The contagion began suddenly in the northern suburbs of Chicago and floated south toward the city like an invisible cloud. Soon restaurants, saloons, and theaters were closed and the police had the power to break up crowds and arrest individuals for spitting, coughing or sneezing in public. Public funerals were forbidden and elective surgeries canceled. Everyone wore face masks. Was this Spring, 2020? No, it was Chicago in the Autumn of 1918.
Join the Windy City Historians for this special episode as we step away from the chronological telling of Chicago history of our ongoing “Laying the Foundation” series, and instead chart the course of epidemics and outbreaks in Chicago history. In particular, we dig into the, so called, Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918. This pandemic reveals many parallels between the events of 1918 and today’s struggle with the novel coronavirus (SARS Cov-2, its new official name) in 2020.
In this episode we interview historian Joseph Gustaitis, author of Chicago’s Greatest Year, 1893 and Chicago Transformed: World War I and the Windy City to learn about Chicago’s the first health crisis in 1835 and subsequent outbreaks and diseases plaguing the young city leading up to the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918.
A cataclysmic event in 1918 and 1919 this epidemic infected one-third of the world’s population, over 500 million people and killing approximately 1% of the human population on earth, an estimated 20-to-50-million people. In the United States alone approximately 675,000 citizens died — more Americans than were killed in WWI and WWII combined. The pandemic affected the way Americans and Chicagoan’s live and work today and was particularly lethal to people in the prime of their life. Learn more about this incredible story 100+ years ago and the parallels and differences with today’s pandemic.
Links to Research and History Documents
We mention in this episode one known documented account of whites giving smallpox infected blankets to Native Americans. This is attributed to the letters of Jeffery Amherst a British officer stationed at Fort Pitt in later day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who under siege in 1763 during the French and Indian War (1754 – 1763) writes to Colonel Henry Bouquet. Much has been written of this legend this so a variety of sources are cited on the topic below:
- Influenza Encyclopedia: the American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia produced by the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine and Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library.
- Blog post from a professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth on how infectious diseases spread, “The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them,” by Erin Bromage
- The Straight Dope – “Did whites ever give Native Americans blankets infected with smallpox?” by Cecil Adams from October 24, 1997.
- More on Jeffery Amherst from hosted by the University of Massachusetts by Peter d’Errico © 2001, 2020
- Details on the folklore of smallpox infected blankets “The Nessus Shirt in the New World: Smallpox Blankets in History and Legend” by Adrienne Mayor, The Journal of American Folklore Winter, 1995 — please discount her references to Ward Churchhill accounts which were later proven completely false!
Please note Ward Churchill mentioned above sadly perpetuated the myth of the U.S. Army spreading smallpox to First Nations in at least six publications between 1994 and 2003. Churchill entirely fabricated incidents which never occurred, about individuals who never existed. His sources were completely falsified, and talk about fake news, he repeatedly concealed evidence in his possession discrediting his falsified version of events.
Below are additional links and research we touch upon in this episode:
- Chicago historian Joseph Gustaitis’ books Chicago’s Greatest Year, 1893 and Chicago Transformed from Southern Illinois University Press.
- George Pullman’s early career moving & raising buildings, “Moving Buildings with George Pullman” from Classic Chicago Magazine.
- Piping fresh water from Waukesha, Wisconsin to the World’s Fair from a Jan. 6, 2012 blog post “Armed Standoff Over Wisconsin Water” by B & M Technical Services Inc.
- John M. Barry video interview (29 minutes)on April 7, 2020, author of the book The Great Influenza.
- Influenza outbreak in Haskill, Kansas in “The site of origin of the 1918 influenza pandemic and its public health implications” by John M. Berry from the Journal of Translated Medicine, Jan. 20, 2004.
- Chicago Reader article by Jeff Nichols, “The ghosts of Great Lakes,” April 6, 2020 on the Flu and Great Lakes Naval Training Center.
- Dr. John Dill Robertson’s “Preliminary Report on the Influenza Epidemic in Chicago” includes charts shown above November of 1918.
- Article analyzing Dr. Robertson’s reported statements of 1918 “Exploring Chicago’s Spanish Flu of 1918” from the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 5, 2013.
- Backstory a podcast episode from the American History Guys and the University of Virginia “Forgotten Flu: American & the 1918 Pandemic”