100 years ago, Lebanon grappled with a very different pandemic—the Spanish flu

6 min read4,523 views and 1,561 shares Posted March 18, 2020

COVID-19, better known as coronavirus, is making headlines in local and national papers. The shutdowns, precautionary measures, and uneasy atmosphere are nothing new, however: 100 years ago, the US and the rest of the world faced a pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza A virus, otherwise known as the Spanish flu.

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It should be noted upfront that coronavirus and the 1918 Spanish flu are very different in regards to their health effects, as a recent New York Times article noted. The Spanish flu (so named because Spain, a neutral country during World War I, gave the disease more press coverage than its information-restricting neighbors) struck at a time when medical science had limited knowledge of viruses, and the movements of armies and the close quarters of combat meant that the disease traveled quickly and viciously through the ranks of many young soldiers across a number of countries.

The Spanish flu has been a historic reference point for news reporters in Lebanon and elsewhere since the pandemic ended in 1920. Chris Sholly, in an article in the Lebanon Daily News back in 2007, reported on the avian flu and contrasted it with the Spanish flu, while in 1957 Lebanon’s County Medical Director Dr. James DeWitt Kerr informed the newspaper that the “Asian flu” pandemic of the time was not much like its precursor. In other years, outbreaks of swine flu have also been compared with the Spanish flu.

The first notice about the Spanish flu in the Daily News, June 3, 1918. Earlier cases of the flu in the US were not named as such.
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The first flu cases appeared in the US in March of 1918. By October, the nation was in the midst of a second wave of cases, and this month proved to be the deadliest, killing almost 200,000 Americans over 31 days.

October also saw the first flu-caused death of Lebanon County. A 62-year-old woman, Addie Shiner of Schaefferstown, died on the morning of Oct. 7, 1918, after battling the disease and an accompanying bout of pneumonia for a week.

Shiner was not part of the flu’s hardest-hit demographic. In contrast to the coronavirus, which has been especially aggressive in people aged 60 and older, the Spanish flu killed primarily young adults with otherwise healthy immune systems. Researchers have theorized that the older generation had been exposed to a less deadly variant of the virus in their youth, which gave them some protection against the 1918 strain.

In the weeks following Shiner’s death, the Lebanon Daily News somberly reported the deaths of Miles Bachman (28), Norman Beamesderfer (33), Allen Zellers, (18), J. Carlos Burgner (24), Mary Fath (35), Harvey Eisenhauer (17), and Faber Deemer (16), among a number of others. Many had also contracted pneumonia at the time.

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Symptoms & Advice

Before there was “social distancing,” there was “kissing through a handkerchief.” (The Daily News, Aug. 17, 1918)

Local health officials provided the Daily News with the latest information on the disease. City health officer Dr. Edward H. Gingrich (the namesake of the Gingrich Memorial Pool) attended a Philadelphia conference on the disease in late September, returning with the latest updates.

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The flu’s symptoms included the usual aches, chills, fevers, and coughs or sneezes. Experts strongly discouraged sneezing in public, with one of the Philadelphia physicians stating that anyone caught sneezing ought to be arrested and “severely penalized.”

Most of us, in these busy days, cannot afford, if it can be avoided, to take a week or more of work so it is all the more necessary that at the very first sign of grip or influenza a counteracting treatment should be taken.

An ad for the Hyomei inhaler
The Daily News
Oct. 18, 1918

Mineral oils were recommended for preventing the disease, while saltwater was discouraged for its “denud[ing] of the mucous membranes.” Some businesses capitalized on the virus, advertising products like Father John’s Medicine, Vick’s VapoRub, and Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People.

Lebanon closes up “bone tight”

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On Oct. 4, 1918, coinciding with news of an estimated 50,000 cases in the state, Lebanon’s Superintendent of Public Safety J. Herbert Manbeck received instructions from the office of the State Health Commissioner to close “all amusement places and saloons” in the city, as well as to consider closing institutions like schools and churches.

