Chicago’s first brush with the Spanish flu came via the Great Lakes Naval Station. Home to the United States’ Navy only boot camp, the Great Lakes Naval Station churned out roughly 125,000 American sailors during the Great War—and it was still training 50,000 of them when the “Spanish flu,” or “the influenza, as the papers called it, began spreading among its recruits in early September of 1918.1
But there was no need to worry, right?
After all, the “greatest precautionary measures” were being taken, assured the Chicago Tribune, with all men given “daily nose and throat sprays” to combat infection, as well as isolating the sick.2 By September 20th an “increasing prevalence” of influenza was at the Station—as well as the neighboring north shore Chicago suburbs.3 Yet only two days later, in an attempt to quell “sensational rumors that had reached Chicago,” Station Capt. W. A. Moffett allowed “worried relatives and friends of the sailors” to visit their sick loved ones—and take the bug back with them to Chicago.4 After all, anyone who got sick would hardly have a problem. “[Flu] for the average man…is not a great hazard provided he will coddle himself while aching and for a few days thereafter,” reassured Tribune health consultant Dr. W. A. Evans. “The threatened oncoming of an epidemic need not disturb our equanimity.”5
Dr. W. A. Evans was wrong, of course. The Spanish Flu was much deadlier than previous forms of influenza, and by September of 1918 it was at the height of its deadly march across America. September 19th saw Boston, New York, Norfolk, Philadelphia, and Camp Dix in New Jersey—one of the first hot spots for the disease—reporting rising numbers of new cases and deaths daily.
Outside Chicago, the northern suburbs began to take the brunt of things. Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest saw a spike of 120 cases in a day on September 24th, and entire villages like Waukegan shut down completely, with theaters, public halls and schools shuttered as everyone stayed home.6 By September 26th, the state of Illinois’ director of public health, Dr. C. St. Clair Drake, called for “immediate” reports of influenza across the state, as well as “strict isolation” for any carriers—-all while insisting that the battle against the epidemic was “being fought to a standstill” with a “speedy victory ensured.”7
Other Tribune articles echoed this lackadaisical response, repeatedly downplaying the seriousness of the disease despite the rising statistics. “Forty, fifty, or even as many sixty out of every 100 persons in Chicago will be victims of influenza during the next few months,” predicted medical experts at a public health conference, but “the victim of influenza alone has a better than 99 out of 100 chances to recover,” and that “everything possible will be done to check the infection and care for the afflicted.”8 On October 2nd, officials announced a statewide shortage of doctors, nurses, hospital beds and medical equipment in Illinois. “A great many of the hospitals are hard hit,” admitted state officials at another public health conference, lacking beds and trained staff—many of whom were falling ill and dying as they tried to save their patients.9
Yet the very next day, Chicago’s Health Commissioner Dr. Robertson attempted to “put a gentle soft pedal” on the alarming information the state had been presenting: “I think it will all blow over in as far as Chicago is concerned in six weeks,” Dr. Robertson reassured anxious Chicagoans in a phrase eerily reminiscent of Trump.10 “…I believe that the high intelligence of the Chicago people will cause them to follow the directions of the health department and others on how to keep themselves free from infection. And, if they do, there is every likelihood that the number of deaths will not be many more than in the normal year” of influenza cases.11
Quite the contrast to Mayor Lightfoot, isn’t he? :p
The hemming and hawing from local authorities continued even when the disease hit Chicago in earnest. Estimates after the first week of the first pandemic wave were “between 40,000 to 60,000” cases, with a 1,323 new cases cited within 24 hours, as well as 101 deaths in a day—but this still wasn’t seen as cause for alarm by city officials.12 In fact, within the next two days, health commissioners claimed it was “on the wane,” with only 479 new cases and 45 deaths the following day.13 “Favorable weather” was cited as a reason, though the public was encouraged to “not relax vigilance.”14
By mid-October, however, city officials finally changed their tune and the city began to shut down in earnest. Descriptions of Chicago at this time, such as in this article from October 16th, are eerily similar to all the photos of a silent downtown that have flooded our social media feed these days:
“Chicago’s loop district last night was lightless, theatreless, and danceless. At 9 o’clock the streets looked the way they usually do about the time the owl cars start running.
