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Spanish Influenza knew no boundaries

In the autumn of 1918, all of South Bethlehem braced for a strange influenza that traveled from town to town with a terrifying grip on the U.S. With continuous World War I updates, Bethlehem Steel plant injuries and railroad accidents – local newspapers were used to daily horrors, even as they struggled to keep up with virulent cases in St. Luke’s and hastily built emergency hospitals.

Bethlehem was better prepared than most towns because of urgently needed war materiel produced by the steel company, and the newly unified city of Bethlehem that lowered contagions by enforcing strict prohibitions on gatherings of all kinds. This included church services, athletic meets – and with great difficulty, bars and saloons. The townspeople went all in, buying war bonds with whatever extra money they could afford, shipping goods to the front where they could.

I wish my grandparents had told me about this historic time, but they remained their stoic selves till the end. So I had taken the opportunity to piece together data from over 150 death certificates of people I found in St. Michael’s Cemetery, their demise attributed to ‘The Spanish Flu,’ or ‘Pneumonia,’ following ‘Influenza.’

The first illnesses were flagged in September 1918, with a horrifying acceleration that peaked in mid-October, then dropped in November, only to flare up again in December before tailing off into the winter. We now know this classic pattern of the infection, although at the time, daily newspapers zig-zagged between hope and despair, even as advertisements filled the pages touting treatments ranging from Father John’s Medicine to Vick’s Vapo-Rub.

More men than women died – I suspect that more men than women probably lived in the area around St. Michael’s Cemetery at that time. Many men who arrived alone from foreign lands and surrounding towns lived in crowded boarding houses after they found work in South Bethlehem.

Similar to the national statistical data, the average Spanish flu burial in St. Michael’s was a person in the prime of life. Today, we still debate why the epidemic cut down people who had the most to give in life who were suddenly stricken, gasping for breath, turning blue and dying within hours. In addition to interments at St. Michael’s, coffins were sent ‘home’ to nearby cities via train, while others were buried in Sts. Cyril and Methodius, Holy Ghost, and Fountain Hill cemeteries. Using St. Michael’s current data as a snapshot, the total number of burials amounted to 311 in 1916; 316 in 1917; 485 in 1918; and 229 in 1919. The ‘excess’ deaths in 1918 were certainly visible.

Of the 157 death certificates I sampled in my research, 38 died in St. Luke’s Hospital and 15 in the Northampton Heights Emergency Hospital. Thirty-seven different doctors signed the death certificates, by far the most signed by Dr. Loyal Shoudy of Bethlehem Steel Corp. (18) – and Dr. George Pehutias of St. Luke’s, who signed 24 – an amazing amount of work.

Undertakers busily prepared the deceased for burials . . . McGovern had 45, Bolich, 31; Madden, 22; Kinney, 20; and Conahan, 17.

As the epidemic raged, deaths continued with the usual ever-present childhood diseases, childbirths, accidents and suicides. The Oct. 7 issue of The Morning Call reported that Joseph Csandli fell 35 feet to his death, when he slipped while he jumped between two cranes at the Bethlehem Steel Company; Joseph Marich, 25, died of typhoid fever; Lizzie Mamaro, 2, died from burns received while playing with matches; and two people died when a trolley car flipped on a steep grade on Wyandotte Street – a mere sampling of deaths reported on Oct. 7.

On Nov. 11, at the end of WWI, came Armistice Day, a day forever remembered with red poppies, when the town took a collective breath and newspapers shouted blessed peace, when army conscription was suspended and ads appeared touting gifts for the upcoming Christmas season – and life went on.

Chart and map data researched by Rosemary C. Buffington.