Bring out your dead! – Chicago’s 1918 flu epidemic


8,510 Chicagoans died in a matter of months despite signs placed in theatres, streetcars and elevated trains to warn against the danger of spitting, coughing, and sneezing . Undertakers and cemeteries were overwhelmed. There were orders that wake attendance be limited to 10 people at a time. Public funerals were totally prohibited for a time.

Untitled-3 copy

John Robertson, the Chicago Comissioner of Health warned theater managers to ensure that patrons used handkerchiefs or that he would shut down their establishments. Churches, schools, theaters, restaurants, streetcars, and other places where people congregated were ordered to maintain proper ventilation . The Illinois Influenza Advisory Commission ordered the hard closing of all nonessential places including theaters, cabarets, dance halls, skating rinks and other venues.oct 6 1918 trib These establishments were not re-opened until they supposedly passed an inspection by the health department. Large gatherings were banned including conventions, lectures and debates, club and society meetings, union gatherings, athletic contests, lodge meetings, Billiard and bowling matches and political meetings. Banquets and weddings were postponed. Children playing in the parks were told to go home. Church services were instructed to be brief . Hotels were ordered to keep their lobbies clear of loiterers. Oddly, saloons could remain open, as could poolrooms and bowling alleys, so long as they were properly ventilated however bars were raided for disobeying the crowd-size violations set by the city. Smoking on all streetcars, elevated trains, and suburban rail lines. Businesses were asked to stagger working hours in an attempt to minimize crowds on public transportation

Despite all of these restrictions , the human toll in Chicago in 1918 was staggering. Former mayor John Hopkins and pioneer educator Ella Flagg Young were the most prominent victims. And there were the thousands of others, known only to their family and friends.

So what happened?

The Spanish Influenza was one of the deadliest epidemics in history, lasting from 1918 to 1919 and during another time of crisis – World War I. . An estimated 50 million people, 3% of the world’s population died. 675,000 in the United States alone. Of those, 8,500 lived in Chicago. One-fifth of the world’s population suffered from the disease.

There are three theories as to where it began. One was China, another a British Army base in France, and the third Haskell County Kansas. 99% of the fatalities were under 65 and 50% were healthy young adults between 21 and 40.

On March 11, 1918, Army Pvt. Albert Gitchell at Fort Riley, Kansas reports to the camp hospital complaining of fever, sore throat, and headache. Before the day is over, over 100 soldiers fall sick. A week later, 522, cases had been reported at Fort Riley in what would be the mildest of the flu’s three waves. Forty-six died at Fort Riley that Spring .

camp funston kansas - Copy (2)
Camp Funston, Kansas 1918

The epidemic began locally on September 8, 1918 when several sailors reported sick at the Great Lakes training station just 32 miles north of Chicago. It became evident that the Influenza would soon spread and it certainly did. Officers instituted isolation and quarantine controls, ordered all 50,000 sailors to be given daily nose and throat, placed 1,000 men in isolation and ordered an additional 4,000 sailors under quarantine for suspect contact with the ill, and cancelled all liberty leave for enlisted sailors. And in weeks, the Flu hit Chicago hard. The most visible lasting effect are the thousands of gravestones in Chicago cemeteries.Q6ZTCYH3YJDKVNJIZWU367KFEM

Between the start of Chicago’s epidemic on September 21 and the removal of restrictions on November 16, the city experienced a staggering 38,000 cases of influenza and over 13,000 cases of pneumonia

Untitled-6 copyChicagoans were ordered to wear face masks while in public . Directions for making a facemask at home was published in the Chicago Tribune. The masks were incorrectly considered to be a simple and cheap antidote against the epidemic. While at the time this precaution seemed like a good idea, it did not prevent the spread of the microscopic virus. The masks were compared at the time to “blocking a sand storm with chicken wire”. The Illinois Influenza Advisory Commission reasoned that public dancing was a particularly efficient way both to transmit and contract influenza because of the close contact between dancers and the chilling of sweaty bodies that usually followed a rigorous dance.

the Commission recommended that Chicago’s transit company keep streetcar front doors open to ensure a constant stream of fresh air. Posters proclaiming “Coughs & Sneezes Spread Diseases as Dangerous as Poison Gas Shells” were issued by the US Public Health Service as sick civilian workers slowed the war effort. The Department of Health produced lantern slides to be shown in every moving picture theater in Chicago. These slides warned the public about the danger of sneezing and asked those with colds to leave the theater.


