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Posts Tagged ‘Spanish Flu’

The “Great War” also brings America’s worst epidemic to Nyack and Rockland County…

It’s mid-January 2018, and I’ve spent most of the past week suffering with this year’s particularly nasty Flu giving me plenty of time between coughing, shivering and yes, sleeping to consider the even more severe outbreak a century ago in a chaotic time that even makes our current events pale in terms of apparent madness all around.

The year was 1918. From a personal history standpoint, that means my Grandmother was in and out of the Nyack area shooting silent films with her boss D.W. Griffith and fellow actresses Lillian and Dorothy Gish, and my Grandfather was serving as a Doughboy in The Great War (when he passed in 2001 at age 101 he was one of the last if not THE last WWI Vets in the New York Metro Area and one of the last in the country).  “The Gilded Age” that carried the Western World from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Centuries was over.  The great barons and monopolists who personified those times were shaken to the core by the Anarchist Movement and the rise of Organized Labor.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 sounded the death knell for the era, as the world at large was horrified and sickened at the loss of life and the uneven conditions that produced them. They were followed shortly by a war like no one had seen before – millions of deaths, gruesome new chemical, biological and airborne weapons, and the targeting of civilian populations struck fear world wide. The sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania in 1915 exemplified this new normal that the average Edwardian could not even begin to contemplate. Though she may actually have had some munitions aboard (which now seems likely) there were still 1,100 passengers and crew aboard, and their targeting changed the way war would be fought thereafter.

Nyack was being carried along in the tumultuous times: Upper Nyack’s Caroline Lexow Babcock had just helped lead the County and the entire State of New York into approving Suffrage for Women in 1917 (the whole country would not follow for another 3 years) but the giddiness of that political milestone was tempered by the US’s entrance into The Great War, despite promises and pledges stating we would never become a combatant.  With a Nyack Parade and bands playing “Over There” while Nyack’s businesspeople raised over a half-million dollars in war bonds, the young men (and a few young women) of Rockland County marched off to save Europe. Eighty-four (eighty-one men and three women) would never return to the shores of the Hudson. Though 1917 marked our official entrance to the war, dark rumblings were felt for several years prior, even to the point of a German Spy Ring operating partly out of the St. George Hotel on Burd Street right under our very noses! (See my post about Nyack’s German Spy Ring here: 96 Years Ago Today: Nyack’s German Spy RingCamp Bluefields in Blauvelt and South Nyack – which had closed its’ firing range in 1913 when the bullets kept overshooting the targets on Clausland Mountain and striking homes in South Nyack – was repurposed as an ROTC training camp and the Village of Rockland Lake hosted “Camp Militor”, another army training camp readying soldiers for their upcoming deployment in Europe.

Nyack Home Guard WWI

Nyack’s WWI Home Guard in 1917 Historical Photo from the Nyack Library Collection

Into this confusing and frightening atmosphere of political change, intrigue, and a war of never before seen proportions, a silent killer was creeping – one that would result in the largest loss of life from disease in United States History and that resulted in the one and only time since it’s founding that the population of Rockland County actually DECREASED in a Census, all due to the staggering mortality rate.

It arrived in our area by ship – a terrifying new form of Influenza dubbed “The Spanish Flu” – the second half of August 1918 found ship after ship docking from Europe – whether troopship or naval vessel or the few brave Scandinavian Passenger liners still relying on neutrality – arriving at Quarantine with more and more sailors and passengers ill, and in some cases, already dead. Attempts to isolate became more and more futile as the weeks passed.

The illness was terrifying in several ways: unlike most types of flu, including the 2018 strain, this flu mostly targeted teens, young adults and mid-life people, NOT children or the elderly. The speed with which it spread, and the speed with which it progressed within a victim from no symptoms to critical or fatal was astonishing, as was it’s mortality rate. Nothing like this had been seen since the Bubonic Plague of the Middle Ages.

In just the month of October 1918, it killed 196,000 people in the US. Nyack reported 800 cases that month. Four women played bridge one evening as usual until 11PM, by the NEXT DAY three of them sickened and died.  John Scott, a local writer, was 2 when the flu hit Rockland in 1918, he survived as did his mother but his father and siblings did not. Up at Camp Militor, a Lieutenant Crowhurst was credited in the October 12, 1918 edition of the Rockland County Times with saving a number of Spanish Flu victims by using his Horseless Carriage as a makeshift ambulance from the Camp to Nyack Hospital for several emergency runs.

The Soldier and His Sweetheart…

A find in a home on First Avenue puts a personal face on the tragedy of the “one-two punch” of World War and Global Epidemic.  There was a local doughboy, a Captain Eberlin who was involved with a young lady, Bessie Edwards who lived on First Avenue between Broadway and Gedney in 1918.  Their tragic relationship came to light during a renovation in the First Avenue home in the early 2000’s.  The new owner found Bessie’s diary and postcards and letters from Eberlin and turned them over to the former owner, who turned out to be Cynthia Sheridan of the Rockland County Historic Society, who was a relative of Bessie’s.  Cynthia passed the story and the diary along to local author Linda Zimmerman.

After what was apparently a regular correspondence, with Captain Eberlin recounting the horrors of trench warfare, and Bessie presumably cheering him up with local news and trivia, Eberlin became concerned in early fall when she ceased returning his missives. His postcards and letters became concerned. The war officially ended on November 18, 1918, and knowing he would likely not arrive home for Thanksgiving, he encouraged her to eat Turkey and Pumpkin Pie for him and remember him to her folks and let them know he’d soon be home.

His last postcard dated November 27, 1918 shows his fears begging her to respond, wondering why she had stopped writing, and pitifully hoping she was well. But Bessie could not answer his concerns, Bessie had contracted Influenza and died on October 13, 1918, having never received his promise of coming home soon. Unfortunately, Captain Eberlin would never know why she did not respond, and never returned home. He contracted the Spanish Flu and he too did not recover, dying before year’s end.

Of the 84 deaths of World War I service members from Rockland County, almost as many of them were from Influenza as from Combat. When the Global Pandemic ended in early 1919 at least 30 MILLION people worldwide had died, most of them in the prime of their lives. 

FLU VACCINES ARE STILL CURRENTLY AVAILABLE AT KOBLIN’S AND WALGREENS IF YOU’VE WANTED ONE BUT HAVE NOT YET GOTTEN ONE.  CAPTAIN EBERLIN AND BESSIE EDWARDS DID NOT HAVE THAT OPTION. AT LEAST IN 2018 WE HAVE THAT OPTION IF WE CHOOSE. 

THIS POSTING, AND MANY OTHERS WILL SHORTLY BE AVAILABLE IN A PODCAST.

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