Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–The 1918 Pandemic in Youngstown

October of 2020 does not appear to be a good month in our current pandemic. As I write, Ohio has registered its largest number of cases in a single day. October of 1918 was a dark month in Youngstown as well. Surveying the Vindicators for October of 1918, the month began on a hopeful note, and in fact the lead headlines the whole month concerned the end of World War I. In the course of the month, the H1N1 Influenza of 1918 would ravage Youngstown. A milder form of the illness had arisen during the spring, but it returned with a vengeance in the fall.

October 4: It was reported that Camp Sherman, an Army camp in Chillicothe, was recovering from the flu. No indication of the flu yet in Youngstown. Pennsylvania, which was hit earlier closed theaters, places of amusement, and saloons.

October 5: On the front page, there is a report of the influenza spreading rapidly in Ohio with 15-20,000 cases. Cincinnati closed its amusement places and saloons. There was a call for nurses to volunteer to go to Camp Taylor in Kentucky.

October 6: Camp Sherman reports 143 deaths from the influenza, which was striking down young men in alarming numbers. The Vindicator also reports that the influenza is hitting camps around the country with 17,383 new cases on Saturday alone.

October 7: An “Impressive and Inspiring” Czecho-Slovak parade took place. It is thought that this, like a similar parade in Philadelphia, served as a “super-spreader” event in Youngstown. Cases exploded after this event.

October 10: The first four deaths from the influenza occur in Youngstown. Twenty children in a children’s home are down with the influenza. Mayor Craver announced a meeting of the board of health to close schools, churches, and all public gatherings.

October 15: “Gloom Enshrouds City Because of Influenza” is the headline for the front page story about the spread of influenza in Youngstown. On the previous day a general quarantine went into effect. Downtown Youngstown was a ghost town, except for hotel lobbies. Emergency hospitals (at that time there was only St. Elizabeth’s and Youngstown Hospital, later South Side Hospital) have been set up at Baldwin Kindergarten at Front and Champion and at South High School, which can accommodate 400 beds. 193 cases were reported in the last day in a city of 120,000. One silver lining was that draft calls were stopped. Nearby East Palestine was hard hit with 1,000 cases.

October 16: The Board of Health reports 923 cases and 15 deaths so far with 4 deaths in the last day. Meanwhile, Cleveland reported 800 new cases in a day. The chief of police issued a warning to saloons violating quarantine orders by leaving their back doors open to customers when they were supposed to be closed. They would receive a $100 fine for the first offense and jail time the second time.

Instructions for nurses giving home care, Vindicator, October 16, 1918

October 27 (the next edition available online): Both locally and in the state, the report is that the epidemic is unchanged. There were 112 new cases reported, lower than the over 300 cases reported daily early in the week. Statewide 5,000 new cases were reported. Ten deaths were reported in Youngstown for the day. The efforts of Red Cross workers were recognized, contributing 8747 surgical articles and 7851 hospital garments, among other supplies. The death toll at Camp Sherman was reported at 1,053.

October 29: Industries in the Mahoning Valley, and Youngstown Sheet and Tube, in particular, are cited for their efforts in preventing illnesses on the job. They operated six emergency hospitals, and experienced no production delays. 400 new cases were reported and 20 deaths. Statewide, there was some evidence things were easing but quarantines would remain in place until at least November 15. Collegiate football was banned in Illinois.

October 30: 524 new cases and 29 deaths were reported in the last day in Youngstown, a new high. South High School teacher Dr. Roy Kittle died of the influenza after volunteering to nurse patients at the school, converted to an emergency hospital.

October 31: Patient counts from the three emergency hospitals (the third being at Jefferson School) suggest that infections are beginning to recede. Sheet and Tube was inoculating employees with a serum to give them immunity to the flu developed by the Rockefeller Institute. Statewide, the death toll reached 5,000.

Cases began to wane after October, which was the worst month. By December, cases were down enough for theaters to re-open. Outbreaks continued into 1919 and early 1920 but the worst was over. The worst was the dark days of October 1918. One study of death certificates in the period of the epidemic indicated that men died in greater numbers than women and immigrants had the highest death rates. There was no coordinated state or national effort to deal with the outbreak, leaving local health officials to deal with the epidemic. Public health officials conceded that the virus had to run its course. They struggled with groups that held large gatherings contrary to health orders. There were lots of ads that promoted patent medicine remedies. The most notable shortage was of Vicks Vap-O-Rub!

I share this as a look-back only. These are two different epidemics, different viruses. Far more young people died of the influenza. Some have drawn lessons from 1918 for what might be done or should be done (or shouldn’t) in our present pandemic. I won’t, other than to note that front-line responders, then as now responded with courage and compassion. About all I would suggest was that the 1918 pandemic receded, and so will this one. Many avoided getting sick by foregoing normal social activities and by following the quarantine. They were around for the Roaring Twenties. Let’s hope there is something ahead like that for all of us! Stay safe, Youngstown friends!

[Please do not use this post for debates about the current pandemic or public health or political policies! This is for historic purposes only.]

4 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–The 1918 Pandemic in Youngstown

  1. Bob
    Great historic piece. My mother was born in Youngstown on November 7 1918. So glad this precious baby survived.
    Stay healthy
    Michelle Humans White

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