More than 100 years ago, the town of Westerly, and all of America, faced a pandemic the likes of which had rarely been seen in American history. Now more than ever, the story of the so-called “Spanish Influenza” epidemic is relevant to the struggles faced by many as we, as a society, attempt to navigate life in the time of COVID-19. The story of a community that did all it could to survive and showed strength in the face of great danger serves as an important lesson that must be remembered.
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Despite the name given to the illness, Spanish Influenza, or more commonly, Spanish Flu, was first observed in the United States in March 1918 when an Army cook at Camp Funston in Haskell County, Kansas, became the first confirmed victim.  Within just two days, there were 522 men at the camp who reported sick.  Due largely to the United States’ involvement in World War I, the virus spread rapidly to other army camps and eventually ravaged Europe. The name “Spanish Flu” was likely derived from the fact that newspapers frequently reported the effect of the pandemic in Spain, a country that remained neutral in World War I. These news stories as well as reports of the severe illness suffered by King Alfonso XIII at the hands of the virus led to the development of the nickname. Although over a century later, the exact origins of the illness have not been determined, there is little to no evidence to suggest Spain is where the virus first arose.
The 1918 Influenza Pandemic, like many such epidemics, struck in waves. The first wave, which lasted throughout the first half of 1918, was relatively mild and had no notable impact on the town of Westerly. The second wave, which began in September 1918 and lasted until the end of that year, was a very different story. The Norwich Bulletin first reported on September 20 that “there are cases of influenza in Westerly, but no quarantine has been ordered by the Superintendent of Health.” The first death recorded in Westerly in 1918 attributed to Influenza was three days later on September 23. The first death specifically identified as being caused by ‘Spanish’ Influenza was on October 4. Over the next two weeks, 38 deaths were attributed to influenza in some way. It was reported on October 1 that physicians were receiving as many as 100 calls per day.
One week after it had been reported that no quarantine measures had been taken, there were reports that this was set to change. Dr. Samuel C. Webster, the Superintendent of Health for the Town of Westerly (and soon to be an even more prominent figure in the community), ordered the closing of all schools, churches, theatres, and the “juvenile department” of the Westerly Public Library. The closing of schools must have seemed to be a foregone conclusion, as it was stated that there were 382 absences attributed to illness at local schools the day before the order was put in place. The interruptions to the local workforce were felt almost immediately. It was reported that “boys under 15 are reading metres [sic] for the Westerly Light and Power Company” and girls were doing the same in New London. It was also noted that trolley cars were not running on schedule, much to the chagrin of passengers. There was no official record of the number of cases in Westerly at the end of September, as Influenza was not considered a reportable disease at that time, and therefore, no tally of cases was taken.
At the start of October, further measures were taken to mitigate the spread of the virus, including many which are similar to those currently in place. Saloon keepers were notified to not allow men to congregate in groups and failure to comply with these orders would result in immediate closure until the epidemic passed. While saloons were allowed to remain open with limited patronage, soda fountains, including those inside pharmacies, were ordered to close their doors at once. This caused some to question the rationale of allowing bars to keep their doors open while others were prevented from conducting business. To better enforce the measures being implemented, the Westerly Town Council swore members of the Sanitary Corps (later known as the Westerly Ambulance Corps) in as police constables providing them with the authority to enforce regulations which were meant to prevent the spread of influenza. This was a much-needed action, as several members of the police force had been unable to work due to illness. One recommendation that may sound very familiar to many readers came when local health professionals implored citizens to wear face masks when caring for those who were ill. Masks were being made by the Westerly chapter of the Red Cross and according to an account in the Norwich Bulletin, the masks were “not to be soaked in any chemical but are designed to protect the wearer from bacteria floating in the air.”
