1918 Epidemic Frightens Entire County & Kills Several Thousands; Final Toll in Doubt


As the month of October dawned in Berks County in 1918, optimism was clearly in the air.

It seemed obvious that the Great War in which the country had been engaged for the last year-and-a-half would soon be over. Headlines in the Reading Eagle for Tuesday, Oct. 1, 1918, proclaimed: “The Allies Still Successfully Smashing Foe… Americans Sweep On to St. Quentin…The Enemy Weakened.”

Baseball fans were excited about the prospect of seeing more games at Lauer’s Park involving such greats as Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby and Shoeless Joe Jackson. The major league season ended prematurely because of the war, and the players were barnstorming in the area on their own.

Roman Catholics were looking forward to the first Berks visit of Archbishop Dennis Dougherty of Philadelphia later in the week.

But something else that was invisible was in the air, also. In days it would affect thousands of households, especially in the city and the bigger boroughs, and bring lasting grief to many.

That something were germs of the Spanish influenza, which had been gradually spreading across the United States, after having earlier devastated Europe and Asia. There had been reports of outbreaks across the United States throughout the summer, especially in the military camps, but the disease seemed far away.

The only hint of it in the Oct. 1 Reading Eagle was an obituary for Elton Smith, a Kutztown native who had died of influenza in Allentown, but he had contracted the disease in Philadelphia, where he worked in a munitions plant.

The next day’s newspaper reported that the disease was spreading in Massachusetts, in New York, and in Washington, and that the Reformed Theological Seminary in Lancaster had closed because half the students were ill.

A page 4 article on Oct. 3 assured Berks County readers: “No Cause for Alarm, If People Cooperate Against Influenza. “ It would be the first of several assurances that would soon prove unsure.

That story said that almost every physician in Reading was treating some cases, but if people in good health avoided large gatherings their chances of contracting the illness were slight. The main advice: “Stifle your cough or sneeze if you can. If you can’t, bury it in a handkerchief.”

It also reported that one local nurse and three local pharmacy students, all at school in Philadelphia, were suffering from the disease, and that the first serious outbreak in western Pennsylvania had occurred in Butler.

But by the next day, the Spanish flu was the big story. Dr. B.F. Royer, acting state commissioner of health in Harrisburg, ordered the closing of all public indoor gathering places – saloons, lodge halls, theaters, dance halls – except for restaurants, schools and churches, in all cities and towns in the Commonwealth.

Royer also issued a list of symptoms: fever of 101 to 104 degrees, chills, headache, pain, bronchitis. The main problem was that bronchitis often developed into fatal pneumonia. We now know that the culprit was an airborne virus that set the table for a variety of killer bacteria. Many patients literally drowned as their lungs filled with fluids.

One strange thing about the disease was its name. It apparently began in Eastern Europe, but picked up the “Spanish” tag when Spain was devastated in April, close to one third of that country’s citizens became ill. Playing no favorites, it swept through both Britain and Germany in the late spring and early summer.

Returning troops presumably helped bring it to the United States, and also spread to the other continents. One source, though, says that the epidemic started in the United States at Fort Riley, Kan., where a great pall of smoke hung over the area for days because of the daily burning of horse manure at the headquarters of the U.S. Cavalry.

Whatever its origin it became a genuine pandemic, i.e., worldwide.

But the strangest thing about the disease was that it especially attacked young adults, who would ordinarily be considered the least likely group to be fatally stricken. Medical men have never come up with an answer to that puzzle.

Dr. Royer urged everyone to “practice every care in the way of personal and domestic hygiene.” People were also urged to have regular bowel movements, keep in the fresh air, avoid crowds, get lots of sunshine and get plenty of sleep.

One of the first victims of Royer’s ban on public gatherings was the state Women’s Christian Temperance Union annual convention, which began its preliminary session in Reading on October 4.

It was reported that when the women heard that every saloon in the state was being closed, they rose to their feet and spontaneously sang the Doxology. Then they were told they had to shut down, too, so they ran through some necessary business and closed at noon. William Jennings Bryan would have been their main speaker the next day, but he had already canceled. His wife had the flu.

The next day, Saturday, October 5 Reading City Council requested churches and Sunday schools to remain closed the following day, called off the big Liberty Day parade scheduled for the next Saturday, and banned baseball games.

The baseball ban was an afterthought. Mayor E.H. Filbert wanted the churches closed but Dr. Charles Roland, the city health officer, didn’t think that step was necessary. When Filbert’s view prevailed, Roland brought up the baseball issue, and Filbert agreed that if church was bad, so were ball games.