The sidewalks were clear. Private automobiles were scarce and taxicabs were idle. The big restaurants were half deserted. The hotel lobbies wore their early morning look.
Only one species of activity attracted attention. That was the washing down of the streets by the fire department. The streams from the big hose swept the day’s accumulation of dust and rubbish to the gutters before the eyes of watchful little groups.
‘The absence of people from the streets is a good sign,’ said Health Commissioner Roberston.”15
This response was in line with strict orders from the Illinois emergency commission which had been formed to oversee the state’s response to the epidemic. Just a few days beforehand, the state had issued an order barring against all forms of “public dancing,” which was seen as particularly unsafe due to “the close contact between dancers, the exercise of the dance and the frequent chilling of the body that is apt to follow.”16 Funeral attendance was also limited to “immediate relatives and close friends.”17 Theaters, movie theaters, and dance halls weren’t all that the state government wanted to shut down, however. Skating rinks “and all other places of public amusement” were to be shut down as well.18
Business owners in Chicago didn’t like the sound of that, of course. If all places of “public amusement” were to shutter, did that mean that restaurants, saloons, cafes, clubs, pool halls, bowling alleys, museums, parades, athletic events, conventions, political meetings and ice cream parlors had to follow suit?19 And what about the “financial losses” these shutdowns would incur?20 When city officials met to discuss the state mandate, they had a five hour meeting which “adjourned without having taken any definite action”—but not due to the businessmen.21
It was the church.
Just like now, churches were a major source of emotional and social support for Chicagoans. How, did the city’s religious leaders ask, could they deny people such comfort in these troubled times? City officials caved, while requesting that church leaders at least attempt to “minimize the danger of their services.”22 Chicago’s church leaders seemed to take this to heart, and as the crisis worsened, many religious services were voluntarily cancelled, with congregation sizes shrinking from one half to one third.23 Many church leaders pleaded to keep them open no matter how bad things got, though, citing them as good for the community’s health. “The authorities ought to urge the people to go to church, because church attendance is a strengthener of the morale,” said Rev. Gilbert Wilson of the New First Congressional Church of Chicago.24 Today’s Americans seem to agree with him, as many people continue to violate stay at home orders across the country to attend church gatherings, such as these people in Florida and these people in New Orleans.
Churches weren’t the only places seen as essential during this time, however. True to form, the city allowed saloons, pool rooms, bowling alleys, cafes, restaurants, and other places of public amusement to stay open throughout the epidemic, so long as they prevented “crowding” and kept their places well ventilated (fresh air was seen as a cure-all at the time).25 Crowds were further discouraged by banning all music and entertainment, sporting events, and basically anything amusing.26 It didn’t stop the crowds, however. A raid at a saloon on West Van Buren Street found men standing “two deep” at the bar, with fifteen men sleeping in the back rooms, using whiskey and beer barrels for beds.27 Clearly, these folks weren’t taking the shutdown orders very seriously.
Not everywhere was like Chicago, though. Other communities—such as the hard-hit northern suburbs—got even stricter, shutting down all public places entirely. For example, in the suburb of Lake Forest, which saw a large outbreak among Fort Sheridan army recruits, “there people are not even permitted to gather in little groups on the sidewalk. The police disperse them as soon as they gather,” noted Dr. Robertson disdainfully at another of his endless press conferences.I Oak Park, another northern suburb, saw “improvement” in as little as twenty four hours regarding their situation.28
So maybe there’s something to all this quarantine stuff, eh? 😉
One thing city officials felt very different about during the epidemic, though, was schooling. While today’s children are distance learning from the comfort of their own home, in 1918, Chicago children were still attending classes in person. That’s because city officials saw schools as a safer place for children to be—a place where they could be controlled and monitored for signs of disease at all times. They were also seen as less likely to get the disease, and more likely to survive it as well, so it mattered less if they got it. In his daily health column for the Tribune, Dr. W. A. Evans explains the decision, which he saw as worth doing:
“First, that the disease was not unduly prevalent among school children…this age period should have suffered about the worst of all, since they were young, unused to withstanding pneumonia infection and in close contact daily in the schoolroom…[yet] studying the mortality rate…we find the disease…was a little less than average bad…Second, it was thought that children would be safer if they were in school, looked over by teachers, nurses, and school physicians…it was deemed to be the saner policy under city conditions.”29
The “conditions” seemed to be getting better as time went on. In October, newspapers were full of cautious optimism. By October 22nd , the Tribune claimed that the epidemic “may have reached its peak in Chicago…but everywhere there were warnings against reassuring the public so strongly that it will drop the guards it has put up against the epidemic.”30 The trend appeared to be statewide as well, with a 30-40% decrease in new cases across Illinois.31 All in all, this trend was taken to represent a “downward curve,” and as a result, by October 28th, the city was already announcing a weekly schedule for reopening across the city, which was as follows:
“Tuesday night will see music restored to the restaurants.
