100 Years Ago: Spanish Flu Strikes Westport

As Westport — and the world — grapple with the spread of COVID-19, comparisons are made with past pandemics. Long before the Ebola virus and SARS, there was “Spanish flu.”

Alert “06880” reader Bruce Becker went to the archives, to find out how we coped back then.

On October 17, 1918 — over 100 years ago — the Bridgeport Telegram said that “the cases continue to spread through Westport in the Italian quarter there.” About 200 cases were reported, “all of them being foreigners.”

Throughout the world, hospitals were overwhelmed with victims of the Spanish flu.

In Norwalk, meanwhile, the city banned concerts by Italian and French military bands, and the dedication of the Norwalk Honor Roll.

Residents wondered though why those outdoor events were canceled, while people still gathered indoors in schools, churches and theaters.

Norwalk reported 75 new cases of Spanish flu that week, bringing the total to more than 1,200. Stores, offices and the post office were all affected, sometimes closing.

There had been 32 deaths in that city alone. The Telegram described some of them, including a man who rose from his chair to go to his bedroom, but “pitched forward, his head hitting the fender at the fireplace.”

The Spanish flu continued to rage for over a year. Another Bridgeport newspaper — the delightfully named Republican Farmer — reported on January 20, 1920 that of all the communicable diseases in the area (diphtheria, measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough, typhoid fever, mumps, tuberculosis, chickenpox, German measles, pneumonia, septic throat and spinal meningitis), influenza deaths continued to be the most deadly, by far.

Not far behind, however, were gonorrhea and syphilis.

By March 17, 1920 — almost exactly a century ago — the Spanish flu seemed to be abating. The Telegram reported “only” 174 deaths from that disease in this area in the month of January, and fewer still in February.

It was a different disease,  but then — as now — certain warnings were true, Becker says:

“Wash hands. Avoid gatherings, and contact with those who are older and more vulnerable.”

36 responses to “100 Years Ago: Spanish Flu Strikes Westport

  1. Hats off toe Bob Becker! History does not always repeat itself — the germ theory of illness was not totally accepted in 1918 — but those ignorant of history…etc.

  2. In light of the town of Westport’s recent press release echoing the governor’s suggestion that mass gatherings avoided, here’s an email I wrote the district administrators in hopes that they will not preemptively cancel the upcoming Staples Players production of Seussical:

    Dear First Selectman Marpe, Superintendent Abbey, Principal Thomas, Mr. Roth, and Ms. Long,

    My name is Sam Laskin. I am a senior at Staples and the President of Staples Players, and I write to you on behalf of my fellow seniors and the entire Players organization.

    Given the spread of the coronavirus and its emergence in Connecticut, I have been made aware of suggestions by Governor Lamont that, as a precaution, sporting events be played without fans present. I am writing to beg that such a policy not be preemptively extended to apply to theatrical events and that our upcoming production of Seussical be allowed to proceed as planned.

    As mentioned in Dan Woog’s blog post about our production, custodians will be sanitizing all chairs and surfaces before and after each production, with special emphasis between shows on our double-show days. Backstage, we are taking precautions as well and are holding the cast to the highest levels of sanitation. Hand sanitizing stations have been installed in dressing rooms. We have done away with our family-style cast meals and have switched to prepackaged food. Whereas hair and make up appliances are typically shared between actors, each actor has brought in his or her own set of makeup for this show. For our pre-show Secret-Santa tradition, “Buddies,” we have banned all gifts involving unsealed food, posters signed with shared pens, and hugs. Our 45-member cast and our equally-sized crew are ready, willing, and able to go on with this show.

    Our paints and sets crew have worked for months to put up one of our most technically-challenging sets in recent history. Students and adults alike have spent the last 5+ weekends at school, assembling turntables, building set pieces, and installing a complex passerelle and proscenium. Our pit musicians, costume team, and adult audio staff have also dedicated months to preparing for this production. As I write this, our stage management team, lighting designers, and run crew are still at Staples, practicing set shifts and finalizing lighting cues.

    Seussical, the process of which began before December break, is the final mainstage production for my grade—one which we have looked forward to ever since the day we walked into this building as freshmen. For years, we have looked up to our predecessors and watched as they performed in front of full houses, drawing praise and solidifying our great organization as a cornerstone of the community and as a shining example of high school theater at its finest. We strive each day to live up to that legacy, spending years rising up in crew leadership positions, building relationships with our fellow actors, and learning from our directors, choreographers, and music directors. Every show, every dance, every number, and every waking moment spent on that stage is a lifelong memory for each of us.

    Neither the state nor the town has mandated bans on these types of gatherings, and we believe the auditorium itself poses no health risk. If any individuals are showing symptoms or even believe that they might be, we will, of course, encourage them to stay home for everyone’s safety.

    If a soccer or basketball game must be played in an “empty house,” as its being done domestically and internationally, it can. We have no such option when it comes to theater. Staples shows, especially this one, are designed to be seen in person. To have a production entirely canceled at this point in the process, with fewer than 4 days until our opening night, would be devastating. Please, if there is no imminent threat to Westport, let us do what we love most and perform.

