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.”
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.”