Spanish flu

Beds are separated with curtains in a Red Cross hospital in New Haven during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Health officials ordered schools and bars closed. People were urged to wear cotton face masks and avoid crowds. 

Even so, the virus spread. 

Emil Lauritzen, a 31-year-old Manchester man who delivered and sold baked goods for a living, died on Oct. 11, 1918. He was one of more than 9,000 people in Connecticut, and at least 50 million worldwide, who died from contracting the Spanish flu. Like many others who succumbed to the illness, Lauritzen was in the prime of his life — the disease hit those in their 20s, 30s and 40s hardest. Modern medical researchers theorize that older adults may have been exposed to a similar strain of the flu decades earlier and therefore built some immunity to it.

Republican Farmer

A headline from the Republican Farmer from Oct. 4, 1918. 

Though there are many differences between the Spanish flu of 1918 and the coronavirus of 2020, as well as differences in the worldwide response to both, reading Connecticut newspapers printed while the epidemic infected the state gives one an eerie sense of deja vu.

Spanish Influenza

A headline from The Bridgeport Telegram, Oct. 10, 1918.

“Muslin Mask For All Who Visit Theater or Crowds” reads a Sept. 30 Hartford Courant headline about a recommendation made by New Haven health authorities. The cotton face masks soon became a common sight in the state. Some cities closed saloons and other places people gathered. In Waterbury, health investigators canvassed neighborhoods to investigate conditions, and across the state there was hopeful talk of the outbreak’s peak. Even so, the flu was “no occasion for panic,” an Oct. 10 article in The Bridgeport Telegram assured its readers, noting this was the old “grip,” as the flu was then known, which had visited humans since ancient times. Readers were urged to go to bed, stay quiet and take a laxative, with the perhaps-not-so-reassuring-as-its-author-hoped assurance that “nature is the ‘cure.’ ”

In a syndicated poem printed in The Bridgeport Telegram on Oct. 21, one sees a precursor to the dark humor of today’s memes. “You mustn’t cough, you mustn’t sneeze / You must keep out of draft or breeze / You mustn’t laugh, you mustn't cry / And you must guard both mouth and eye.” 

Here’s a closer look at the numbers, how the pandemic played out in the state, and some of the terms that emerged just more than a century ago. 

By the numbers

Connecticut dead: 9,000

U.S. dead: 675,000

Worldwide dead: At least 50 million, though some estimates put this number significantly higher.

Timeline of the Spanish flu of 1918

March 

Soldiers become ill with the virus at Fort Riley, Kansas. These are the first documented cases of illness in the U.S. or anywhere else. (It would be called the “Spanish flu” because the press in Spain, which was neutral in World War I, did not censor its media coverage and reported freely on the pandemic, unlike many other countries.)

September

After a lull in the summer, the virus seems to mutate and come back stronger. The first Connecticut outbreak occurs in the port city of New London and by the third week in September there are between 600 and 700 cases in the city. The virus spreads across the state, and Hartford has more than 500 cases by the end of the month.

October 

The virus reaches its height and more than 5,000 people die in the month, including 1,700 in the week of Oct. 19 alone. Waterbury has 654 flu-related deaths in the month, the highest for any municipality in the state. Local municipalities cancel large gatherings including public funerals. The State Public Health Service reports 180,000 cases as of Oct. 25.

November

World War I comes to an end and deaths related to the flu in the state drop sharply, though it lingers for several months. It is estimated that a quarter of state residents contracted the virus. The number of dead is nearly 1 percent of the state’s population. 

Pandemic terminology

Muslin mask: A cotton mask that people attending public events were urged to wear. 

Grippe/grip: What the flu was frequently called. From the French, meaning “seizure”

Camphor bags: This aromatic terpene from the camphor tree was placed in bags and worn around people’s necks because it was believed to ward off the illness. There is no evidence it did that, but there are accounts of public places rich with the smell of the substance.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2020 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram@connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.

The senior writer at Connecticut Magazine, Erik is the co-author of Penguin Random House’s “The Good Vices” and author of “Buzzed” and “Gillette Castle.” He is also an adjunct professor at WCSU’s MFA Program and Quinnipiac University