How did Nantucket fare in the 1918 flu pandemic?

News of the worldwide 1918 influenza outbreak began to circulate in Nantucket with reports of deaths at army camps. In September, the Inquirer and Mirror reported the alarming death toll “in the army and navy and the citizenry of this country” and encouraged private citizens to do their part by following the rules that President Wilson had ordered posted in all government departments and military posts. These common-sense rules included avoiding crowds, covering coughs and sneezes, observing good nutrition and hydration, washing hands, not sharing eating utensils, and getting lots of fresh air. Other rather peculiar rules included not breathing through one’s mouth and avoiding tight-fitting shoes and gloves.

Despite the name “Spanish Flu,” Spain denied that the outbreak had originated there and remarked that it was so widespread in the USA that it might as well be called the American flu. At home, Americans complained that their government had spent billions of dollars on the war effort “and practically nothing to keep the influenza out of the country,” where it had killed nearly as many soldiers as had died in combat overseas.

At the beginning of October, the Dreamland closed, although at that time there were no cases of influenza on the island. Not only was the Dreamland Theatre closed, but movie theaters were shut nationwide, and the motion picture industry stopped releasing new movies.

News from the mainland began to hit home for Nantucketers. Thirty-two-year-old Dorothy Crosby had begun training as an army nurse at Camp Devens near Boston, an epicenter for the outbreak, where she contracted influenza and died. At the same time, news came that a well-known summer resident with a large circle of contacts on the island had died at his mainland home right after returning from Nantucket.

Steamboat travel at this time was between New Bedford and Nantucket with stops at Woods Hole and at Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. Infection broke out in New Bedford, and according to the Inquirer and Mirror, “The local board of health is taking all possible precautions to keep the dreaded epidemic of influenza away from the Island.” Dr. George Arthur Folger was named “port physician” and went on board each arriving steamboat to personally examine every traveler from New Bedford before the traveler was permitted to disembark. Because a thorough examination was not really possible in these circumstances, the Board of Health ruled that every traveler to Nantucket had to bring along a clean bill of health from a mainland doctor to present to Dr. Folger.

Summer residents in ‘Sconset lingered on into mid-October rather than returning to their mainland homes. On Columbus Day, 1918, twenty-seven seasonal houses in ‘Sconset were still occupied.

In the midst of the pervasive anxiety, a homeopathic practitioner in Pennsylvania announced that he had devised “a cure and preventative for influenza.” It was a mix of iodine, creosote (the tarry residue from wood fires), and guaiacol (used medicinally as an expectorant) to be injected into a vein. The inventor promoted this injection as a quick cure for acute illness and asserted that, “The patients feel little ill effects.”

At the same time, the Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service issued the following advice:

  1. Don’t call a doctor or nurse unless seriously ill.
  2. Go to bed immediately in an empty room.
  3. Call a doctor in case of fever, bloody sputum, or shortness of breath.
  4. Arrange for safe disposal of everything coming in contact with bodily fluids.
  5. Eat only lightly.
  6. Keep clean.
  7. Air out the sickroom several times a day.
  8. The caregiver should wear a mask.
  9. Be aware that the disease is spread through coughing and sneezing.
  10. If in doubt, call a doctor.

In the same issue, the Inquirer and Mirror carried the simple direct order: If sick, stay at home. Do not go to work.

More news continued to arrive of people with Nantucket connections dying on the mainland.

By the beginning of November, volunteer nurses were stationed aboard the steamboats observing all passengers sailing for Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. It was felt that these efforts were paying off and that influenza was making little headway on the Vineyard and Nantucket. But then it broke out among school children, and the schools closed. “Gradually, one by one, cases of illness among adults were reported, and the realization came that Nantucket was up against it.”

SC11 in the NHA image archive is a photo of 1918 influenza victim Richard Mack.

On November 7, Richard Mack, proprietor of Mack’s Smoke Shop on Main Street and

active in town affairs throughout 1918, died at the age of 32. Within the same week, four other Nantucketers, ages 28 to 72, also died.

Dr. Folger, the port physician, was laid low by influenza as was a Navy doctor stationed on the island. Dr. John S. Grouard, the island’s other resident physician, was in a Boston hospital recovering from surgery. A representative of the state Board of Health traveled to the island to assess the situation and found 137 active cases with four deaths so far. He telegraphed for doctors and district nurses to be sent to Nantucket immediately because the local infrastructure was “wholly inadequate to meet the situation which had so suddenly developed.”

Church services, funerals, and public gatherings were prohibited. The pool halls were closed, and the soda fountains were ordered to use only disposable paper cups. Nantucketers were cautioned against “mixing together unnecessarily ” and told to stay away from households where there was sickness.

Vaccine (not the one composed of iodine and creosote) enough for 300 people was delivered to the island. Hardly a month later, it was concluded that this vaccine was no more effective than the one from Pennsylvania.

Nantucket Cottage Hospital, originally organized in 1911 as a summer facility, had expanded to year-round service in 1915–16. For the duration of the emergency, it was placed under the jurisdiction of the Nantucket Board of Selectmen and Board of Health.  Patients already in the hospital recovering from surgery were moved to a different location so that the hospital would only house influenza patients. The local naval facility offered tents and cots to the local authorities if necessary. More doctors and a corps of nurses arrived from the mainland.

