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During 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, truth-telling in Laurel was in short supply

Camp Meade was the epicenter of the epidemic in Maryland. This is a photo of the base hospital receiving ward in early 1919.
Camp Meade was the epicenter of the epidemic in Maryland. This is a photo of the base hospital receiving ward in early 1919.(Courtesy U.S. Army Center of Mil / HANDOUT)

The year 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu pandemic. The number of afflicted and the loss of life in 1918 were much worse than the most dire prediction of the coronavirus pandemic we are experiencing now. The methods of coping, both locally in the Laurel area and nationally, as well as the messages from officials in 1918, were remarkably similar to today.

The pandemic hit the country in three waves, with everything in Laurel — schools, churches, stores, transportation, theaters — closed during the second wave. The final death tally in the United States alone from the 1918-19 pandemic numbered over 675,000. The population then, around 104 million, was less than a third of what it is today.

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The misnamed Spanish flu is believed to have originated on an Army base in Kansas, where 107 soldiers reported sick with severe flu on March 11, 1918. The flu could not have appeared at a worse time and place. The U.S. had joined the fighting in Europe about a year earlier, so thousands of troops were constantly on the move in training before shipping out to Europe. Over the next two months, the flu spread to more than a dozen Army camps, and it is believed that the troops carried it to Europe in May 1918.

The initial flu wave was not considered serious enough by the government to disrupt the war effort, mainly because fatalities from the illness were relatively low, even though the number of people infected was extraordinarily high.

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The American public was largely shielded from the news. Historian John Barry, author of “The Great Influenza,” wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “What proved even more deadly was the government policy toward the truth. When the United States entered the war, Woodrow Wilson demanded that ‘the spirit of ruthless brutality … enter into the very fibre of national life.’ So he created the Committee on Public Information, which was inspired by an advisor who wrote, ‘Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms. … The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.’”

Bowing to the hyper-patriotic times, Congress passed the Sedition Act in May 1918, which made it a crime to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States.” That meant, whether they wanted to or not, the newspapers had to suppress any reports of the flu epidemic. It also meant, according to Barry, that “against this background, while influenza bled into American life, public health officials, determined to keep morale up, began to lie.”

By July, the first wave seemed to be on the wane. Barry wrote, “As a U.S. Army medical bulletin reported from France, the ‘epidemic is about at an end … and has been throughout of a benign type.’ A British medical journal stated flatly that influenza ‘has completely disappeared.’”

The second wave

“In fact,” according to Barry, “it was more like a great tsunami that initially pulls water away from the shore — only to return in a towering, overwhelming surge.” The second, much deadlier wave hit in September, beginning in an Army base near Boston. In less than two months, the virus had apparently mutated into a more virulent form.

The vast majority of the deaths occurred during the second wave, which lasted about 10 weeks. Again, the war effort took precedence. In a feature article about the 1918 pandemic in the Washington Post, Ashley Halsey III wrote, “when Army medical officers warned that shipping thousands of soldiers on troop transports would ‘result in thousands of cases of the disease, with many deaths,’ they were ignored. … Troop ships were packed with those coming down with the disease or bound to experience it on board.”

It was during the second wave that the local area was affected. Camp Meade became the influenza epicenter in Maryland, and it spread like wildfire. (Camp Meade became a permanent installation in 1928 and renamed Fort Meade a year later.) The first instances came on Sept. 17, when a handful of soldiers were all diagnosed with influenza. Within four days, however, 286 more soldiers were sick. Two days after that, 800 more soldiers were hospitalized, and Camp Meade was placed under quarantine.

Camp Meade was in crisis. On Sept. 28, the Public Health Service reported 1,173 cases statewide, meaning there were only about 80 cases not at Camp Meade in the entire state. Two days later, according to the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore City Health Commissioner John Blake reported that, of the 18 flu deaths so far in Maryland, 14 were at Camp Meade. Confirming the Army’s role in transmission of the disease, the other four deaths were at Fort McHenry and Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The U.S. Army Center of Military History produced a presentation in 2017 about the 1918 epidemic at Camp Meade. In it, they compiled some headlines from the time, with the Sedition Act in effect, and added comments as to what was true. For example:

The Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot, 24 Sept. 1918, “Influenza Hits Boys at Camp Meade” “Only 20-30 soldiers ill; the malady is not spreading; no cause for alarm; no quarantine necessary.” (Truth: 286 cases on 22 Sept., numbers of flu patients increasing. Camp quarantine imposed 24 Sept.)

The Camp Meade Herald, 27 Sept. 1918, “Camp Takes Precautions to Forestall Influenza” “Camp officials’ extraordinary precautions will prevent the spread of disease. No cause for alarm.” (Truth: Illness spreading among nurses; extra hospital wards converted for use by flu patients; flu spreading despite all containment efforts.)