    My fellow Players officers and I are happy to meet or call with any or all of you if you wish to speak further.

    Staples Players

  3. Scott Kuhner

    My grandfather, Charles Kuhner, was district commissioner of East Norwalk in 1917; but, he died in the flue epidemic of 1918

  4. Jack Backiel

    My uncle, Stanley Backiel, who was born in 1915, most likely had it when he was very young. He had a high fever, but recovered.

  5. Bob Stalling

    I wonder if the Spanish Flu then, was as politicized as the Coronavirus is now…

    • Patrick Eastin

      History has reflected that Woodrow Wilson lied to the American people and downplayed the severity of the Spanish Flu. So, was the Spanish Flu “politicized” in 1918 ?, absolutely. We are seeing similar facets and/or tactics from Trump in 2020.

      • Bob Stalling

        To Fred Cantor:
        You asked me on another thread how I think the virus is being politicized.
        I think Patrick here is my best answer to that question.
        You’re welcome.

        • Dick Lowenstein

          The big difference then, compared to now, was we were under a war-time mobilization to fight Germany and its allies. It may have been politicized, but not for personal political gain.

        • Bob, I never made the specific statement that some discussion of the virus has not been politicized in some fashion. Please reread all my posts, and I would appreciate it if you did not misrepresent my views. In fact, please stop bringing up my name. Thank you.

          • Bob Stalling

            This is very simple Fred

            You – | March 10, 2020 at 11:26 am:
            “How do you feel that is political as you seemed to possibly infer on another post today?”

            Me – Above: March 10, 2020 at 12:34 pm
            “You asked me on another thread how I think the virus is being politicized. I think Patrick here is my best answer to that question”

            If you don’t want answers, don’t ask.

            • Enough back-and-forth. Points have been made. Please stop.

              • Dan, I’m sorry but whoever Bob Stalling is, I have to respond with the full context of my post to show what he is talking about. He just keeps dragging in my name and distorting what I have said:
                “Bob, are you a doctor or researcher who specializes in infectious diseases? If not, I’m just curious: what is it that you do for a living?

                And why do you seem to keep questioning or even mocking what the overwhelming percentage of doctors and scientists who specialize in infectious diseases recommend as precautionary measures we have not witnessed in our lifetime?

                Yes, Italy just has undertaken an unprecedented lockdown of the entire country. How do you feel that is political as you seemed to possibly infer on another post today?”

              • Bob Stalling

                Hi Dan,
                I would love to respond to that distortion, but will stop out of respect.

      • Jack Backiel

        This was 1918. Did the government actually lie, or did they honestly not know the full story because medicine was not that advanced in 1918? It’s 2020 and this pandemic isn’t being handled correctly! We were just told last week, from the President, that the warm weather will take care of the problem.of the Coronavirus. That sounds like something that would be said in 1918!

        • Bob Stalling

          No Jack, not what he said.
          There is a big difference between saying the “virus hopefully becomes weaker”, which is what he said, and “the warm weather will take care of the problem”, which is what you claim he said.

          “hopefully” and “will” have two different meanings.

          He also said… “The heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus,” he told a meeting. “A lot of people think that goes away in April as the heat comes in.
          Generally speaking, a lot of scientists do think this could be the case….

          Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at Britain’s University of East Anglia – “thinks it’s likely “that the disease will decline substantially during the summer months in the northern hemisphere”.

          Simon Clarke, an expert in cellular microbiology at Britain’s University of Reading – “It’s entirely possible that we might get a spring-time lull,” said Clarke. “It’s unlikely to make things worse, but we don’t know for sure – it’s an educated guess”


          • Jack Backiel

            Bob, Donald Trump has consistently played down this virus. He recently said there were only 15 cases and that would go down to one. He has been contradicted by his medical officials, and at one point all comments had to be filtered through the office of VP Pence! He is just starting to take this seriously. The reason he has played down the virus is to mitigate the reaction of the stock market, which turned into a Bear Market today. As of the time I’m writing this, Trump is still holding his next political rally. Let’s see what he says tonight. He needs to tell the unvarnished truth!

            • Bob Stalling

              Hi Jack,
              My comment to you was about your use of words vs. what was actually said… it had nothing to do with the politics of a virus.

              • Jack Backiel

                We knew about the virus on December 1. It’s the middle of March and we don’t have enough testing yet, and Trump called this a “hoax” ten or twelve days ago.This is a disgusting failure of leadership, and as soon as Trump started to speak last night, stock futures took a nose dive in the middle of his speech and never recovered. The DOW fell 2,100+ today! I’m just telling it as it is. This response is a failure.

                • Bob Stalling

                  Not sure why you feel the need to tell me this since I was simply pointing out what was actually said vs. the way you interpreted it.
                  I don’t think of this as an argument or taking a side…in fact, I don’t think you should politicize a virus.
                  But since you are claiming the virus was called a hoax, I suggest you go to two different fact checking sites that disagree with you…..”Check Your Fact” and “Snopes”
                  And don’t blame me for their conclusions…you can send them a comment.