A day later, the City of Lebanon’s board of school directors decided to close the public schools of the city. On Oct. 8, 1918, officials estimated that the city contained 200 cases. During the following week, around 30 new cases were being reported to the local Health Department each day before noon.

Superintendent Manbeck, with the support of the District Nurse Association, subsequently opened up the Chestnut Street Armory to house the rapid influx of new patients. The Red Cross also contributed many volunteers to aid the sick in nearby hospitals and emergency sites. At this time it appeared that the peak number of cases was still yet to come.

Two Red Cross nurses in a Boston hospital. (National Archives)

Some doctors visited boarding houses and took likely victims into the armory for treatment. It was recommended that those who could be treated at home were to stay at home so that the available hospital beds could be reserved for patients in more dire conditions.

On Oct. 19, 1918, shops and barbers closed at 6 p.m. under orders from the city, and a week later officials reaffirmed the decision. At this time it was reported that the city alone had seen 1,518 cases, with over 100 patients in the hospitals. It was unknown how many more cases were in the suburbs and surrounding areas. For reference, Lebanon’s population in the 1920 census taken two years later was 24,643.

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Work slowed. The Bethlehem Steel Corporation reported that 20-25% of its workforce had not shown up, while the Lebanon Steel Foundry claimed almost 40% were off of work due to the virus. Not all of the men were sick; a portion were simply caring for family members at home.

The Daily News reported that “hotel men and liquor dealers” were especially prone to having their “incomes cut off entirely.” Presumably many of Lebanon’s other businesses downtown and elsewhere saw similar losses.

Sound familiar? (The Daily News, Oct. 5, 1918)

One man who found himself in jail for public drunkenness claimed that he had been drinking whiskey to stave off the flu. After adding quinine to the drink, he set off for the countryside and eventually passed out on the banks of a creek after hours of drinking and eating watercress. The Daily News reported on Oct. 18, 1918 that Mayor George Spang, evidently moved by the man’s explanation, ordered a fine of two dollars, which the man readily paid.

Two comic strips by early American cartoonist Walter Allman that ran in the Daily News on Oct. 25 and Oct. 31, 1918.

A month later, good news

In the last two weeks of October, visiting US army surgeon Dr. William Dolan examined the city and stated he was “greatly pleased with local conditions.” The quick opening of treatment sites, the preemptive closure of large public gatherings, and the community’s readiness to do what it took to limit the virus’s spread meant that Lebanon was in a much better shape than other unfortunate towns. Dolan estimated that the peak number of cases was by now reached and that the oncoming weeks would see a reduction in new cases.

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November indeed brought cause for celebration after a month of shutdowns and thousands of flu cases. Locally, the disease was undoubtedly on the wane. On Nov. 6, 1918, the establishments that had been closed on Oct. 4 reopened and resumed general business, while Dr. Gingrich reported a decrease in the number of deaths. Schools across the county reopened their doors on Nov. 12 (with city schools reopening on Nov. 18).

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On Nov. 11, World War I officially came to an end in Europe. Though the return of soldiers back to the US spurred another wave of cases, Lebanon maintained a relatively low number of new cases.

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The orderly manner in which all businessmen suffered losses and inconveniences is a credit to the patriotic spirit of Lebanon’s citizenship at large.

The Daily News
Nov. 5, 1918

Superintendent Manbeck commended the Bethlehem Steel Company, the Red Cross, and others for their labor and supplies in a report the following January. Manbeck also reported that 45 of 138 patients treated at the Good Samaritan and Emergency Hospitals had died (it should be noted that the number of cases and deaths countywide was presumably higher). The City and the County of Lebanon each expended $3,000 treating the disease.

Though Lebanon lost a number of citizens to the Spanish flu, the admirable handling of the situation and the precautionary measures taken are to be commended, even a hundred years afterwards.

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The coronavirus may be testing our community’s will again, but if history has told us anything, it’s that the people of Lebanon will soldier through.

Read up on the Spanish flu’s timeline on the Center for Disease Control’s website.

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