A Virus Sweeps Through the City in 1918

The Spanish Flu pandemic shut down Cincinnati for three months, with later flare-ups, and killed nearly 1,700 adults and children.

The influenza pandemic of 1918–1919 was monstrous. Estimates are that it infected a third of the world’s population, killing 50 million across the globe and 675,000 in the U.S. alone. It wiped out more troops and civilians than died in World War I. It was hard on the very young and the very old, of course, but in an odd twist it was deadly for robust 20- to 40-year-olds, too. A single statistic sums up the impact vividly: In one year, average life expectancy in the U.S. dropped by a decade.

Photograph from National Archives

The Spanish Flu, as it was called, has gotten short shrift in schoolbooks. The initial wave in the spring of 1918 seemed like the typical flu; people called it the “three-day fever.” A second wave, which made its way from the East Coast to Cincinnati in the fall, was another matter—a virulent, fast-acting respiratory assault.

The first diagnosed case here was on September 27, 1918: Mrs. George P. Topmiller, who’d recently visited her husband at Camp Lee in Virginia. Shortly after, General Hospital reported two more patients, both with military connections. It was a refrain that would be repeated again and again in the waning days of WWI, as the infection spread through troops in crowded U.S. training camps and accompanied them to Europe.

+Cincinnati Magazine looks back to see how Cincinnatians of the past made it through their dark days and to the leaders of today’s efforts to move forward. Read all the stories here.

It spread fast here. There were only 16 known cases on October 2, and Cincinnati Health Officer Dr. William H. Peters assured the public there was no cause for “undue alarm.” A day later, the city recorded its first Spanish Flu death. Calm public assurances aside, Peters ordered hospitals to bar all visitors except in critical cases, and he and Mayor John Galvin assembled city authorities, school and medical representatives, and business interests to discuss the situation. On October 5, Peters closed theaters, movie houses, schools, churches, and Sunday schools. Courts were allowed to hear only the most serious cases, and employers were ordered to send sick workers home. Public and private gatherings were prohibited, but restaurants, soda fountains, pool halls, and bowling alleys remained open, and saloon patrons could carry out bottles.

Cases continued to rise in October, frustrating Peters, who banned burning leaves, believing that drifting smoke contributed to the spread. Hotels had to remove lobby furniture to discourage loitering, and dentists and barbers were told to mask up. The library destroyed books used by influenza victims; school principals were ordered to do the same. Stores largely remained open, though hours were limited. Citizens helped the sanitation department clean streets, and the Women’s City Club ran “penny lunch rooms” in empty public schools, feeding families when fathers were too sick to work and mothers too sick to care for their brood.

The work of Sr. Blandina Segale of the Sisters of Charity illustrates how relentlessly the infection bulldozed through young families. A diary entry for October 28, 1918, records that she went to take charge of one household’s orphans; the mother had just died at home, and the father succumbed in the hospital. An uncle came to make funeral arrangements, and by the time he returned home his own wife was dead.

As the month wore on, the community grew impatient. The zoo and Queen City Club appealed to the Board of Health to be released from closure restrictions; churches pressed the case, too. But Peters (who himself fell ill in October) held firm, not lifting restrictions until Armistice Day, November 11. Then a sharp rise in cases among schoolchildren caused the Board of Health to re-close schools in December and ban children from stores, streetcars, and other public places. That spike brought the threat of a second, more sweeping city lockdown. The restrictions didn’t happen, but the public wrangling over children, churches, stores, and saloons sounds familiar today.

Nearly 1,700 Cincinnatians died from influenza or the resulting pneumonia, including 122 preschool children—statistics that would have been much higher, historians say, if the city had delayed closures even by a few days. Those numbers, and the quotidian details of the city’s day-to-day struggle, are part of research undertaken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2006–2007. The project looked at 50 U.S. cities’ response to the Spanish Flu pandemic. The purpose was to figure out what non-pharmaceutical interventions— school closures, isolation and quarantines, and cancelled public gatherings—might be effective if the U.S. faced a 21st century disease without an effective vaccine.

How did Spanish Flu end here? Gradually. On January 5, 1919, Peters announced conditions had returned to normal. Yet historical records show that the Board of Health fought flare-ups for months. Today we’d call that the New Normal.

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