One problem was that no one knew how many cases of the flu had developed in the city, because it was not a reportable disease. Council immediately took action to require reports.

The Eagle of Sunday (Oct. 6) reported that on Saturday night, “Money burned holes in men’s pockets”. There were few places where men could spend. Saturday night by most people is dedicated to pleasure, or to shopping. The latter was possible, for the department stores and shops were open as usual. But the palaces of pleasure, the movies, the theaters and the caravansaries where a man under normal circumstances may slake his weekend thirst were barred and bolted.

“The younger element, the lads and ladies whose wont it is to forget their daily work and their youthful worries on a Saturday night by tripping the ‘light fantastic,’ could not indulge in their favorite syncopated diversion. The jazz bands jazzed nary a jazz. Not a toe tripped daintily over a waxed floor.”

And the next day, the newspaper reported on the atmosphere of Sunday: “Sunday was without a parallel in the history of Reading. It was churchless, preachless, gasless, singless, gameless, clubless and everything but influenza-less. . .” (Sunday gasoline sales had earlier been banned as part of the war effort.)

“It was a common expression about the middle of the afternoon to hear, ‘How was a day in the fall ever so long?’…Walking still remained, but who cares to hike all day?”

For the first week of October, the City of Philadelphia only 50 miles removed reported an all time high in deaths of 1,191, 75 percent of these were estimated to be from influenza. In the nearby coal region, field hospitals had been established at Minersville, Shamokin and the Pottsville Armory.

Cooperation was excellent among the Reading proprietors who had been forced to close, though one saloon, at Fifth and Cherry streets, was caught doing business with the shades drawn. This was in contrast with Schuylkill County, where the state police raid defiant saloons in Minersville, St. Clair and Silberton.

There was grumbling about Reading stores being allowed to be open late on Saturdays when clubs were closed, so the stores were ordered to close at 6 p.m. The trolleys were ordered to provide additional ventilation.

By Wednesday, Oct. 9, the Eagle was proclaiming: “Epidemic at Zenith, Expected to Subside.” City Health Officer Roland said he hoped the worst was over. His hope would not be realized.

The obituary list was increasing, but most of the danger still seemed far from Berks. The deaths of a dozen local young men were recorded Oct. 7-9, but all had succumbed in military camps in the East and South. The most notable of the group was Harry Eyrich, who had played the lead in several amateur theatrical productions, he died in Camp Greenleaf, Georgia.

Obituaries later in the week included John W. Wacha, 19, son of the leader of the Philharmonic Band, at Lehigh University, and Ralph J. Mattern, 24, son of the deputy county controller, at Aberdeen, MD, Proving Grounds.

On Saturday, Oct.12, the Eagle reported that the epidemic was on the wane. The number of new cases appeared to have peaked on Wednesday, at 418. But on that Saturday night, police vans had to be pressed into service at transporting new patients to the hospitals.

And by Monday, the count was showing no signs of dropping. The total was now 2,200, and that didn’t include cases before reporting became mandatory. And more than 100 deaths had been recorded, including that of Nelson B. Keyser, 45, of Wyomissing, prominent cashier of Penn National Bank, who was ill just a week.

Word came from Boyertown that there were 1,050 cases there, and the healthcare system was breaking down under the strain.

The obituary page for that Monday contained the news of 3O deaths of Berks residents 48 years of age or under, including eighteen between 21 and 35, all from the flu. Almost all were from Reading. Birdsboro reported its seventh flu death in a week, while Shillington suffered only its first. The next day, 607 new cases were reported in the city.

Emergency hospitals, which had stood ready for several days, were pressed into service. No.1 was at the Rajah Theater, No.2 at the Armory. No.3 at the Elks Home and No.4 at Liederkranz Hall. Population at both the Rajah and Armory quickly passed 60.

On Tuesday, Oct.16, the state Board of Health announced it was sending four doctors to Reading to help with the crisis.

People said they had never before seen so many graves being dug in rural cemeteries. In many cases burials had to wait until the graves could be completed, the caskets remained at the side of the plots. Fourteen graves in the day established a record at Charles Evans Cemetery, the gravediggers there were put on a 12 hour day, seven days a week.

The casket works at Boyertown was put on a seven day schedule, and undertakers from all over the state were rushing there in auto trucks. Six full trucks a day were being dispatched from Boyertown to Philadelphia.

The Rev. Adelbert Malusecki of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church appealed to City Council for help on Oct.18 he said that 60 members of his parish had died in the last ten days. Many of them could not speak English and were suspicious of hospitals. Council agreed to publish fliers in foreign languages. Malusecki drafted out-of-work saloon-keepers to act as orderlies at the Liederkranz, where the Polish citizens were taken.