The Coffin School’s domestic science department’s kitchen facilities stood ready to provide meals “for distressed families,” and members of the local chapter of the Red Cross reported that they had “helped in the cooking and distribution of food for both the sick and those whose cares had made them too busy or weary to prepare it.”  What is more, the Red Cross let the Nantucket community know that it had “a supply of influenza masks on hand, which will be given to anyone who applies for them.”

Despite the deaths and the critically ill patients, a state agent warned against “any action that would lead to a panicky state of public mind” and held out the prospect that “Nantucket’s pure air will assist in combating the disease,” asserting that it was the belief of “practically any physician who has made a study of influenza that pure air and sunlight are two of the best preventive and curative agents known.”

Three weeks later, “inasmuch as the sickness had been checked, no new cases were reported, and the situation in general was very encouraging,” the emergency was declared over. “Dr. Folger is on deck once more, and everybody is glad to see him.”

The Board of Health voted to return the control of the hospital to its trustees and lift the ban on public gatherings and entertainment beginning on Sunday, November 17.

Congratulations were heaped upon Nantucketers for their cooperation: “In view of the seriousness of the situation when the epidemic of influenza broke out, it is rather remarkable that it could have been gotten under control in two weeks’ time and at such slight expense. The manner in which the work was handled and the results which were accomplished were a credit to Nantucket.”

The Inquirer and Mirror ran a headline announcing that the health situation was nearly normal, but six days after the ban on public gatherings was lifted, one of the teachers at Academy Hill School came down with the flu. A week later, three members of the Coast Guard crew at Muskeget Station were brought to town suffering from the flu. Within a few days, the rest of the crew was stricken, and substitutes had to be sent to man the station. The newspaper remarked that “Muskeget is the last place one would think the epidemic would reach” and speculated that a new crewmember recently transferred there had carried it.

By mid-December there were warnings that the disease was coming back, and closure of public schools was recommended. The epidemic raged anew on Martha’s Vineyard, and by the end of the month the steamboat line was hard hit, with many employees reporting sick, including two of its captains and its agent in charge of the wharf in Oak Bluffs. The Uncatena arrived one morning with her flags flying at half-staff for the death of its young clerk from Edgartown.

The Surgeon General issued a statement: “I may have been misunderstood, but I thought I had emphasized the fact that not only was the epidemic still present in many parts of this country, but in a number of places it is even more prevalent than it was in the early part of the epidemic. Any statement at the present time that the epidemic has come and gone can only do harm, for it will lull people into a false sense of security and cause them to relax the precautions they should take to avoid the infections.”

And so ended the year 1918. The official influenza toll for Nantucket was 337 cases with nine deaths out of a population of slightly under 3,000. When the Annual Town Report was issued, it noted that for the entire year there had been 110 deaths on the island, the highest since 1893. In a pattern everywhere characteristic of the influenza outbreak, there were relatively more deaths among those under the age of 50.

Infection continued to be reported early in 1919. A local couple were both hospitalized in January. Early in February, Nantucketers learned that their summer “candy man” had died: “Henry Todd, the candy maker, died at his home in New Bedford last week after a brief illness with influenza. Mr. Todd was well known as a wholesale and retail candy manufacturer and for many seasons conducted a candy kitchen on Middle Pearl Street, Nantucket, in which capacity he made many acquaintances among the islanders and summer visitors.”

For the rest of 1919, influenza receded and, as the Inquirer and Mirror had asserted, Nantucket seemed to be “getting back to normal again.” Deaths on Nantucket in 1919 dropped to 80 for the entire year, and as in more “normal” times, they were preponderantly among people over 50.

But then in 1920, influenza came back. Young Henry Stetson Coffin of Nantucket died in Provincetown in early February. At the same time, influenza nearly wiped out an extended family of Latvian immigrants who gathered at a funeral in Prospect Hill Cemetery for 40-year-old Max Egle. Max operated an engine repair shop on Nantucket and served as a special policeman. One afternoon in February, while rabbit hunting with his brother John, he suddenly felt odd. By they time the brothers had walked home, Max was very sick, and a few days later he died. Everyone was scared, but the undertaker

Photo of survivor John Egle in 1986.

came and prepared his body for burial. The family managed to come up with the means to purchase a cemetery lot, and several Latvian families followed the hearse to Prospect Hill. Because some of the recent immigrants spoke hardly any English, John Egle led them in graveside prayers in Latvian. Within the week, Max’s 13-year-old son John died, and so did 38-year-old Kathrina Duce, another Latvian who had been at the funeral. Max’s brother John, who had led the mourners in prayer, and John’s wife and daughter were all infected and came close to death but then recovered. John Egle, influenza survivor, lived on to the age of 101, and in his later years became a celebrated painter and distinguished member of the Nantucket Artists Association.

To read more about John Egle, see Historic Nantucket Volume 53, No. 1, Winter 2004, pages 9–11.

 

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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