Echoes of the past

100 years apart, parallels in Spanish flu and COVID-19

By Noah Zucker
Posted 3/7/21

As Delaware nears the one-year anniversary of COVID-19’s life-altering presence in the state, historians are looking a full century into the past to draw connections to the modern age.

In …

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Echoes of the past

100 years apart, parallels in Spanish flu and COVID-19


As Delaware nears the one-year anniversary of COVID-19’s life-altering presence in the state, historians are looking a full century into the past to draw connections to the modern age.

In the midst of World War I, the Spanish flu first made its presence known in Delaware, particularly upstate, in fall 1918.

Despite the disease’s name, the Spanish flu was actually first detected in March 1918 at a U.S. Army training camp in Kansas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It got its name because Spain stayed neutral during World War I, meaning the Spanish media was not dealing with censorship like the U.S. was at the time. Therefore, a lot of the earliest information about the virus came from Spain and was assumed to have begun there by many.

Mike Dixon, an Elkton, Maryland-based historian, was inspired by the current pandemic to start looking into a past one. With Delaware Humanities, the local affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities — a government agency that promotes research, education and preservation — he has been looking into how the Spanish flu impacted the Delmarva Peninsula and giving presentations about his findings around the region.

He said specific data about deaths in Delaware can be difficult to come by because Delaware had not yet been standardized.

“Toward the end of the 19th century, public health officials, sociologists and government agencies like the U.S. Census Bureau were becoming fully aware of the importance of vital statistics and also more broadly social statistics,” Mr. Dixon said, so “the national public health officials in the Census Bureau decided to standardize the reporting formats for vital records, births and deaths.”

But Delaware had not been able to update its reporting measures by 1918, he said, “meaning there are problems in their reporting requirements. (They) aren’t meeting the national standards.”

Still, he has been able to make an educated guess that between 1,500 and 2,000 Delawareans caught and died from the Spanish flu. That’s based on death records from the time and by comparing the aggregate number of deaths in 1918 with that of years prior.

To compare, 1,453 people have died from COVID-19 in Delaware as of Saturday

.He estimated that in New Castle County, 3.1% of the population caught the Spanish flu and died. Two percent of Kent County residents died from it, he added, while the rate was about 1.7% for Sussex.

The beginning

The first death due to the virus connected to Delaware was that of Capt. John Fisher, a Wilmington-born doctor who was serving with the U.S. Navy in World War I, which the nation was involved with from April 1917 to November 1918. The battle against the Spanish flu lasted until 1920.

According to Mr. Dixon, almost two-thirds of the 9,307 deaths the U.S. Navy reported from World War I were due to disease. That proportion was only slightly lower, 50%, for the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines combined.

“Spanish influenza has appeared in Wilmington,” the Morning News reported Sept. 20, 1918, even though Dr. Fisher was stationed in the Boston area, where he died.

The Morning News article said Dr. Fisher contracted the virus while tending to a patient. “The Spanish influenza is a more virulent type of the old influenza or grip,” the article went on to explain. “The patient either shakes off the ailment, which is mostly accompanied by a cough or sore throat, in three to five days, or gets worse and borders on or contracts pneumonia.”

According to the article, it was the later stages of the virus that were “most fearful, and persons having symptoms should immediately consult a physician.”

In comparison, COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. amid a tense political climate some have described as a “cold civil war,” which impacted the way people reacted. The same was true of the Spanish flu, first appearing in the U.S. when it was a year into World War I.

“The whole country was on a war footing, and its population was booming,” Mr. Dixon said.

This was also true in the heavily industrial Wilmington area, long known for the du Pont family and its gunpowder factories.

“Wilmington is a city on the move in 1918,” Mr. Dixon said. “It’s got war industry. The population is up about 20%. People from all across the country are coming here for jobs.”

He said, “Fort DuPont was humming with activity.” So was the town across the river, Carneys Point, New Jersey. “The powder works over there employed like 18,000 people.”

In the dense, rapidly growing Wilmington area, which had many ties to other regional centers like Philadelphia given its industrial connections to the U.S. military, the Spanish flu spread fast and killed many.

UD student as first victim

Still, the first recorded death due to the Spanish flu to actually occur in Delaware happened at the University of Delaware, then called Delaware College, in Newark. Lee Roach, a sophomore from Georgetown, perished at age 26 on Sept. 29, 1918.

