October 14: Hartford Alderman Pushes for Lockdown As 1918 Pandemic’s Second Wave Takes Hold

 

Today in 1918, as the second wave of a deadly and highly contagious influenza pandemic spread rapidly throughout Connecticut, Hartford city leaders debated taking drastic action to minimize greater public exposure.

To many Americans, the misnamed Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 – 1919 was just as — if not more — terrifying than the First World War. With no cure or vaccine available, Spanish Flu (which may actually have originated in Kansas) claimed the lives of over 600,000 Americans (8,500 of them from Connecticut), marking it as the now second worst epidemic in the country’s history. (In comparison, the total American military deaths from World War I numbered fewer than 120,000 men — over half of whom also died from disease.)

While the first Connecticut cases of the Spanish Flu occurred in a relatively mild outbreak in April of 1918, the disease reemergesd months later, in October in a much more virulent and contagious form. Hospitals across the state were operating at or past capacity, doctors and medical resources were stretched to the breaking point. The death toll was so high, a coffin shortage was reported in Waterbury.

As the disease took hold with alarming rapidity, Hartford, alderman J. Humphrey Greene expressed frustration with an apparent lackluster response by the city’s public health commissioners and put the following resolution before his fellow aldermen:

Whereas, the city of Hartford, as well as the rest of this country, is afflicted with an epidemic of Influenza; and

Whereas, the board of Aldermen of the city of Hartford views with alarm the apparent lack of precautionary measures taken by the board of health commissioners of the city of Hartford to prevent the spread of this disease within city limits,

Resolved, That the board of aldermen of the city of Hartford do hereby suggest the board of health commissioners of said city to order the closing of all theaters, schools and other places of public gathering until such time as, in their judgment, all danger of the spread of such disease be passed.

Greene’s resolution was just one example of how cities across the United States proposed — and in many cases, implemented — radical measures in hopes of containing the pandemic. These responses — implemented and enforced at the local level — including shutting down public institutions, limiting factory and business hours, prohibiting public spitting, and fining citizens who refused to wear protective face masks. Shortly after Greene put forth his lockdown resolution, Hartford’s aldermen added another response to the pandemic. They authorized the conversion of the Hartford Golf Club into an emergency hospital for flu patients.

A global pandemic whose impact now seems all too familiar, spread fear and death all across the state, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Ralph D. Arcari, “Ninety Days that Sickened Connecticut,” Connecticut Explored

Tasha Caswell, “Eighty-Five Hundred Souls: the 1918-1919 Flu Epidemic in Connecticut,” connecticuthistory.org

Christopher Klein, “Why October 1918 Was America’s Deadliest Month Ever,” history.com

Influenza 1918,” PBS Feature Documentary