                  1.From “Check Your Fact” –
                  Verdict: False
                  Trump referred to the alleged “politicizing” of the coronavirus by Democrats as “their new hoax.” He did not refer to the coronavirus itself as a hoax. Throughout the speech, Trump reiterates his administration is taking the threat of the coronavirus seriously.

                  2. From “Snopes” –
                  What’s True
                  During a Feb. 28, 2020, campaign rally in South Carolina, President Donald Trump likened the Democrats’ criticism of his administration’s response to the new coronavirus outbreak to their efforts to impeach him, saying “this is their new hoax”
                  What’s False
                  Despite creating some confusion with his remarks, Trump did not call the coronavirus itself a hoax.

                  • Jack Backiel

                    There are probably 30 examples of facts that have come out of Trump’s mouth that haven’t been true about this virus. He’s been contradicted by the medical professionals many times. When he was at the CDC, he said anyone could get tested. That was untrue. His use of the word “hoax,” in ANY reference, is totally unacceptable. The word “hoax” is toxic and politicized this.Trump is not up to the task of leading the nation out of this mess, and today’s massive sell off in the stock market reflected the TOTAL failure of last night’s speech. I believe the sell off was the largest in the history of the stock market!

                    • Bob Stalling

                      Hi Jack,
                      Not sure what you are trying to convince me of…. I get it, you don’t like Trump. All I did was show that your words to describe what he actually said were inaccurate.
                      As far as the stock market, I’m sure countries shutting down and flights going to and from continents being shut down have nothing to with affecting commerce. How could it?
                      I have no doubt that when the stock market was at an all time high, you blamed it on the failure of Trumps words….that’s your prerogative, and your prerogative is not my concern.

                    • Okay, enough points have been made on both sides. Let’s end this thread here now. Thank you!

                    • Jack (Bad at Math) Backiel

                      Let me set something straight here. Just because I criticize someone because they don’t do their job well and are incompetent, doesn’t mean I dislike them. For example, my Geometry teacher in 1964 was totally incompetent! He didn’t belong in a classroom! He was a very decent human being, he was just an incompetent teacher of Geometry! Get it?

                    • Jack Backiel

                      Dan, I should point out that in the 1963-64 school year, I did NOT attend Staples, so the incompetent Math teacher I had wasn’t at Staples. Interestingly though, my English teacher that year ended up working for 30 years at the Pentagon, and last year we meet for dinner. We discussed teachers at the school, and he said my Math teacher was the dumbest person he ever met! That confirmed my opinion that he was an incompetent Math teacher.

  6. J.W. Kaempfer, Jr

    Dear Dan,

    My grandfather who, of course I never met, was an ENT and infectious disease doctor. In 1918 he caught the Spanish Influenza from a patient and died leaving my father an orphan.


  7. Jeff Mitchell

    The Spanish Flu — unlike covid 19 — killed people with *strong* immune systems (see: https://www.clinicalcorrelations.org/2009/09/23/the-forgotten-influenza-of-1918-when-a-strong-immune-system-becomes-a-weakness/). Covid-19, OTOH, has 21.9% fatality rate in China among those over 80 vs 0.2 percent for those 10-39 (see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/03/10/coronavirus-is-mysteriously-sparing-kids-killing-elderly-understanding-why-may-help-defeat-virus/). So while even an epidemic among our kids should be “no big deal” to them and their parents (yay), the more sick kids and parents, the greater the risk of spreading to grandparents (uh-oh). How you balance these risks is not an easy decision.

  8. Ernie Lorimer

    According to the public health reports, through October 19, 1918 there were 22,534 flu cases in CT, with 2,625 deaths.

    My grandfather, who was University of Toronto ’12, went to France in 1915 with the Canadian 9th Artillery, was hospitalized in mid November 1918 and wasn’t discharged and demobbed until February. While he survived the war and must have almost died from the flu, I never heard any stories about either.

    • Jack Backiel

      I mentioned my uncle, who probably had the Spanish flu, but back then, a lot of people didn’t go to see a doctor. That’s why I said he probably had the flu, so he wouldn’t have been counted as a statistic! They lived on a farm and really didn’t go see doctors. As a matter of fact, all the Backiels were born in the farmhouse.

  9. The 1918 flu killed both my great-grandfather in Fairfield and my wife’s great-grandmother in NY.

  10. …and many posit the “Spanish” flu originated in an American Army base in Kanas!

  11. Wendy Cusick

    l think all of you would be interested in reading this. I was looking for information about the Flu of 1918 and came upon this article from the Smithsonian.
    John M. Barry wrote a book too ‘The Great Influenza’

    • Ellen Petrino

      The oral history tapes at the Westport Library have remembrances of the Spanish flu in Westport. One woman mentioned all the pregnant women in Westport got the flu and died. My mother finally admitted her mother had been pregnant and died of it – she hadn’t wanted to scare us children about the flu.

      • Wendy Cusick

        Oh wow..sorry to hear this.
        My great grandmother survived and gave birth to my grandmother. They were living in New York I believe Brooklyn

  12. Jack Backiel

    The NBA just canceled the season until further notice. Trump was very nervous reading off the teleprompter tonight. Reality finally caught up with him!