Part of the USA Today Network

1918 Spanish Flu ravaged York, impacting Civil War veterans

York native Amos Underwood, a corporal in the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, survived the American Civil War. More than fifty years later, during World War I, he could not survive a global viral pandemic known to history as the “Spanish flu.”

In early September 1918, the York Dispatch began reporting that Spanish influenza was spreading across the country. The flu had first been reported in the U.S. in Kansas late in 1917 but had subsided. A much more lethal variation emerged in mid-1918, eventually killing more than 50 million people worldwide, including 600,000 in the U.S., before finally abating.

Spanish flu spread slowly in the late summer and then grew exponentially. Orders to close churches, schools, and businesses came too late to stop the epidemic. Poor hygiene and sanitation, crowded conditions, inadequate medical care facilities, a shortage of doctors with many physicians serving in Europe with the army, malnutrition, lack of education about the disease, and other factors accelerated the death rate.

The flu began as scattered news items about deaths in Europe from a new strain of influenza. Spain became popularly associated with the outbreak, hence the name Spanish influenza. It slowly spread to the U. S., likely from returning WWI soldiers. On September 17, the York Dispatch mentioned that 70 people in or near Boston had died from the flu and/or accompanying pneumonia over the past 24 hours. Many of the victims worked together in the crowded, poorly-ventilated shoe factories in Brockton.

On the 18th, the first patient died in Philadelphia. The hospital at the Navy Yard was overwhelmed; all 300 beds were filled and 500 additional patients could not be accommodated. American soldiers were dying at various military camps across the country, the Dispatch reported, 108 in the past week and 95 the previous reporting period.

Two days later on September 20, the paper’s headlines blared “Take Prompt Action if You Have Cold.” Preventative measures included “Keep out of crowds. If you have a cold, start treating it immediately. Carry a clean pocket handkerchief and when using it do not flap it around. Keep the nostrils and other breathing passages clean. Three times a day use a gargle made up of a half teaspoonful of table salt, half teaspoonful of baking soda, and six ounces of water.” The editors noted that doctors were having difficulty in diagnosing Spanish influenza from the cold, common flu, or pneumonia.

By September 25, the Spanish flu had spread to more than 20 army bases across the U.S. Seventy-seven soldiers died in one day at the sprawling Great Lakes base in Illinois. Civilians in New York City and other places along the East Coast were now dying. The following day, the Dispatch stated that more than 29,000 Americans were now sick, with 530 dead so far.

No one in York County had yet fallen victim. However, ominously, 300 soldiers at Camp Colt in Adams County (on the Gettysburg battlefield) were now sick. However, the post physician believed the disease was abating there. He was wrong.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania began calling for doctors, including 40 from York County, from the Volunteer Medical Service to assist patients in areas affected by the virus (then strictly in eastern Pennsylvania). Dr. Julius H. Comroe headed the local York chapter of the VMS. Authorities banned people from participating in the Loyal League parade in York planned for October 5, other than family members of soldiers and sailors. That procession was to emphasize the purchase of Liberty war bonds.

Peter Stough and his wife of Princess Street received a telegram on September 27 that their son Pvt. Harry B. Stough had died the previous evening at Camp Lee in Virginia. The cause of death was pneumonia “possibly brought on by the Spanish influenza.” The York High School graduate kept the books of the York Printing Company before enlisting in the army. Other Yorkers soon also learned their boys were ill or had expired. Mrs. John W. Plonk of East Cottage Place traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, on the 28th to visit her sick son Stuart. His commanding officer had telephoned Mrs. Plonk the previous evening to let her know. Over the next few days, the Dispatch mentioned several local families who learned of loved ones now inflicted.

By September 30, Dr. J. Frank Small, the director of public health for York borough, finished a telephone survey that revealed 22 cases of influenza locally. Two cases stemmed from Rhode Island (stemming from Mrs. Plonk’s visit to see her son); two from Edgewater, Maryland; and one from Philadelphia. “Dr. Small anticipates an outbreak of the disease in our city,” the Dispatch warned, “and desires the physicians to notify him of the number of cases coming under their observation daily.” Postcards were distributed and house-bound families were told to use them to report contagious diseases. “The best way to fight it is for each one who is attacked to go to bed and call for his doctor,” the paper added. “Thus he quickly cured himself without dangerous complications and is less a menace to others than he would be if he persisted in dragging himself about in crowded halls and conveyances.”

By October 1, 35 soldiers had died at Camp Colt but there were no civilian cases in Gettysburg yet. The number of new cases was again on the rise, with 85 fresh cases of tankers being trained there now ill. Many soldiers had been taken to Francis Xavier Hall in downtown Gettysburg for treatment. In North York, the entire George H. Schaszberger family was now sick. Attending physician Dr. G. W. Bowles reported their illness to Dr. Small, who was still collecting data from across the borough. Alarmingly, reports were coming in from several other neighborhoods. The newspaper’s social lists began reporting the names of folks who were now ill (a common practice in that day).

