But readers who flipped toward the back of the Evening Bulletin might have stumbled on an unsettling headline: In the last 24 hours, 118 people in Philadelphia had come down with a mysterious, deadly influenza, which was quickly spreading from military camps to civilians amid a worldwide pandemic.
“If the people are careless, thousands of cases may develop and the epidemic may get beyond control,” the city’s health commissioner, Wilmer Krusen, said in the 1918 article, according to the Philly Voice.
He was the same person who, just a day earlier, allowed to go forward what is now known as the deadliest parade in American history. In doing so, he ignored the advice of medical professionals who urged him to cancel the parade or risk an epidemic.
Within three days, every bed in the city’s 31 hospitals was filled. There were thousands of influenza patients.
A century later, as the novel coronavirus grips the nation with anxiety and disrupts everyday life, Philadelphia’s 1918 Liberty Loan parade “is a perfect historic example of how the misplaced priorities can become so dangerous,” historian Kenneth C. Davis told The Washington Post on Wednesday. This week, major cities including Philadelphia, New York and Chicago decided to cancel their St. Patrick’s Day parades amid fears of accelerating the spread of coronavirus.
Davis said he was “astonished” it took New York until Wednesday night to make that call, given the cautionary tale of Philadelphia’s deadly Liberty Loan parade.
“It seemed to me to be a perfect parallel to the story of what happened in Philadelphia in 1918, where the health authorities were clearly aware that this was a growing problem, and the health commissioner was absolutely told to stop the parade,” said Davis, author of “More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War.”
“But he chose not to.”
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, including about 675,000 in the United States. But no American city was hit harder than Philadelphia.
In retrospect, historians and the federal government have blamed the city’s explosion of influenza infections in 1918 on city officials’ failure to quickly shut down mass gatherings — namely the parade.
Health officials were aware of the risks. The signs were there in the days before the big event. At least 600 enlisted men on military bases on the outskirts of the city were suffering from the influenza, while 47 civilians were reported to be infected just two days before the parade, according to an article by Thomas Wirth in “Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies.”
The pernicious flu strain caused head-splitting fevers, crippling coughs and severe body ache. The symptoms, ravaging military camps and battlefields all over Europe and the United States, were now invading city streets.
As a precautionary measure, the city printed out 20,000 fliers giving Philadelphia residents advice on how to avoid catching the flu. They urged people to cover their mouths when they sneezed and coughed.
Still, doctors couldn’t seem to convince the city to halt the beloved war-bonds rally. One doctor called it “a ready-made inflammable mass for conflagration” — but not a single newspaper would print his warning, according to John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History.”
Davis said that city leaders were more concerned about boosting morale for the war effort and too afraid of causing panic. In one ad from the parade organizers in the Philadelphia Inquirer, readers were warned, “Citizens! A Crisis Is Here!”
“The influenza epidemic imperils the success of the Fourth Liberty Loan. … The Government calls upon you not to forget your duty to the Fighters in France” — meaning the citizens better not stay home.
Krusen had assured the city that it was safe to go. Yet just one day after the parade, he issued a list of rules for the public to follow, according to Wirth’s article. Chief among them was, “avoid large crowds.”
Within a week of the parade, more than 45,000 people in Philadelphia were infected with influenza, as the entire city, from schools to pool halls, ground to a halt, according to Wirth.
Within six weeks, more than 12,000 Philadelphians were dead.
“The real death and destruction came about after the parade, but it was very sudden and it was very dramatic,” Davis said. “It was an apocalyptic scene, when in some cases, public-health nurses would be walking into tenements and finding whole families dead.”
Around the 100th anniversary of the 1918 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited the parade as the prime example of exactly what not to do during a looming pandemic. It compared Philadelphia to St. Louis, which in 1918 canceled its Liberty Loan parade for the war effort, while closing schools and discouraging large social gatherings.
“With the flu pandemic at its peak, St. Louis decided to cancel its parade, while Philadelphia chose to continue. The next month, more than 10,000 people in Philadelphia died from pandemic flu, while the death toll in Saint Louis did not rise above 700,” the CDC noted. “This deadly example shows the benefit of canceling mass gatherings and employing social distancing measures during pandemics.”
The CDC, as well as state and local governments, are urging the same precautions now. Along with St. Patrick’s Day parades, major events including South by Southwest in Austin, the Coachella music festival in California and the remainder of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo have been canceled or postponed. On Wednesday, the NBA suspended the rest of its season indefinitely, just as President Trump restricted travel from most of Europe for 30 days.
New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) announced that the city’s parade would be postponed in an interview with his brother, Chris Cuomo, on CNN late Wednesday, after numerous articles during the afternoon questioned why the city hadn’t yet taken that precaution.
When his brother asked how the parade organizers were taking the news, the governor said, “Not well, I can tell you that.”