Wednesday night will see theaters, movies and other places of public congregation permitted to open…
Thursday will see the zone extended to the entire city south of Twelfth Street.
Friday will see the entire city open with the exception possibly of South Chicago.
Saturday night dancing will be permitted, and with this the last barrier to Chicago’s night life imposed by the influenza epidemic will have been lifted.”32
Interestingly, the Illinois influenza commission attached a rider of sorts on these plans: a 10 P.M. curfew. “The last curtain must fall at the theater, the political meeting must adjourn, and the music in the café must stop at that hour,” noted the Tribune. “Performances and oratory may be begun earlier, but when 10 o’clock comes—GOOD NIGHT!”33 The curfew was instigated as a way to discourage folks from celebrating a premature end to the flu, and to encourage the public to “get plenty of sleep and maintain its vitality” as the epidemic went on.34 On November 4th, the city was declared “almost normal, and by November 10th, Dr. John Dill Robertson was back to declaring everything was fine.35 “We are practically out of the woods,” said Robertson at yet another press conference. “All bans are off. In a few days I am sure I shall again be justified in stating that Chicago is the healthiest city in the world.”36
He was wrong.
When December came, a second wave of infection hit, this one worse than the last—and that was on top of the losses in November. By Nov 18th, the Tribune observed, “between 300,000 and 350,000” people had died nationwide from the flu.37 That was more soldiers than had died from “all causes” in the Great War, “from the time the first unit landed in France until hostilities ceased.”38 The second wave of infection, while deemed “milder” by doctors, spread more rapidly than the first, with cases growing exponentially overnight. December 5th saw 273 new cases of influenza with 54 new cases of pneumonia,39 with a jump of 404 new cases of influenza and 89 cases of pneumonia the next—“nearly double” that of yesterday.40
These rising numbers worried even the unflappable Dr. John Dill Robertson. “We don’t expect as many deaths from the new cases as we had when the epidemic was at its height…the cases now seem milder, but there should be no let-down on the precautions.”41 By the end of December, America had seen 400,000 deaths in a matter of twelve weeks, from Sept. 1st through December 1st.42 The pandemic truly didn’t end until the summer of 1919, when “the monthly number of deaths…[fell] below the number for the same month of 1918.”43
In the end, roughly 50 million people died from the Spanish Flu worldwide, 8,500 of whom were Chicagoans. Despite all the unknowns in 1918, many of these deaths could likely have been prevented all the same if a more rigid shutdown—like that practiced by the suburban communities on the north shore—had been put in place by city officials. It didn’t help, either, that they were lifted so quickly. Normal, everyday activities and crowds were allowed within just a few days of the first wave. It was hardly surprising, then, that the virus came back with a vengeance.
So what can we take away from all of this today, Dear Readers? Don’t be so eager to get things “back to normal,” perhaps—-not until we’re sure we have a “lid” on this thing in the form of a vaccine, widespread testing and strict quarantine measures, or at the very least some kind of plan. Otherwise, “lifting the lid” on our stay-at-home orders too soon could seriously backfire.
Looking for more information about Chicago’s battle with the 1918 Spanish Flu? Try some of these other articles:
This article from Chicago Magazine gives a nice basic overview of the city’s response.
This article from Circulating Now, the U. S. National Library of Medicine’s magazine gives more info about Dr. Robertson and features posters from city health officials.
This article from the Chicago Public Library about other measures Chicago took to combat the flu.