That parallels the arrival of COVID-19 to the First State.

In 2020, the first case of COVID-19 in Delaware was discovered at UD on March 11, when one staffer tested positive. The next day, Gov. John Carney issued a state of emergency order, which remains in place today. This is the starting point for all of Delaware’s data pertaining to the current pandemic.

Mr. Roach’s death came just days after the city of Newark first declared an epidemic Sept. 24 and the Newark Post first reported the symptoms of the virus and best practices for minimizing its spread Sept. 25. Tips included isolating those infected, wearing a gauze mask and avoiding crowds.

On Sept. 26, 1918, the Evening Journal reported 30 cases of the flu at Delaware College and 40 more cases in the greater Newark community.

The paper ran an obituary for Mr. Roach on Oct. 2, which detailed his final hours at the college infirmary.

“When his condition became serious his relatives were notified and arrived on Saturday,” the obituary said. “The body was taken to Middletown on Monday afternoon and from there to Georgetown by train. A detachment of the Student Army Training Corps escorted the body to town limits.”

The article noted that Mr. Roach, whose headstone can still be found in Georgetown’s Union Cemetery, “was very popular with the students and took an active part in athletics” and that he worked nights as an “operator at the telephone exchange for some time.”

At the time, these telephone exchanges were an absolutely crucial piece of communication infrastructure.

“Across the state, they’re worried about keeping that vital communication service going when that was the only thing they had,” Mr. Dixon said.

“Picture those switchboards and everyone standing shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “In places, the switchboard operators all fell sick because they were working in such close proximity to each other.”

He said that in Wilmington, the Diamond State Phone Co. actually put out ads in the midst of the pandemic looking for more workers.

“They asked people to staff the lines, so they could keep communications going for doctors and the hospital and the druggist and for war purposes,” Mr. Dixon said.

At the start of the current pandemic, Gov. Carney issued Delaware’s first stay-at-home order March 22, 2020, forcing thousands of students and workers online and leaving the state even more dependent on electronic communication.

After the first cases of Spanish flu appeared in Wilmington, it was only a matter of days before municipalities in upper New Castle County were swamped with the virus.

“In (Wilmington) so numerous have been the deaths that there were not enough grave diggers available to bury the victims promptly,” the Milford Chronicle reported Oct. 11, 1918.

Mr. Dixon said there also was a serious coffin shortage in the city for a time.

Liberty loans

These cases in upstate Delaware came about the same time as the Sept. 28 Liberty Loan Parade in Philadelphia, which may be the most famous superspreader event in history.

“That’s a reasonable hypothesis,” Mr. Dixon said when asked if there was a connection to the Wilmington outbreak.

“There was such mobility, like today,” he said. “Philly and Wilmington would have had very strong connections, just from commuter rail and the like, so that had to be some contributing factor.”

The large, elaborate parade was organized to encourage citizens to buy so-called “liberty loans,” a way for Uncle Sam to fund the nation’s entanglement in World War I. The bonds could be bought all over and were ruthlessly pushed on the American populace via a sea of ads in local newspapers. In the months and weeks before the parade in Philadelphia, Downstate readers couldn’t escape the topic.

In the Milford Chronicle’s Oct. 4 edition, the Milford Trust Co. urged locals to buy war bonds at that bank, and the paper’s editors donated an ad space to the effort.

“Get behind the bond wagon and push, push, push!” the donated ad said.

It seems that the ads were successful in spurring Delawareans into action, as numerous local papers reported that their municipalities exceeded their quotas for this fourth round of the program, despite a slow start due to pandemic safety measures.

The war effort in general was inescapable in the media, even in local newspapers. For example, the weekly Middletown Transcript dedicated the second page of each edition to a detailed overview of military developments overseas, with photos and other visual elements included.

And liberty loans weren’t the only thing the advertising sections were promoting to Downstate readers. Questionable cures for the Spanish flu could be found in several copies of the Milford Chronicle from 1918.

One ad for a “Spanish Influenza Brazilian balm,” in the Oct. 25 edition of the Chronicle claims to “kill the germ in the blood in three days” and to prevent and cure pneumonia.

