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Baltimore roared back to life from deadly 1918 flu pandemic after just a few weeks of restrictions

When the 1918 pandemic hit Baltimore nearly 5,400 persons died within a few weeks. The influenza landed lethally in October, prompting authorities to close schools, churches, synagogues, racetracks and theaters.

There were marked differences between 1918 and 2020-2021.

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The 1918 pandemic cut down young persons in the 20 to 44 age group with alarming speed. In 2021, it was seniors who were most susceptible, though health officials say younger people are currently fueling transmission of COVID-19.

Baltimore’s 1918 restrictions, imposed to stop the spread of the virus, did not last long — only several weeks. By Oct. 27, 1918, City Health Commissioner John D. Blake reopened churches for all services, excepting funerals. By Nov. 1, he reopened schools and eased nearly all other restrictions because the infection rate had dropped off.

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By comparison, more than 8,700 died in all of Maryland since the coronavirus was first detected in March 2020. Just this week, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said the city would continue its masking restrictions until more of the city’s residents were vaccinated — continuing over a year of mandates and regulations designed to stop the spread.

In 1918, newspapers did not record the personal grief of families who had so recently lost sons, daughters, parents and children. But the press did tell the story through the voluminous newspaper death notices that filled columns of type. The Baltimore Sun of Oct. 9, 1918, had five full columns of small print listing those who died.

But by Dec. 9, 1918, there were only two columns as the medical situation eased.

The paper’s morning rival, The Baltimore American, had six columns on Oct. 9. A month later, it published three columns of death notices.

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“The other difference in the two dates was the more extensive coverage of the influenza pandemic in the October issues. … By December 1918, news coverage of the flu had greatly diminished. Most of the attention was on the end of the war and its aftermath,” said Margaret Gers of the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s periodical division.

The pandemic’s end (there would be more deaths reported as the flu did not go away entirely) coincided with the end of World War I. On Nov. 11, what was then called Armistice Day, thousands gathered downtown. Revelers did not worry about crowded streetcars. Transit service had only recently been substantially restored by United Railway and Electric Co. after employees had been incapacitated by illness.

Armistice Day in Baltimore in 1918.
Armistice Day in Baltimore in 1918.

Throughout the day, Baltimoreans jammed streetcars and headed downtown in what The Sun reported was an experience similar to a “religious exaltation.”

Optimistic ads appeared for Horlick’s malted milk, which suggested it was a remedy for building up strength after a bout with the illness.

Businesses reopened and life went on. Department stores immediately advertised fur coats and other winter wraps.

Baltimore’s large passenger railroads immediately resumed full service as did Chesapeake Bay steamship lines. The newly opened Southern Hotel promoted its dining room.

Major James Harry Preston celebrated his 24th wedding anniversary by going out with his wife to Ford’s Theatre on Fayette Street.

Only a few weeks before, mass assemblies would have been shut down by the police. Not so on Nov. 14, 1918, when The Sun reported that 3,000 members of Baltimore’s Italian community filled the streets to celebrate the Allied armies seizure of two Italian cities: Trieste and Trent, once controlled by Austria-Hungary.

Maryland’s Gov. Emerson Harrington appeared in his limousine to accompany a column of marchers from Front Street to Bolton Hill and celebrate the Trieste-Trent capture.

Baltimore attorney Antonio Dimarco was grand marshal of the procession. “He was mounted on a steed that may be described as prancing,” The Sun reported.

The end of the pandemic also coincided with the arrival of the fall entertainment season. Theater patrons snapped up tickets to the Jerome Kern-P.G. Wodehouse musical, “Oh, Boy!,” which appeared at the Auditorium theater on North Howard Street. Its competition, the Ziegfeld Follies, was being performed next door, at the Academy of Music.

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra visited The Lyric on Mount Royal Avenue. The musical ensemble was led by Walter Damrosh. with violinist, Jascha Heifeitz as featured attraction.

Those who couldn’t be bothered with high art debated how Baltimore City was going to annex a chunk of Baltimore County. Roland Park residents gathered to discuss what it would be like to become city residents and pay city taxes.

There were similarities with the current pandemic. By the Christmas shopping season, cases of flu and pneumonia were again on the rise. Health Commissioner Blake remained cautious, but the city remained open. By March 1, 1919, Baltimore’s death rate from pneumonia and flu was 7.4 per 1,000, lower than Washington, Philadelphia or San Francisco.

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