The Spanish flu: A look back at 1918 in Derry

The Derry History Museum posted a bit of local history from the archives of the Derry News. This report gave residents an update during the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918.

The year 1918 was a worrisome year for most local residents.

America was involved in the first World War, its first major conflict since the Civil War. That year, Derry's sons were dying in the no man's lands of Flanders. The fear of spies was rampant and any questioning of the government was looked upon as being un-American. Sugar was being rationed and the Volstead Act stopped the sale of liquor. Sunday driving was forbidden in order to save gasoline for the war. It was indeed a worrisome year.

Because the news was censored, few locals had heard about the Spanish influenza killing thousands of soldiers at the front. It is estimated that half the U.S. soldiers who died during World War I were killed by the flu. The Spanish influenza, or La Grippe, as it was commonly called, was soon sweeping across the world like a raging prairie fire. By the time it was over, it is estimated that this pandemic had killed between 20 and 40 million people.

The first symptoms of this virulent flu were the same as a bad cold. This was followed by high fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, foaming blood form the mouth, delirium and the skin turning a dark blue. Death could come in hours or days. Its death rate was 2.5% compared to the typical flu's mortality of 0.1%. Also, it differed from the normal flu in that its victims were usually not the very young or the very old; it tended instead to go after those in the prime of their lives.

The first appearance of the Spanish influenza in Derry occurred on Sept. 19, 1918, when it was reported that there were seven or eight cases in town. The Derry Evening Record dismissed it as "only the grip," but recommended that the strictest precautions be employed. By the next day, the reported cases had jumped to 30. The paper was now urging locals to avoid panic but seek medical attention at the first sign of the flu. Among the recommendations were for everyone to be "sanitary, avoid talking, whistling, or breathing into anyone's face; don't spit on sidewalks, and avoid crowds." That advice is kind of what we are being told by the authorities in 2020.

With each day, it got worse and worse. On Sept. 26 came the first deaths —Hector Antaya, 30; Polly Nathan, 25; Austin Burr, 30; and Anthony Roy, 27. The seriousness of the situation had now sunk in.

That day, the Derry Board of Health immediately ordered all schools, churches and places of public entertainment to be closed until further notice. Parents were told to take special care to keep their children's feet dry and "properly" clothed when going outside. In October, the federal government sent gauze masks to be given out to doctors, nurses, and volunteer health care workers. Every day came word of more soldiers dying at military camps including our own Annie Norton, the first woman in America's history to die in uniform during war time.

During the epidemic, it was likely that 1,000 Derry residents caught the flu. The town at this time had a population of perhaps 5,000 with only 11 doctors, 13 private nurses and no hospital. There were no antibiotics and almost no health insurance. If you were too sick to go to work, you didn't get paid. Most families had to doctor their own sick. The only free medical care was the over worked district nurse whose responsibility was the whole town. She quit in early October because the town decided it had no money to pay her. It was common during the epidemic for the whole family to be sick at the same time. The extreme example was at 7 Mount Pleasant St., where Mr. and Mrs. Herb True and their five children were all sick at the same time.

Despite all the sickness, the town did somehow continue to function. Some stores had to close but most remained open. Telephone calls took more time because so many of the operators were sick. The library was closed because Miss Gaskin, the librarian, was bedridden. Clubs, lodges, societies and pool halls were shut. The movie theater used the closed time to give itself a new paint job. The Catholic church had to double up on funerals.

Due to the increased deaths, the local florists were constantly out of stock. Because there was no school, or games, the football coach held more practices. Despite the official discouraging public gatherings, 3,000 came to the Broadway depot to see a train full of war relics that was intended to get more locals to buy more war bonds.

In those days it was a funeral tradition to ring the church's bell one toll for every year that the deceased had lived. My Dad, who grew up near Boston, recalled that during the epidemic all you could hear, both day and night, was the deep toned echoing of bells from the dozens of churches in the area; each peal announcing that the flu had taken another victim. Finally, after a week, the authorities decreed that enough was enough and the bells were ordered silent. They remained silent when members of Dad's family and neighbors were laid to rest.

After a month, the epidemic ran its course. On Oct. 25, the schools, theaters, club were allowed to reopen. There were still isolated cases of the Spanish flu but few were dying. In December, another spike in cases forced Pinkerton Academy  to close for a week.

In New Hampshire, there were approximately 2,500 who died during the pandemic of 1918; Concord's death toll was 167. It is very hard to estimate the level of mortality in Derry.

During the years immediately before and after 1918, the town averaged 77 deaths per year. During the year 1918, Derry had 116 local deaths. This likely translates into 39 flu deaths. Today, the town's population is about seven times what it was in 1918. So by comparison, the flu's death numbers would equal to about 272 in a town of Derry's size today. And yes, I have got my flu shot. I hope you have, too.

A hundred years ago we as a town and community survived the onslaught of the Spanish flu. Our people did not panic or give up. During that time we filled our churches praying for relief, buried our dead, cared for our sick and did what we could for our neighbors, friends and strangers.

In later years, we survived the scourge of polio in the 1950s, the SARS epidemic in 2004 and swine flu in 2009. As an historian, I have tried to understand the lessons of the past. Derry's history has led me to have total faith that despite the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, we will once again stand strong as a town and soon, soon return to normalcy.

Historian Richard Holmes is the author of several books on local history.

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