By then, 2,000 school children in Camden, New Jersey, were out sick but the schools were still open. In York County, the Wrightsville schools soon had its first students stay home with the disease as it spread. One of the borough’s doctors was also now ill.

York Countians began dying the first week of October. Mrs. Bessie Snyder of Wrightsville passed away on October 2; she had been taken ill just a week earlier. The lethality of the disease was quite apparent. Healthy young people were perishing across the world. Bessie was only 30. She left a little daughter.

More and more York soldiers were perishing or were now ill at military camps across the country. On the 3rd, the Littlestown school district in Adams County closed because of influenza and severe colds; all churches would be closed on Sunday “to prevent a further spread of influenza.”

Wrightsville followed suit the following day as borough officials also closed all factories. The flu was now “rampant since the early part of the week, the number of its victims increasing daily.” Workers at the town’s hosiery mill, sewing factory, and cigarmaking shops were sick. “Entire families are down with the ailment,” the Dispatch reported, “while in others as many as from four to six.” S. W. Gable, the editor-owner of the Wrightsville Star, was now afflicted.

With the disease now spreading across the Keystone State, state health department officials were now sending doctors to hotspots, including Butler, which became the first town in western Pennsylvania to report victims. The health care system was being strained and, in several cases, physicians and nurses were now sick.

On October 3, the Dispatch reported, “Spanish influenza, a malady which is prevalent in general throughout the United States, has made its appearance here, there being probably several dozen cases within the borough and close vicinity. Several of the victims are reported to be seriously sick as a result.” The flu ripped through the York Haven Paper Company, sending several workers home.

“Influenza Shuts Up State Tight,” the Dispatch headlined the next day. Theaters and saloons were closed by state order; churches and schools were left up to the discretion of local authorities. All fair and expositions, including the York Fair, were now prohibited throughout the commonwealth. Restaurants and stores could remain open “as usual, people exercising reasonable precautions, but that liquors should not be sold.” Philadelphia was now “bone dry” for the first time in its history. York establishments were under the same state-wide order. The social lists were now filled with dozens of names of people confined to their homes by illness. Sixteen-year-old Morris J. Arnold of York New Salem perished after battling the flu for a few days.

On October 5, Dr. Small reported 123 cases of Spanish influenza in the borough of York. Officials banned civic gatherings such as lodge meetings, churches, schools, movie theaters, dance halls,  etc. Violation of the order would be considered as a misdemeanor crime, punishable by a fine of $100 or imprisonment of one month. The markets could stay open as health officials believed it was better “to have the people well-fed than to have them underfed.”

The paper noted that “influenza is spread by infectious particles thrown off while coughing and sneezing.” The local anti-spitting ordinance needed to be strictly enforced and a few citizens found themselves under arrest for spitting on sidewalks, railway platforms, carriages, and other public places.

By nightfall on October 5, “York was closed more tightly than ever it was before… there is every prospect that this Saturday night in York will be the most unusual that ever was experienced by its citizens.” However, stores, hotels, factories, and restaurants were legally still allowed to stay open if the proprietors so desired. Hanover, Spring Grove, and Red Lion placed similar measures in place that day.

York Countians continued to die from the flu, pneumonia, or other complications. William H. Able and Willis McElroy of Wrightsville joined the growing list on October 6. Able’s fiancé left her own sickbed to be with him and now was prostrated in the Able home with a severe relapse. Able was 36; McElroy 35. It was clear that the flu was not only lethal to older persons but also to healthy young people. Bodies of soldiers who died elsewhere were being sent home. They included Pvt. David E. Poff, who died at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, next to the historic Chickamauga battlefield from the Civil War. The Wrightsville soldier would not be the last.

On the 8th, Wrightsville officials pleaded for medical help as conditions grew worse in the stricken borough. More than 600 people, a full third of the population, were now sick. Most businesses had closed (not by order but by the lack of enough healthy workers to keep production rolling). Local Boy Scouts helped the few available doctors by filling out the required medical reports for the health department. Mail delivery was suspended.

A medical expert in Philadelphia predicted that the onset of cold, clear weather would greatly aid in fighting influenza, calling the anticipated low temperatures “the best destroyer of influenza germs.” The worst was past, he believed. In York County, the Dispatch agreed that the rate of affliction seemed to have slowed but people, including two more in Wrightsville, were still dying. The Dispatch reported on October 11 that 985 people in York had the flu; 16 had died since October 1. Publisher J. W. Gitt of the rival York Daily was stricken; he would survive what his doctors deemed as “Asiatic flu.”