That day, word came that the epidemic was on the increase in such diverse places as Bally, Robesonia, Gibraltar and Mohnton, though it waned in Boyertown.

The Eagle carried a list of prominent citizens who had loaned their automobiles to visiting nurses during the emergency.

On Oct.19, the report was that Reading was holding its own, but Topton was calling for help, and an outbreak was imperiling the Hamburg Tuberculosis Sanatorium, where 19 patients and 15 staff were ill.

The latest rosy report was issued on Monday, Oct 21: cooler weather had virtually broken the back of the epidemic, officials felt. The number of new cases dropped below 200 for the first time in 10 days. The total of cases had now surpassed 7,500, but 4,800 were listed in the “recovered” category.

The next day it was Womelsdorf calling for help. And the next day, more careful accounting put the total at more than 10,000 cases in the city and 300 deaths there. And the next day, officials were alarmed to uncover 334 new cases, more than double the previous day. The secretary of the school board, Robert E. Richardson, 35, was among the latest to die.

 The feeling on Friday, Oct.25, was that the epidemic had been checked, but not stamped out. That day, Henry S. Fichthorn, 44, a teacher at Reading High School, died. Early the next day, Mae Quirk, 20, a student nurse at St. Joseph Hospital, became the first Reading nurse to succumb. Also dying that weekend was Warren Kachlme, 18, former editor of the Reading High newspaper, at Lehigh University. The three week city death toll from the flu was put at 371.

Finally, as the end of October drew near, so did the epidemic. On Friday, Nov. 1, city officials asked the state board of health to rescind the ban on assemblies. The least used emergency hospital facility was closed, and 200 unused mattresses were shipped to western Pennsylvania.

The next day, word came that the state would lift the ban by Wednesday. The flu deaths in the city for the month of October were put at 490 by Dr. Roland, the health officer.

Churches opened for the first time in a month on Sunday, Nov. 3. Most of the pastors preached in a spirit of thanksgiving, but some, including F.K. Huntzinger of St. Luke’s Lutheran and Max Wiant at First Baptist, deplored the spiritual indifference which they said may have brought God’s judgment.

Unlike Lancaster, the city agreed to wait to open the theaters and bars until the state said it could. Lancaster went ahead and opened up that weekend, with the result that the state slapped a quarantine on Lancaster. The effect was that trains didn’t stop there for a couple of days, but the issue soon became moot.

Schools were back in session in Reading Thursday, Nov. 7. The children were to have only two days of classes before they were granted another holiday to celebrate the signing of the armistice on

Monday, November 11. Isolated cases, of course, continued to crop up. On Nov.18, it was reported that five cases had broken out among the 100 people sent to the county prison a few days earlier after extensive vice raids

Perhaps the biggest local debate that marked the response to the flu was whether the streets should be flushed. Many believed the accumulating grime was contributing to the spread of the disease. But because the city was in a drought situation, John K. Stauffer, head of the water bureau, said he couldn’t spare the water.

On Roland’s urging, it was agreed that flushing would occur if the citizens of Reading were willing to practice water conservation. This was judged by whether the consumption would be cut by the housewives on Monday morning. It was but only up to 10 a.m.! So no flushing was allowed.

Another solution was apparently found when John Barbey, the brewer, offered water from his private wells. But the city contractor, E.R. Posey, didn’t have the facilities to take advantage of the offer. Finally, on Oct 30, the streets got flushed by a heavy rainstorm. An Eagle reporter suggested that the failure to flush had been an example of municipal apathy that voters would remember.

Multiple deaths in one family from the flu were common. The three member Roy Goodhead family of 1245 Spring St. was wiped out. Former Sheriff Jacob H. Sassaman lost two sons at Camp Merritt, NJ, and a granddaughter. Elia George, 31, of 124 Plum St. and two sons all died. Adam Fisher, 28, of 1057 Union St. and his wife, Eva, 25, died a few hours apart. The Cerniglias of 24 Neversink St. lost a 6 year-old son one day and his 7-year-old brother the next. John and Gertrude Alexander of346 S. Seventh St. lost two sons the same day, shortly after burying their daughter.

In early November, the state health bureau put the number of statewide deaths at 35,000, but of course that would not have been a complete report. The generally accepted number of deaths in the United States was more than half a million. The worldwide count was more than 21 million.

How many of those were in Berks County is unknown. Some reports have placed the figure at 5,000, but that seems much too high. That would be more than 80 a day for 60 days, and contemporary accounts do not reflect anything like that.