In contrast, as COVID-19 raged across the nation in 2020, Americans were more focused on domestic developments, particularly the presidential election, where government response to the virus became a touchstone issue.


In 1918, all the Downstate papers made a point of tracking their areas’ residents who were deployed overseas. Big battles, awards won and casualties related to locales were important to cover for outlets like the Milford Chronicle and the Smyrna Times.

However, Mr. Dixon said the epidemic played out differently Downstate.

“There is no hospital in Dover (at that time). In fact, the Downstate hospital situation was sort of marginal,” he said.
“Once you got out of the greater Wilmington area, the next hospitals at the start of 1918 were Beebe Hospital in Lewes and the Milford Emergency Hospital,” Mr. Dixon said. “(But) Milford had closed before the start of the pandemic,” as its two doctors, the Marshall brothers, were off serving in Europe.

On Oct. 25, the Milford Chronicle reported that one of the brothers had broken his leg in a car crash in France, per a letter he had sent to his mother, Mary, who was running Milford’s Red Cross facility at the time.

Additionally, one of the two brothers who had founded Beebe Hospital in 1916 also was  off serving, leaving Downstate’s only functioning hospital with one doctor.

“You were cared for by family members,” Mr. Dixon said of the response to the virus Downstate. “Maybe the doctor could make rounds occasionally, but there are no in-hospital facilities to provide treatment.”

Still, the death rate Downstate was lower than above the canal.

“That is because it’s more rural and spread out,” Mr. Dixon said.

The virus’s course below the canal can be easily tracked through local newspapers.

Even well before the Spanish flu was a household name in the U.S., on July 6, 1918, the Middletown Transcript was reporting on a shortage of nurses and pharmaceuticals.
“There is an acute scarcity of crude botanical drugs such as roots, herbs, barks and berries in the United States,” a brief in that paper said. “Before the war Germany was an important source of supply. … The State Board of Agriculture, Dover, is glad to encourage the development of this industry.”

On Sept. 14, the same publication reported that the draft had picked up so many young men in the Middletown area that farmers were having trouble finding labor for the upcoming harvest.

On Sept. 27, the day before the big superspreader parade in Philadelphia, the Milford Chronicle was focused on the war effort. The front page included an article about the liberty loan drive effort in Sussex County. The third page featured an article about how the psychology of war had impacted women’s fashion.

This edition did include a brief note about how to prevent, identify and treat the Spanish flu, information that would also grace future copies of the paper.

Shutdowns and death

On Oct. 4, the Delaware Board of Health put a stay-at-home order in place statewide. The next day, the Middletown Transcript reported that local schools had been shuttered.

“The epidemic of Spanish influenza has struck Middletown and vicinity pretty hard, some 60 or more cases being reported, our physicians being ‘worked almost to death,’” a short front-page article said. “Most of the cases are among the children.”

In the next edition of the Milford Chronicle, Oct. 6, the Spanish flu was also a hot topic. In addition to its story about Mr. Roach’s passing in Newark, the paper commemorated an important figure in the state’s media world.

“Royden K. Jones, managing editor of the Wilmington Morning News, died at his home in Marshallton Sunday, of pneumonia, which followed an attack of Spanish influenza,” the cover story reads. “He was 39 years of age and one of the best-known newspaper men in Delaware.”

By Oct. 9, the virus had hit Smyrna, too.

“Smyrna Board of Health Acts Promptly in Epidemic,” a headline from the Smyrna Times read. A subhead said, “Schools, Churches and Theatre Ordered Closed Until Further Notice.”

At this point, Spanish flu cases were reportedly “light” in Smyrna.

“Only about 45 cases reported while other towns go into the hundreds,” a subhead read.

But the paper’s main headline, in the upper left-hand corner — where readers would begin — was about the “big drive in Smyrna to get Liberty Loan quota.”

The article reported that about a third of the town’s $300,000 quota had been collected but that the health board had banned meetings due to the Spanish flu.

The Oct. 11 edition of the Milford Chronicle was again dominated by the virus. Local schools and bars were closed down by the state Board of Health, and the virus apparently struck nearby Harrington hard.

“In Harrington the physicians are almost swamped with the demand for their services to attend the many cases of influenza,” the paper read. “There have been several deaths from pneumonia, and the people are generally obeying the mandate of the State Board of Health.”

