A Century Ago, Chatham Didn't Escape Deadly Spanish Flu

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Health , Historic

Roland C. Nickerson Jr. was serving in the U.S. Naval Reserve Force in Washington, D.C. when he caught the Spanish Flu and died. DEBRA LAWLESS PHOTO

It was 100 years ago this month that, in the waning days of World War I, what was known as the Spanish flu killed between 20 and 50 million people around the world.

And Chatham was not immune. All told, 175 cases of influenza were reported in Chatham during the fall of 1918, according to the annual town report.

Things got so bad that on Oct. 1, 1918, the Chatham Monitor reported, that “the public schools, Orpheum theatre, churches and all public places in town have been closed by order of the board of health on account of the grip.” (Grip was the local term for the illness.) Schools would remain closed until Oct. 21. The Naval Air Station had already lost one man to the flu, Quartermaster 3rd class Joseph D. Yanacek, who died on Sept. 19. And a man named Donald Small had died at home.

At the time, people believed the flu had originated in Spain. A century later, some medical researchers believe that what would become a pandemic may have originated in Kansas or even China—different theories are still bandied about. Aided by the travel of soldiers and the close proximity in which soldiers and war workers lived at home, influenza traveled the world. In the United States an estimated 675,000 died, with half of those deaths occurring between mid-September and early December 1918. “Never since the Black Death has such a plague swept over the world,” the Hyannis Patriot noted.

The virus was spread through a sneeze or a drop of mucous and came on suddenly. Symptoms included an intense headache, body aches, fevers up to 103 degrees, exhaustion, coughing, chills and sometimes vomiting. It became difficult to breathe. The incubation period was 24 to 72 hours, and it was “as dangerous as poison gas shells,” the Monitor advised on Oct. 29.

With Boston in the midst of the epidemic, some believed they were safer away from the city and returned to Chatham off-season.

Joshua Atkins Nickerson 2nd, though, was about to begin his freshman year at Harvard University that fall after graduating from Chatham High School in a class of six the previous spring. Nickerson departed for Harvard a few days early to stay with his sister and her husband in South Weymouth. “At midday dinner I did not feel well, left the table and went to lie down,” he recalled in his 1988 memoir “Days to Remember,” about growing up in Chatham. “That was the last thing I really knew until several days later, I had influenza, and I was lucky to be alive.” Nickerson's father, Oscar, traveled up to Boston to attend to his son, the Monitor reported on Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, Roland C. Nickerson Jr., a grandson of Chatham’s Samuel Nickerson, who had becoming wealthy as a banker in Chicago, was serving as a lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Naval Reserve Force. In Washington, D.C. Nickerson caught the influenza. The illness turned to pneumonia, and he died in a hospital on Oct. 6 at the age of 28. He is buried near his family’s summer home in Brewster.

The Monitor was perhaps too optimistic in its Oct. 8. edition. “Our local physicians seem to have the grip well in hand, only a few cases now reported but one case has proved fatal,” the paper reported. “All precautions are being taken and with the fresh winds and salt air with which we are favored let us hope most of the germs will blow off to sea.”

But the sea breeze was not enough to ward off the disease. The same issue reported the death of the young man Charles E. Young, who delivered the Sunday newspapers. Unlike the death curve of a classic influenza, half of those who died were in the prime of life, in their 20s and 30s. And medical workers were not immune to influenza, despite the best precautions. The town’s doctor, F.B. Worthing, fell ill and did not recover until after the new year.

“Avoid unnecessary gathering,” the Chatham Committee on Public Safety warned the public. “Avoid the cough and the sneeze. Wash the hands frequently and before putting them to the mouth. Keep in the open air and the sun.” Those with the flu should use paper cups and plates which should be destroyed. Those attending the ill should wear cheesecloth masks. Houses were fumigated after a death by lighting formaldehyde candles, according the Oct. 8 Monitor.

Chatham was fortunate compared to a city like Philadelphia, for example, where 12,000 died. There, the municipal system was so overtaxed that bodies were collected by horse-drawn carts and graves dug by convicts.

But finally, by late October, the worst did seem to be over.

“The grip sick list is growing less all the time, and we hope to have our town clear of it soon” was the report in the same paper that nonetheless reported additional influenza deaths. Churches held services that Sunday, Oct. 20 and schools opened the following day. Cases of the grip would be reported in the paper through the end of the year, well after the Nov. 11 Armistice that marked the end of World War I.