Within just five days, it was apparent that further actions would be required to continue to protect the community. Both the (then abandoned) Beach Street School as well as the Pleasant Street School were converted into makeshift hospitals to handle the growing number of influenza cases. This led one news source to proclaim: “The need for a fully equipped hospital has been made plain.” Additionally, members of the Sanitary Corps, most of who held full-time jobs, gave up their employment to dedicate themselves to caring for the sick. Their resolve in the face of an epidemic did not go unnoticed, as it was said: “The Sanitary Corps…has shown the result of thorough training and concerted action.” In addition to the temporary constables enforcing compliance with local orders, the Rhode Island State Guard was also contracted to patrol “the most infected section of the town” to prevent unnecessary home visits, especially in places where sickness prevailed.
By the second week of October, it was apparent that it was rapidly becoming an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ situation in Westerly, and citizens began to step up and do their part for the community. A group known as the Women’s Motor Corps was formed to take doctors to and from the sick, carry supplies to emergency hospitals, transfer nurses, and do work of an emergency nature while remaining on-call both night and day. Several retired doctors and nurses returned to work to provide assistance where needed, and in noting the seriousness of the issue, it was said “all of Westerly seems to be awakened to the situation.”
Despite the grim outlook, especially as the death rate in Westerly was reported as being “very high,” Dr. Webster reported on October 8 that the number of new cases was decreasing, suggesting that the preventative measures were working. One week later, on October 15, the outlook had hardly improved. One local resident perhaps put his reaction best when he recorded in his diary that day: “Influenza very alarming in Westerly. Many deaths.” It was reported the same day that barrooms (which had since been closed), soda fountains, schools, theatres, and the library all remained closed. In spite of all these concerns, Dr. Webster still reported “a material decrease in the number of cases.” The number of cases continued to drop and three days later, only two influenza deaths were reported, a decrease from days prior. The closing of many businesses and places of gathering impacted several local institutions, including the Westerly Historical Society which canceled their October meeting due to the epidemic (an act they would repeat in January 1919 for the same reason).
As the number of cases continued to drop each day, the beginning of November allowed many to step back and truly assess the impact of the illness on the community. Dr. Webster made a report to the Westerly Town Council early that month, and in doing so, he painted a rather jarring image for those in attendance. It must be noted that there was not any type of testing for influenza in 1918 and therefore, a diagnosis could only be derived from an examination of symptoms and the opinion of a physician. Bearing this in mind, the fact that Dr. Webster reported an estimated 1,000 cases and roughly 100 deaths due to influenza was reason for great concern. In 1910, the population of Westerly was 8,696 and it had risen to 9,955 in 1920, and therefore, it can be surmised that there were approximately 9,703 residents in 1918 (assuming consistent growth over the decade). Therefore, about 10.3 percent of the town was stricken with influenza and 1.3 percent perished as a result of the virus. Dr. Webster reported there were still sporadic cases and some deaths in the past week, but there were “very few new cases.”
In 1918, there were 231 deaths recorded in Westerly, more than 100 over the 10-year average of 130 between 1907 to 1917. The official death records for the town of Westerly for 1918 contain 58 deaths which were attributed to influenza, however, there were likely several in which influenza was an underlying cause but it was not listed as the official cause of death. In terms of who was most affected by the illness, it was reported: “The majority of cases were in the thickly populated Italian section and so it was said, due to the unsanitary conditions.” Of the 58 deaths recorded in 1918 that were attributed to influenza, the average at death was just 26.8 years.
For several weeks, it seemed that Westerly had weathered the storm that stormed across the nation in 1918; however, sadly this was only the beginning. Just before Christmas, a second wave swept over the town, and on December 23, it was reported that there were 100 new cases and the Red Cross was once again asked to supply masks. In a retrospective account by Dr. Albert Spicer who was a young boy at the time of the pandemic, “Many local people were stricken right after Christmas,” and he recalled his father, also a doctor, hiring around the clock nurses to care for his patients. The virus struck at home for Spicer as well, as his mother was taken ill and was bedridden for more than three weeks with double pneumonia. In his most telling memory, Dr. Spicer claimed: “I remember my dad telling of picking up the Westerly Sun every night to check the obituary column and finding eight to ten names of people that had died, oftentimes close friends of the family.”