The “‘flu’ is serious,” the headline for another short story read.

“Reports from all sections of the state of Delaware are to the effect that the doctors are worked night and day in their efforts to combat the grip which is playing havoc with the people of the entire eastern part of the country,” the article said.

“While there are a large number of cases of the ‘flu’ in Milford, as yet there have been no deaths in the town as a result of the epidemic,” it continued.

The obituary section Oct. 11 was long and mostly covered the deaths of several people with ties to Milford who had migrated to bigger cities. One was Robert J. Bennett of Camden, New Jersey, who had died of the flu the week prior.

Farther north, an article in the Smyrna Times on Oct. 23 reported that Spanish flu cases were “subsiding in Smyrna and other places.” It added that there was still no word about when the Board of Health would lift restrictions, but that health officials had urged local residents to fumigate their properties to prevent another outbreak.

Still, the paper reported two confirmed Spanish flu deaths that day. One was 32-year-old Leon Wilds Crawford, a Wilmington man with family ties to Smyrna, and the other was Helen Lofland Smith, another Wilmington resident who grew up near Smyrna.

For the war effort, Smyrna had reached half of its bond quota by Oct. 16, and by Oct. 23, the Times reported that the town had exceeded its $300,000 quota by $26,800.

As the Spanish flu continued, the Oct. 25 Milford Chronicle reported that the Delaware Board of Health planned to lift the statewide meeting ban at 1 a.m. Oct. 27.

But the paper’s obituary section was still long and full of Spanish flu deaths at that point. The first entry was Lillie Robbins, age 22, who died from the flu in her home near Canterbury. She left her husband and two children, one of whom was still an infant.


The Smyrna Health Board’s ban remained in place Oct. 30, but by Nov. 6, it had been lifted, and the local children were heading back to school after a four-week break. The Smyrna Times also reported that one Clayton woman, 27-year-old Anne Loder, had succumbed to her extended battle with the virus.

The Middletown Transcript’s front page Oct. 26 described a town in the process of reopening.

“Opening the church on Sunday will be welcome news,” a subhead of an article about the St. Anne’s Episcopal Church reopening said. “The church has been well aired and fumigated.”

The article urged readers to “offer prayer for the cessation of the epidemic at home and elsewhere, and for the continued and rapid success of the allied forces on land and sea.”

The front page also featured a story about a supposed “cure” for the Spanish flu and other “diseases of the nasal passages.”

If the cure had been effective, however, the nation and world would have been able to avoid the two additional waves of Spanish flu that killed thousands more worldwide through 1920.

World War I ended in November 1918, but the U.S. was never able to effectively divert its then-unrestrained resources into the successful development of a vaccine. There never was a vaccine created for the Spanish flu, so two more waves of the virus racked the nation, and the world and medical professionals could do little to stop it.

Modern Americans are luckier, as a number of vaccines for the coronavirus have been developed and are currently being distributed nationwide. As of Saturday, Delaware had administered 253,535 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

In his research about the Spanish flu pandemic, Mr. Dixon found little evidence of Delawareans resisting safety measures.

But in late 1919, a smallpox outbreak rocked Georgetown, and the response of some residents belies the frustration they harbored toward the government’s involvement in their daily lives as it related to disease.

After shutdowns and state-mandated quarantines meant to stem the smallpox outbreak ruined much of Sussex County’s Christmas season in 1919, state health officials tried to forcibly lock down and vaccinate entire towns in the county.

Smallpox vaccines had already been around for decades at that point. This was met with serious pushback from locals. Some contemporary accounts describe the situation as “mob rule,” while others characterize those descriptions as exaggerations.

An anti-lockdown sentiment was still present in Georgetown in January 1920.

“The opposition to vaccination numbers all kinds and classes of citizens, regardless of politics or position. Included in the opposition are some of the most prominent and best educated men in the community,” a Jan. 21, 1920, article in the State Sentinel said.

“During the whole time that the town has had smallpox, churches have remained open, moving pictures and theaters have been open and congregating has been as usual in public places,” the article continued. “At present, Georgetown is going about its business and although most of its citizens regret any attempt at mob rule they still insist that trouble could easily have been avoided.”

Similarly, in 2020-21, both in the First State and across the nation, there has been some skepticism toward both the coronavirus’s existence and the government’s response to it.

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