Efforts were being made to establish a temporary hospital in York to relieve some of the pressure on the overcrowded medical system.

The following day, there were 49 new cases in Hanover, but the disease “was not spreading rapidly to new homes” following the social distancing efforts. Mrs. Annan Smith of Pleasant Street was the latest Hanoverian to expire.

Throughout Pennsylvania, so many people had died that many victims remained unburied as families were stricken.

York Dispatch, October 17, 1918

275,000 Keystoners were now sick. Ads appeared in newspapers throughout the commonwealth, including in the papers in York County, offering various purported remedies to Spanish influenza. A Pittsburgh doctor offered to inject iodine into flu victims as a preventative vaccination.

On October 14, the mayor of York, E. S. Hugentugler, issued a decree that stores could only be opened in the morning for a short period to prevent crowding. No one could return any merchandise for any reason. “Don’t congregate in groups — keep moving” was the recommendation. The fairgrounds had been turned into an informal hospital and treatment area.

The following day, Dallastown officials reported the town had six new cases, making a total of 30 to date. Many more people were ill but had not been reported formally. Only two individuals were in serious condition, unlike in York Township where several folks were serious or critical. Local farmers were having difficulty in securing enough hired help to husk their corn crops. Several offered high sums for temporary help but could not locate sufficient assistance. Mercantile establishments were now closed in most of the county.

Several businessmen ignored the orders to cease operations. On October 17, the president of Dover’s health board sent a sternly-worded letter to H. W. Linebaugh. He received the mandate on the 4th but ignored it and continued to operate his general store along the Carlisle Road until again ordered to close. Linebaugh had complied for a couple of days but soon reopened. He now faced prosecution if he again failed to heed the persistent notes instructing him to comply.

At the same time, the flu continued spreading throughout the county. Young farmer William Rudisill of Hellam Township expired, joining Edward W. Mundis who had perished earlier in the week. Rudisill, who lived on the Annie McConkey farm two miles southeast of Hallam, left a wife and five young children. Dillsburg contractor Howard W. Williams, 38 years old, died on the 17th. His wife and four children survived. “Apparently there is no abatement in the epidemic prevailing in this section and there remain many patients whose condition is serious,” the Dispatch wrote on October 18. Thirteen-year-old Mildred Rife died in York Haven the same day as Williams. Clarence Albers died in York Haven; 20% of the population by then was inflicted.

The first deaths in the Dallastown area occurred on October 25 when five-year-old Sadie Ebberly and 39-year-old Charles Ness died. Mr. and Mrs. Ness and all eight of their children were bedridden, with no one to care for the family.

“The epidemic seems to be spreading to this section,” the York Dispatch mentioned on October 25, “and the health board, which had considered removing the ban from churches and schools, has postponed this action indefinitely. It is estimated that there are no fewer than 275 cases of the disease in this vicinity, and the local physicians are barely able to cope with the situation. Dr. T. A. Lawson yesterday reported 74 cases in York township. Many persons have been unable to secure the attention of either [a] nurse or physician.” The paper listed dozens of people around the county who were sick at home with various degrees of the flu.

York Dispatch, October 25, 1918

By the end of October, Spanish influenza had seemingly abated in most areas. Red Lion and other towns made plans to reopen the public schools. York followed suit in early November. However, people were still contracting the disease, and the public was again warned about large gatherings. A few old Civil War veterans became infected. At least one, Benjamin Seitz formerly of the 166th Pennsylvania, died from “broncho-pneumonia” in Yoe on November 15. There is no report directly linking his death to the Spanish flu but it is likely.

On November 30, 54 new cases were reported in York borough as the disease staged a comeback. Teenagers Elmer Ellsworth Young (named for the first Union officer to die in the Civil War) and his brother George of Jessop Place died within days of each other. Civil War veteran Amos Underwood, the cavalryman from the 3rd Pennsylvania, expired on December 17 from “broncho-pneumonia” caused by influenza. He is buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery.

Scattered individuals died from the flu or its aftereffects well into the New Year. More than 60,000 Pennsylvanians, including 16,000 Philadelphia residents, died throughout the course of the pandemic, which ended in the spring of 1919 (although there were still pockets around the world until 1922). Spanish Flu victim and former York Daily Record reporter Jim Hubley estimated that 300 local residents died out of 6,500 who became ill, but those numbers are low proportionally to state numbers and might relate only to York city or those treated at York hospital. Numbers for York County as a whole are uncertain, partially because of families that did not or could not fill out the requisite postcards or get them into the mail. Others reported as dying from pneumonia or bronchial afflictions likely perished from superinfections caused by Spanish Flu but were not counted.

Sources: York Dispatch from September 1 to December 30, 1918; Dennis W. Brandt’s database of Civil War soldiers at the York County History Center; Jim McClure’s York Town Square blog, April 13, 2009.