Many plagues have struck the world over the course of history. I’m sure you could name quite a few if you tried. The Bubonic Plague, the Black Death, Ebola — just to name a few. But one epidemic in the early 1900s killed more people than the entirety of World War I. In fact, this epidemic killed more people in the United States than the Civil War (620,000) or all other U.S. wars combined (644,000). What was this deadly and destructive force that wiped out millions the world over? A simple three-letter affliction that still kills people today: the flu.
The influenza virus that would go on to kill millions possibly originated the United States at a military base in the spring of 1918 (though there are also arguments for its origin in Asia). This strain of the flu was H1N1, an avian virus. At that time, there were no flu vaccines and no antibiotics to treat the secondary bacterial infections that developed, like pneumonia. People who lived in all kinds of places, from the most urban to the most rural, were susceptible whenever they came into contact with others. The best advice doctors could give was to refrain from spitting on sidewalks, and if you did spit you would be fined or even jailed, wash your hands, rest, and stay away from sick people. Sound familiar?
Through the spring and summer, influenza spread across the United States and Europe, inflicting heavy casualties in both the civilian and military population. Because World War I was nearing its end and no country wished to look weak in any way, one of the only nations that reported the spreading virus in the newspaper was Spain. The flu did not originate in Spain, nor did it hit Spain harder than any other country. It simply was the only one willing to report it — thus, Spanish Influenza.
By the fall of 1918, news of influenza started to trickle into Titusville. In late September, parents of two Titusville boys in the armed forces got word that their sons had been infected with the flu. Sergeant Harry Botsford (who would go on to be one of the founders of the Titusville American Legion) and John Foley. Both young men were at Camp Lee, Virginia and expected to recover. Titusvilleans had no idea about the infectious storm that was coming their way.
On October 2nd, the Titusville Herald reported that three local boys died of influenza at their military bases. The first casualty was William F. McNierney of Titusville who died at Great Lakes Naval Training Station on September 28. Then, both Roy Pratt of Riceville (age 27) and Stanley J. Platt of Spartansburg (age 28) were reported dead at Camp Lee. The next day, influenza struck Allegheny College, sickening students there. The same day, the Pennsylvania State Commissioner of Health ordered all places of “public amusement and every saloon” closed upon penalty of the law. Titusville business owners complied, and the Orpheum, Grand, and Princess Theatres were all closed, as well as all dance halls in the city.
On October 5, 1918, the first child in Titusville was struck with influenza. Charles A. Popney was diagnosed with the flu and all of his siblings were sent home from school. Parents across town began to panic as their children were particularly vulnerable being inside small spaces with many other possibly infected children all day long. But the schools remained open.
Overnight, twelve new cases popped up in Titusville and thirty-seven in Oil City. More and more local men were reported as being deathly ill at their military bases. By October 10, all Titusville clubs, YWCA, YMCA, and fraternal orders were closed. Funerals were mandated to be private only. Word spread quickly when someone began to show symptoms of the flu. In fact, the cases, and the word of mouth they carried, spread so quickly that Titusville doctors struggled to keep up.
Finally, on October 12, the Titusville schools and churches were closed and the names and addresses of the afflicted began appearing in the newspaper so that others could steer clear. By the weekend, Dr. C.E. Spicer feared the sickness was reaching epidemic proportions in Titusville. Spicer was put in charge of the local medical response along with Dr. J.J. Roberts with the Red Cross on its way.
In less than two weeks, Titusville business and social life had ground to a screeching halt and people were confined to their beds with fevers, chills, and intense weakness. In the Jilson home, all five children were afflicted, ages four, eight, twelve, seventeen, and twenty-five. Three days later, Pearl Jilson, the oldest, was one of the first Titusville civilians to have her life taken by the epidemic.
By October 16, there were forty-nine reported cases of the flu in Titusville and the outlying areas. Keep in mind, these were only the cases that were reported. Those who did not seek a doctor’s care, or the doctor failed to report, were not included. The actual number was likely much higher. People began posting placards outside their homes, warning others that the flu was inside and not to enter.
With the virus came quack “cures.” Profiting off of fear and sickness, businesses began hawking fake cures for the flu, promising quick recoveries if one only took a magic tablet or a laxative (the last thing someone with the flu wants is a laxative). Others advised people to fumigate their homes to rid them of influenza. But nothing seemed to work as 800 cases were reported in Meadville and 1,200 reported in Warren County.
