1918

Many families, especially in the slums, had no adult well enough to prepare food and in some cases had no food at all because the breadwinner was sick or dead. The kitchens of the various settlement houses fired up their stoves and produced huge quantities of simple but nourishing food, soup more than anything else, and distributed it free to the hungry and bedraggled who lined up at their doors with buckets and pans. Volunteers brought the food to those families immured in their tenements by disease. – Alfred W. Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic; The Influenza of 1918, new edition (Cambridge University Press, 2003), pg. 80.

Influenza that killed 30 million people worldwide in the years 1918-1919 — more lives than the World War itself took. Yet over the next hundred years the world, as a whole, forgot that killer pandemic. Except for the historians. The historians and the writers.

What initially led me to read Crosby’s study was my interest in the story Pale Horse, Pale Rider, by Katherine Anne Porter, and my interest in the author herself, particularly her time spent in Denver. That, and my own experiences as a nurse working in Denver, in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. 

I don’t remember when I first read Pale Horse, Pale Rider, but I was a young woman, in my late teens or early twenties. I read it again when I was a nurse, and I read it again, as a student of history. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, I downloaded an electronic copy and have read it again.

In prior readings I never gave much thought to the pressure for Miranda, the narrator, to support the war effort by buying war bonds.

‘They are in fact going to throw me out if I don’t buy a Liberty Bond.’

‘The two men slid off the desk, leaving some of her papers rumpled, and the oldish man had inquired why she had not bought a Liberty Bond.’

“With our American boys fighting and dying in Belleau Wood,” said the younger man, “anybody can raise fifty dollars to help beat the Boche.”

“You’re the only one in this whole newspaper office that hasn’t come in. And every firm in this city has come in one hundred per cent.”

She would have to raise that fifty dollars somehow, she supposed, or who knows what can happen?

Drawing from the Philadelphia Inquirer, Crosby describes the town crier in colonial dress , a Boy Scout with an American flag, and solicitors to sell bonds parading through neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Crosby sheds light on the importance of the war bonds and the pressure exerted upon Americans to support the war effort.’ “It was,” said the Secretary of the Treasury, “the largest flotation of bonds ever made in a single effort anywhere or at any time,” and the American people bought it all up in the middle of the nation’s worst pandemic,’ Crosby tells us, quoting from William McAdoo’s Crowded Years. On September 28, 1918 an estimated 200.000 people gathered for the parade kicking off Philadelphia’s Fourth Liberty Loan Drive. Similar parades were happening all over the country, yet health officials were not alarmed.

Two weeks later Philadelphia was under attack – not by the Germans but by the Germs. Seven hundred died of flu and pneumonia in the first week of October, 2600 the next week, and 4,500 the week after that – in Philadelphia alone. Hospitals were overflowing, makeshift hospitals set up. Scores of medical professionals and ancillary staff fell ill, becoming patients themselves. On a single day 711 deaths were reported to the Philadelphia Health Department. The next day Jay Cooke, one of the leaders of the city’s wealthy, grumbled to the press that “it seems few people realize we are facing a serious crisis.” He was referring to the fact that Philadelphia had dropped behind in its Liberty Load Drive, Crosby says, drawing from the Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 October 1918.

Ultimately, the 1918 pandemic killed more Americans than the world war. Than either world war. Yet until the COVID-19 pandemic, few had heard of it. Except for 20th century historians, medical researchers, and readers of Katherine Anne Porter. ‘Death is death, said Miranda, and for the dead it has no attributes.’

I will return to this story of Porter’s because it obviously has much to tell me.