Suppose, under penalty of law, you couldn’t leave your home. And suppose, even if you could, there was nowhere to go. Hundreds of families in Greater Pittston found themselves in such a predicament 100 years ago during the Spanish Flu, which peaked in October and November of 1918.
Spanish Flu is a misnomer, as the flu did not originate in Spain. The pandemic, as it was called worldwide, was an epidemic here and would kill 2,396 in Luzerne County, including 261 in the Pittston district — defined as the city, Jenkins and Pittston townships and Dupont — and 53 in West Pittston between Oct. 1 and Dec. 15. Those numbers were four times the usual death rate.
Worldwide, 500 million, a third of the world’s population, were infected, and an estimated 30 to 50 million died, more than in World War I, which raged at the same time. In fact, it was the war which accelerated the spread of the infection. Soldiers lived in close quarters and traveled in crowded trains and ships. Military camps were incubators for the infection. More U.S. soldiers died from the 1918 flu than were killed in the war.
The pandemic is described as having three parts, a mild wave in the spring of 1918 and a more dangerous wave in early 1919, with a virulent wave between them in the fall of 1918.
The second wave of the infection spread rapidly locally. On Oct. 4, 1918, there were 1,000 cases in Pittston — 600 having been reported in the previous 24 hours — and 50,000 statewide. That same day the State Heath Commissioner ordered all places of amusement — saloons, playhouses, moving picture theaters and dance halls — to close and prohibited public meetings. Churches closed Sunday schools and stopped weekday services. Most continued Sunday services but they were sparsely attended.
There was one exception to mass gatherings. On Nov. 11, 1918, a spontaneous street party and later a planned parade celebrated the end of World War I, but there was no indoor event.
The health boards of the Greater Pittston towns were notified by telegram of the state board directives and in turn they ordered cigar stores to remove chairs to prevent congregating over smokes. Likewise, soda fountains were ordered to remove chairs, serve drinks in sanitary paper drinking cups and burn them after use. Further, it was ordered the bodies of sailors and soldiers who died of the flu and were shipped in were to be taken to an undertaker and buried within 24 hours, with the bodies viewed only by relatives. Local residents dying of flu were to be buried privately within 36 hours.
Most of the Greater Pittston towns closed their schools and turned them into emergency hospitals. The teachers were enlisted to canvass neighborhoods to identify homes where families were infected. Quarantine placards were affixed to the homes. Volunteers delivered food to the quarantined homes and visiting nurses tried to provide comfort, but the nurses could do little more than apply cold compresses to foreheads and feed hot soup.
Though prevention techniques — public accommodation closures, quarantine, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing — were accurate, there was no treatment, no antibiotics or vaccines.
The best of the emergency hospitals was in the Exeter school, which Exeter, West Pittston, Wyoming and West Wyoming shared the expense of running. On Oct. 31, Miss Cummings, the nurse in charge of the Exeter hospital, said 30 patients were bedridden there, 15 were discharged and one, Frank Zuken, of Pittston, died after having been in the hospital only 10 hours.
Dupont was the hardest hit Greater Pittston town. At a meeting of local, health and mine officials in mid October, 500 new cases were reported — 36 in one day — and the borough was unable to get care to the stricken. The borough was less than a year old and had no borough hall, telephone, teams, automobiles or money for food for the quarantined homes or for nurses. The school had been turned into an emergency hospital, but had no hot water. A nurse was sent from Wilkes-Barre but she took one look around and left.
The borough hired a nurse, Miss Heineman, who worked 20 hour days, got worn out and sick. The state sent a new nurse, Miss King, she lasted three weeks before she got sick.
The Hillside Company’s Butler Colliery said 308 men missed work the day before the meeting, most from Dupont. A 25 to 50 percent decline of coal production was felt throughout the anthracite region in October 1918. Hillside promised to bear a fair share of the expense of fighting the flu in Dupont.
One suggestion was to close the hospital and organize teachers and volunteers into a house-to-house nursing corps and raise money by subscription of residents to buy medicine and food. But none of the teachers lived in the town and many were sick themselves. The Pennsylvania Coal Company provided an automobile to Anna McNulty, a nurse who had worked in Yatesville, for her to survey the town.
No state or county money was available for food or medicine, but the state agreed it would provide $125 a month for trained nurses and and $75 for practical nurses if they could be found.
Local merchant Jacob Newman took the lead in raising money. By Thanksgiving, things were looking better in Dupont. The emergency hospital, which had been closed after four deaths in one day, reopened. More people were being released from quarantine than getting sick.
Individual stories were telling. On Oct. 16 in Wyoming, Annie Kostek, a widow whose husband was killed in a mining accident at No. 14, died leaving four kids orphaned.
In Exeter, the flu took George Deworski, the chief of police, and Frank Schultz, councilman and hotel owner. Five state troopers at Troop P in Wyoming were infected, two were serious.
With eight nurses at Pittston hospital out, three Pittston women volunteered to act as clerks and for ward duty.
Greater Pittston residents were affected outside the area. On Nov. 4, John Cosgrove, 18, son of Archibald Cosgrove, of West Railroad Street, died in Pittsburgh, where he had moved a month earlier for work. Albert West, of Pittston, died of the flu while serving with the Army in France.
In late October, there were encouraging signs the epidemic had crested in the area. On Oct. 31 in West Wyoming there were only 30 cases and no deaths were reported in 24 hours. Only 19 new cases were reported in the city against 31 in the previous 24 hours. There also was a good report from Hughestown, which had 61 cases total, no deaths and homes being released from quarantine.
On Nov. 1, Avoca reported 127 total cases since Oct. 12, with 70 still sick, and seven deaths, but placards were removed from 57 homes.
Pittston lifted the closure order for saloons, but had to reinstate it in mid November when 22 new cases were reported in 24 hours. Police closed a store holding a sale and worked funerals to prevent non-family members from attending.
The epidemic ran its course in December and January. Pittston schools reopened in mid December. On Jan. 15, 1919, West Pittston reported no new cases in a week.
It was all but over here, but didn’t end worldwide until the summer of 1919 when the infected either died, recovered or developed immunity.