The Army presentation notes that rumors filled the information gap, with a prominent rumor that doctors and nurses at Camp Meade were pro-German “who deliberately spread flu to the soldiers.”

Flu hits Laurel

The influenza didn’t stay contained at Camp Meade. In Laurel, the first published notice about the flu appeared on Oct. 4, when the Leader reported, “The Spanish Influenza has a number of victims in Laurel. Two deaths are attributed to this disease and a number are said to be confined to their homes with the ailment.” A week later, it reported, “The malady affecting a large percentage of the people, and commonly called the ‘flu,’ has created a serious condition, and resulted in the loss of many lives, both among civilians and the army.”

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Blake, the health commissioner, whose authority was apparently not confined to Baltimore city, was prone to minimizing the epidemic, as he displayed over a one-week span. On Oct. 2, he banned public dances. Four days later, citing a drop in new reported cases, he refused to follow the lead from other major cities that closed theaters, schools and churches. This was the same day the head lab physician at Camp Meade died from influenza. The next day, however, he reversed himself and ordered public schools and most everything else closed across the state. His order prohibited, without definition, “All outdoor assemblies of people, as well as those indoors … until the epidemic passes.”

Blake’s order meant almost everything in Laurel — schools, churches, stores, transportation, theaters — was closed. Even the Prince George’s County Red Cross chapter postponed its October meeting. Blake’s reluctance to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation was reflected in the exceptions he made, as listed in the Sun: "groceries, dairies, drug stores, cigar stores, confectionary stores, barber shops, bootblacking establishments, and dairy lunchrooms.” He also specified that “saloons and hotel bars be opened not earlier than 9:30 o’clock in the morning and closed not later than 4:30 in the afternoon.”

Blake’s exception for saloons may have been influenced by Lt. Col J.A. Nydegger, chief of Baltimore’s Public Health Service, who sent a report to Rupert Blue, the surgeon general. Nydegger, according to the Evening Sun, felt “that the closing of saloons in Maryland is rendered necessary … because of the indiscriminate drinking of whiskey under the mistaken notion that whiskey prevents influenza. The public health officer explained that, while whiskey is a good medicine for a person ill with the disease, and in fact may then be needed as a heart stimulant, it really lowers the resistance of the system of a person who is not infected.”

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Blue was dismissive of the extraordinary number of soldiers reporting sick.

“The present generation,” Blue said according to the Post, “has been spoiled by having had expert medical and nursing care readily available.”

As of Oct. 12, according to the Sun, there were approximately 11,000 cases reported with 525 deaths at Camp Meade alone.

Race track closes

The Laurel area was in the same boat as every other community across the nation. There was one facility that, curiously, was still open after Blake’s order: Laurel Race Track. When the track was specifically ordered closed by the Maryland State Board of Health on Oct. 13, it was national news.

The last day of racing was marred by confusion created by the State Board. On Oct. 12, according to the Post, the board notified the racetrack it had reconsidered the closing and racing was permitted until further notice. The Board “was influenced by the belief that the open-air sport was rather conducive to the decrease of the epidemic than spreading it, inasmuch as physicians have declared that outdoors and sunshine are the greatest enemies of the disease.”

Hundreds of fans, who had boarded trains at Washington’s Union Station and Baltimore’s Camden Station for the racetrack, were ordered off the trains and given refunds. An announcement was made that the track had closed. Later, it was announced that racing was indeed happening that day, but the track would close at the conclusion of the day’s races.

The racetrack, along with everything else in Laurel, stayed closed or observed modified hours until Oct. 24, when Blake announced “he had decided it was expedient” to allow churches to hold regular services and all other businesses to reopen with modified hours. Racing resumed to great fanfare on Oct 26. Public schools reopened on Nov. 1. World War I ended on Nov. 11. Everything seemed to be returning to normal.

About a month later, however, a third and much less deadly wave of influenza surfaced that, according to Barry, “was lethal by any standard except the second wave.” The third wave of the pandemic subsided during the summer of 1919. The hardest hit areas of the world during the second wave generally fared well during the third and final wave of the pandemic.

Did we learn anything?

Harvard philosophy professor George Santayana is credited with the famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Apparently, the world has a short memory. Jeffrey K. Taubenberger, one of the first researchers to sequence the genome of the 1918 virus, was quoted in the Washington Post in 2018. “The most important thing to do is not just to understand 1918 as a historical phenomenon but as an example of what could happen in the future.”

Correct information disseminated to the public is key. As Barry wrote, “That is why, in my view, the most important lesson from 1918 is to tell the truth.”

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