The number from the city, confirmed by sketchy state records, would be over 500. But no credible records exist for the rest of the county. It is not likely that the total in the rest of Berks would be much more than in the city. Schuylkill County, where the epidemic by contemporary accounts was worse, counted 1,600 deaths. In Philadelphia, though, the death toll was more than 7,000 in just the two middle weeks of October.

One problem is that many of the flu deaths might have been listed as pneumonia rather than influenza. And there would be deaths from tuberculosis, certainly complicated by contracting the flu. Also, there’s a tangible “reality” that in 1918 not everyone consulted doctors when ill, particularly in the more remote rural areas. And since the ’18 flu was known to target the young and killed fast it’s entirely possible that a substantial number of the victims of the epidemic were simply buried in rural graveyards without an accurate record of how they died.

An argument can be made that a new, detailed study of church and graveyard record would get us a more accurate assessment of the death. And one suspects it would be substantially higher than what we now know. Three graveyard examples come to mind:

(1) Gethsemane Cemetery, Laureldale, recorded 244 burials in 1918, nearly three times the number of the year before. That would involve both city and suburban deaths.

(2) Charles Evans Cemetery, Reading, recorded its largest yearly total of burials in 1918:999. That was 193 more than recorded in 1917, and more than 330 that would be recorded in 1919.

(3) And then there’s the visual testimony found at the historic St. Paul Mission Chapel along Route 724 between Monocacy and Douglassville.

Whatever is uncertain about the numbers of the 1918 flu epidemic, there is the certainty that it was the greatest civic tragedy in Berks County history.

In that emergency, it wasn’t only healthcare professionals who responded to the call for help. The Reading Eagle averred that “when the history of this epidemic is written, the part that public school teachers of Reading rendered to this community will be no means inconsiderable.” In addition to volunteer nursing work and sewing, the idled teachers ran a Fresh Air Home at the Driscoll Farm on Pricetown Road, for children whose parents were ill or dead.

The two leaders were Misses Anna Rapp and Bessie Mason. They and a dietitian remained on duty all the time, but according to a newspaper account, “the other squads came in relays and took entire charge of the establishment, mopping the floors, making the beds, preparing the meals, bathing the children, etc., in addition to supervising their play and recreation.” The home was praised by state officials as being the first of its kind in the Commonwealth.

Various precautions and treatments were of course urged throughout the epidemic, in that day before electron microscopes and antibiotics. One official now called for the use of a nasal atomizer with an ounce or two of tincture of iodine. A Romanian couple from East Reading appeared before City Council to advocate the use of vinegar mixed with garlic.

In many local households there were smelly asafoetida bags, containing a fetid gum resin of various Oriental plants related to the carrot family. These cloth bags were fastened around the neck and asafoetida was a folk remedy for almost any ailment.

Dr. George Baer, a prominent Pittsburgh physician, was sure an injection of 1.54 grains of iodine in combination with creosote and gualacol (?). From another source came the suggestion that children should eat a cake of yeast a day. Imbibing whiskey was a popular home remedy. A Boston physician counseled the removal of clothing to what end we don’t know.

Patent medicine remedies abounded. One peddler who advertised regularly offered this advice: “Avoid crowds, coughs and cowards, but fear neither germ nor Germans.” He advocated plenty of exercise in the fresh air, a clean mouth, skin and bowels, and of course “pleasant pellets,” a vegetable pill that would keep the liver and bowels regular. He was selling the “pellets.”

Later in the month of October, 1918, no less of a personage than the Surgeon General of the United States issued an “absolute cure.” A one inch ball of cotton was to be saturated with alcohol, then three drops of chloroform were to be added. The ball was to be placed between the patient’s teeth. He/she was to inhale for 15 minutes, rest for 15, inhale for 15, rest for 15, and keep going that way for 12 hours. The theory was that the lungs would expand to their normal condition under such treatment.

One of the many ways in which hospital care differed eight decades ago was in the financial arrangements. According to theEagle, “The need for hospital treatment is so imperative that there is no question of payment. The patients are conveyed to the hospital as speedily as possible, and there is never any question of their paying fees or room rent. “Some of the patients who have recovered, however, are so grateful that they have made voluntary contributions to help in the fight against the epidemic.”

Among the newspaper advertisers of the day there were those who took notice of the epidemic. Berks Supply, 838 Penn St., offered ”economic oil stoves” as a means of keeping warm, deemed important in staying healthy. An Eighth Street music store suggested that citizens should buy a piano or player piano because good music would bring cheer to influenza victims.

In the month of October, 1918, the people of Reading and Berks needed all the cheer they could get.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John W. Smith, West Lawn, is a veteran newspaperman who is now the Religion Editor of theReading Eagle-Times.