A Century Ago, A Pandemic Gripped Chatham

By: Debra Lawless

The gravestone of Donald Small, who died during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. DEBRA LAWLESS PHOTO

Anyone in this part of Cape Cod who has lived through the past two months of the coronavirus pandemic might have felt comfortable in 1918 and 1919 when the Spanish Influenza closed Chatham schools and public buildings and sickened many residents.

“Avoid unnecessary gathering.” “Avoid the cough and the sneeze. Wash the hands frequently and before putting them to the mouth.”

Do these words sound familiar? This advice was given to readers of the Chatham Monitor 102 years ago. The Spanish Influenza, or grip, as it was called locally, killed an estimated 50 million people around the world. Despite its name, the flu-like illness most likely emerged in the U.S. in March 1918, at Fort Riley, Kansas. Over the next six months, the flu’s spread was aided by the travel of WWI soldiers. By the fall of 1918, when soldiers began coming home, the Spanish flu was a pandemic. All told, an estimated 675,000 people died in the U.S. during the pandemic’s three waves.

“What is unsettling about these pandemics and epidemics is that there were recurrences,” says Danielle Jeanloz, executive director of the Atwood Museum, home of the Chatham Historical Society. “What does that mean for our community? What have we learned from the past and what can we do to minimize the potential of having recurrences now?”

As a result of today’s coronavirus pandemic, Chatham declared a state of emergency on March 13, following on the heels of Barnstable County and the state. Schools and town buildings closed. Later, hotels and golf courses closed; the annual town meeting and elections have been postponed. We are told to “social distance.” By April 29, Chatham had 11 COVID-19 cases, Harwich had 36 and Orleans had 13. In Barnstable County, there were 860 cases. Yet the number of cases on the Cape remains far lower than those in the state’s urban areas.

In 1918, some summer residents believed that they were safer away from the city and returned to Chatham during the off-season. Does this, too, sound familiar? This March, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, some residents observed high numbers of out-of-state license plates in the Cape’s towns. In late March, a petition was circulated calling for the closing of the two bridges to the mainland to keep off-Cape residents away. We wonder, as residents no doubt did in 1918, when life will return to normal.

All told, 175 cases of influenza were reported in Chatham during the fall of 1918, according to the annual town report. In October a front-page article in the Chatham Monitor described the Spanish flu. The illness “resembles a very contagious kind of ‘cold.’” Symptoms included a fever that might spike as high as 104 degrees, chills, all-over pains and “a feeling of severe sickness.” While the symptoms abated in some patients after three or four days, in others the disease progressed to pneumonia.

The illness was spread through the air through “very small droplets of mucus.” And “a person who has only a mild attack of the disease may give a very severe attack to others.” It was not known if a person who recovered from the Spanish flu was immune.

In 1918, Jeanloz says, 16-year-old Carolyn Gould of Chatham caught the Spanish flu and remained delirious for seven days. “When she finally recovered, she was never able to easily raise her arms above her head,” according to Jeanloz’s Facebook post.

Today, the risk of death from COVID-19 is said to increase with every decade of age, basically following the death curve of a classic influenza. In 1918, in contrast, half of those who died were in the prime of life, in their 20s and 30s. The death of Donald Bearse Small of West Chatham, who succumbed to “the grip” on Sept. 25, caused “shock” in Chatham. Small was only 19 and a newlywed. A perusal of the Monitor and cemetery records in the fall of 1918 shows a spike in the number of deaths of people in their 30s.

A summer visitor, music teacher Mercy Newton, died off-Cape. “She is taken away by the dread disease in the full strength and vigor of life and usefulness, and when hopes for the future were bright,” according to the Monitor. In fact, “quite a number of our young ladies are victims of the influenza at the present time.” In one Orleans family, two sisters in their 30s died in 1918.

Young children were orphaned. In mid-October the Monitor reported that a niece of a Chatham resident, Lottie Hoy, died at a Fall River hospital of influenza-pneumonia. Her husband, a doctor, had died the previous Monday. The couple left a son. Ensign Nickerson of Harwich died at the age of about 35, leaving a wife and two children.

When it seemed that life might be returning to normal, people went to public gatherings and still caught influenza. “Mr. Everett Eldridge has been confined to his home ill with the grip since the boxing match at the Coastal Air station,” the Monitor reported in November 1918.

A second wave of the illness recurred in the winter of 1919, closing schools, which had reopened on Oct. 21, for a second time. But finally, by the summer of 1919, the pandemic was over.

“What is encouraging,” Jeanloz says, “is that in spite of periods of great illness and devastation to our community in the past, we are resilient and we survive the adversity over the centuries.”