open, although meetings and dancing were prohibited. On October 20, the Boston Globe reported that 50,000 people attended an “All-America Fair” on Boston Common, marking the end of the Liberty Loan campaign to raise money for World War I. Health officials believed public gatherings, like the celebration of the end of the war on November 11, 1918, and the holiday season, continued to circulate influenza among the population

A medical enigma
Failure to stop the virus’s spread and its devastating results weighed on the medical community. At the time, medical experts did not know that the influenza was a virus. Efforts to understand the disease resulted in a study at Gallops Island on Boston Harbor. In November of 1918, a group of imprisoned sailors isolated at a quarantine station on the island voluntarily exposed themselves to patients suffering from influenza on the condition that they would be pardoned if they lived. Astoundingly, none of the sailors who participated in the studies perished or even became sick. Harvard professor and doctor Milton Joseph Rosenau summed up the studies’ results: “Perhaps, if we have learned anything, it is that we are not quite sure what we know about the disease.”

In 1919, cases of influenza flared in January and February, abating by May, at which point over 6,000 Bostonians had died. Many who succumbed were adults between the ages of twenty and forty. In the United States as a whole, about 675,000 Americans died, and life expectancy dropped by twelve years in 1918 due to the epidemic. Because the war had been so all-consuming, the influenza pandemic was completely eclipsed. The misery, panic, and uncertainty the virus brought was not a narrative Americans wanted to dwell on. The pandemic eluded modern scientific knowledge and remained an unexplainable phenomenon. As 1920 approached, Americans looked toward a future that would dispel the nightmare of the past few years. 

—Rebecca Simons, Intern (UMass-Amherst)

Visit the Gibson House Museum to see our outdoor exhibit, "1920: The Gibsons' New Normal," on view from October 1 to December 17, 2020.

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