Jacques Kelly: Recalling a heavy death toll from the 1918 Baltimore flu pandemic

It was spring 1918, and a pair of East Baltimore physicians noticed an uptick in severe laryngitis, accompanied by throat bleeding.

The doctors, Anthony L. Rettaliata, who practiced on North Broadway, and John W. France, on Gay Street, found that civilians working at the World War I military camps were coming down with these unusual respiratory illnesses.

Their early diagnoses proved to be a grim preview of what we know as the 1918 influenza pandemic that swept Baltimore that fall.

The medical condition described as acute laryngitis in Baltimore City Health Department reports seemed to disappear over the summer. But the disease, later described as influenza or lobar pneumonia, returned in the early fall.

By late September, so many persons were sickened that city officials considered closing places of public assembly.

Yet the outbreak was initially played down, and some thought such closures were too drastic. In a Sun article 100 years ago today — Oct. 6, 1918 — city Heath Commissioner John Blake said such measures “will not stop influenza. … They only excite people, throw them into a nervous state and lower their resistance to the disease.”

Blake soon had to reverse. Churches, synagogues, racetracks, theaters and schools closed — and Halloween celebrations were banned — as the killing flu spiked.

City records show 5,400 people perished in the 1918 pandemic. In a comparable period the year before, 1,608 died of the flu and lobar pneumonia.

While many were sickened, the flu affected one age group in particular. A city health department report noted that the death rate was quite low among children, but “markedly high among adults of 20 to 44.”

The story of death is reflected in the burial records of local cemeteries. For the month of October 1918, there were 334 burials at Baltimore Cemetery at East North Avenue and Rose Street.

“That’s more than 10 a day,” said Tim Burke, the cemetery’s current manager.

Burke opened an old safe in his office to reveal ledgers listing the well-known undertakers of the day — Cook, Fahey, Wiedefeld, Witzke, Herwig, Burgee, Schwab, Jenkins, Tickner, Lassahn and Mitchell — whose horse-drawn hearses called at Baltimore Cemetery’s stone gates. A bell would toll the arrival of mourners.

Many of those interred at Baltimore Cemetery were young. On Oct. 10, 1918, the ages of those buried were 19, 20, 25, 28, 29, 38 and 43. One record indicates that Ferdinand Thiess, 23, of 2120 E. Monument St., died of “La Grippe” — another term for the deadly disease.

Also hard hit were young soldiers at military camps at Fort McHenry, Camp Meade and Edgewood Arsenal. The first diagnosed cases were reported at Camp Meade and taken to Mercy Hospital. The Sun reported that 75 Sisters of Mercy traveled to the base to attend the sick.

“It is likely that 75,000 is an under estimate of the number of cases of influenza that occurred in Baltimore between Sept. 20 and Dec. 31,” said Dr. John F. Hogan in his report of the Baltimore City Health Department.

“The city has never been visited by such an epidemic as prevailed in the fall of this year. [And] added to this a milder epidemic, one of whooping cough and measles, along with war conditions, resulted in general chaotic conditions affecting everything,” he wrote.

Dr. Hogan himself was stricken with the flu — he treated himself with aspirin and quinine — and was erroneously reported to have died. The day his death was reported in The Evening Sun, he called the city editor and said: "I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to read my own obituary while I'm still alive to enjoy it.”

He lived almost another 50 years, dying Nov. 24, 1967.

A urologist, Dr. Hogan had another brush with history beyond the 1918 pandemic: He treated mobster Al Capone, who sought medical advice for his syphilis when he came to Baltimore in 1939.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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