On October 25, an emergency hospital was established in Titusville on the third floor of the high school. The Sisters of Mercy from St. Joseph’s Convent cared for the sick, and one sister gave her life to the virus while helping the afflicted. Every day, the numbers of new reported cases were splashed across the headlines in the Titusville Herald and everyone knew the flu had become more than a passing problem. It was an epidemic.
As the flu raged, other diseases like diphtheria also popped up across town. Doctors were fighting a multi-front war, trying to head off each sickness as it ravaged the population. Soon, the Titusville trolleys limited service as few people dared to venture outside, let alone travel. The young newsboys who delivered the paper door-to-door were stricken with the virus and papers piled up, undelivered. By November 15, 610 cases of influenza had been officially reported in Titusville and almost every obituary cursed the name of the sickness that stole the life of a loved one.
The Christmas season was approaching. Local businesses felt the pinch of few shoppers and needed to increase their profits. Businessmen lobbied Dr. Spicer to lift the quarantine, and on November 18th at noon, it was lifted, despite twenty-four new cases being reported over the weekend.
Article after article in the paper wrote about how the epidemic was subsiding while simultaneously reporting the number of new cases diagnosed. People were desperately trying to convince each other that there was a light at the end of the tunnel and it was quickly approaching.
On December 2nd, after eight weeks of closure, the schools were reopened and a new emergency hospital was designated at the Bryan residence on West Walnut Street (house was located where the Mason building is today, next to the library) to be run by the Red Cross, if necessary. The monthly report stated that Titusville had lost twenty-six people in November, almost all due to the flu.
As influenza continued to rage in Tidioute, Tionesta, Townville, Hydetown, and other outlying areas, Titusville was finally emerging from underneath the pile of sickness and death. Cases continued to pop up, and in mid-December almost 100 boys and girls were absent from the high school. Whether that was due to the flu or wanting an early Christmas break, it’s hard to say for sure.
Since influenza made its first appearance in Titusville in October until the last few afflicted were recovering in the late winter of 1919, forty-one Titusville residents were killed by the virus or its secondary infections. Almost 22% of the deaths in Titusville in 1918 were attributed to the sickness. Despite all the death it left in its wake, Spanish Influenza revealed something extraordinary about Titusville: the people’s willingness to help one another. In the last quarter of the year, over $4,000 was raised to help the sick. The YWCA helped more than 800 sick citizens and the Sisters of Mercy risked their lives day in and day out to save their fellow humans, including a family where all eleven members were sick with the flu.
Between 1918 and 1919, 500 MILLION people were infected with Spanish Influenza — that is one fifth of the entire world population. Fifty MILLION people did not recover and died from the effects of the virus, and later bacteria, that overwhelmed their fragile immune systems. More than one third of people who died in the United States in 1918 died of influenza: a total of 675,000 people. Most of those who died were under age five, over age sixty-five, or healthy adults between twenty and forty. The scariest part of this epidemic was its ability to kill healthy young adults with no previous illness. The virus struck indiscriminately. Everyone was vulnerable.
The flu still kills more than 50,000 people per year in the United States. And though we have vaccines and antibiotics, neither will help you once you are sick. Thus, in reverence for those who died in this very community 100 years ago, we lovingly beg you, please wash your hands.
The following is a list of everyone the newspaper named from the City of Titusville who died from Spanish Influenza between 1918 and 1919, in order of when they passed away:
Mrs. Ethel Thompson
Miss Pearl E. Jilson
Mrs. Nellie M. DeMott
Daniel J. Dalton
Mrs. E.Q. Fenton
Mrs. H.C. Colt
Robert F. O’Neil
Mrs. Vinnie S. Bromley
David L. Stearns
Anna Euphemia Saline
Arthur J. Schneible
Mrs. Anna Schneible
George A. Crane
Bernice V. Sterling
Hannah Jane Gruey
Frank W. Lindquist
Miss Margaret J. Seep
William Barnsdall Bauer
Walter L. Bucklin
Eddie L. Daub
Robert K. Myers
Nicholas Sins, Jr.
Lelah Anderson Shrout
Sister Mary Dorothea
Joseph C. Henderson
John F. Cleland
Mrs. Gustav W. Anthony
Miss Fanny Mae Wolfe
Mrs. Bertha C. Johnson
Miss Katheryn V. Seep
Sources: Titusville Herald September 26, 1918 – January 23, 1919, United States Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), U.S. National Archives & Records Administration