John Robertson asked Chief of Police John H. Alcock to have his officers stop all persistent sneezers and coughers who did not cover their faces with handkerchiefs. The Police Chief threatened that he would supply the local newspapers with the names and addresses of all people arrested for spitting. Violators who promised to obey in the future were to be let go, but others arrested, given a lecture on the dangers of influenza, and sent before a judge.

Newspapers were supplied daily with information regarding the status of the outbreak. Each week the Health Department supplied the newspapers with short articles on how to keep healthy during the epidemic.

Despite all of these measures taken to prevent the spread of the influenza, it was decided that all places of business, churches, and schools should remain open due to World War I and the fact that the community had to stay positive. They advised and warned the public on how to avoid contracting and spreading the disease.

5a7b3b76c8568.image - Copy

By October the disease in Chicago had exploded and was taking its toll on medical personnel. Chicago physicians were reporting a staggering number of new cases, reaching as high as 1,200 a day and climbing. . It was written that each of Chicago physicians visited some sixty to ninety patients each day during the height of the epidemic, unable to do much besides try to make them comfortable The city was running out of beds for the afflicted. Nurses at one hospital died. Dr. Harold R Dwyer of 2144 Lincoln Ave. a graduate of Rush medical College died in the contagious disease hospital due to influenza.


Residents were told to prepare to isolate themselves should they become sick. “Every victim of the disease is commanded to go to his home and stay there,” Robertson announced. The Chicago chapter of the American Red Cross issued an urgent call for volunteers. The University of Chicago Settlement House stopped all its regular activities to host an emergency hospital. Churches and synagogues did their best to alleviate as much of the ancillary suffering as they could. Many churches organized parishioners into soup brigades. Chicago’s entertainment district, was suddenly empty at night. Newspapers reported that the sidewalks were clear, the restaurants half deserted, and the taxicabs idle.

There was no end to recommendations to avoid becoming sick!

You be the judge as to which ones might make sense.

f85428747f1443e70a0a27a5d55d3a97 - Copy (2)

78c5aa9c9daefdc42e35d6cffaff3ccc - Copy





Don’t live in the dark – Don’t shut the sunshine out of your home – Don’t exclude the fresh air  – Don’t fail to keep clean -Don’t go into crowed places -Don’t associate with people who sneeze and cough in your presence – Don’t use common towels – Don’t fail to practice what you preach – Don’t overtax your physical powers – Cut out evening entertainments.



Be in bed by ten o’clock – Don’t fail to sleep with every window in your bedroom open – Don’t fail to call your doctor for yourself or any other member of your family at the first sign of illness -Better be safe than sorry.


5a7b3b77f3d27.image - Copy

FluAd2Don’t allow your home to become damp, chilly, or uncomfortable – Don’t fail, if possible, to walk to your work in the morning and to your home at night. The open air exercise will be of decided benefit – Wash inside nose with soap and water each night and morning – Force yourself to sneeze night and morning, then breathe deeply.

Untitled-8 copy

Do not wear a muffler – Take sharp walks regularly and walk home from work

Eat plenty of porridge

ad-More-Candy-Less-Flu-Col-18-10-23-p2-crop - Copy - Copy


By the last days of October, the epidemic might be on the decline across Illinois. The Illinois Influenza Advisory Commission hesitated to recommend lifting the closure order and gather ban just yet, though, preferring to hear from local authorities as to the precise conditions in the city. The Tribune wrote “Outside of the fact that you mustn’t cough, sneeze, expectorate or osculate, mustn’t smoke on street cars or in the elevated trains, cannot visit sick friends and must continue to observe the food and fuel regulations and keep up your installment payments on Liberty bonds, you can get up tomorrow and do as you darn please

It arrived in Chicago by September 1918 and killed 8,510 people in the city in just two months. According to health reports, from September 21, 1918, to November 16, 1918, 37,921 cases of influenza and 13,109 cases of pneumonia were reported.Sep 10, 2018. October 1918 being the deadliest month in the history of the United States,

The origin of what has come to be known as the Spanish flu is still debated, but it is thought to have been a mutation of Type A/N1H1 influenza spread from pigs in Kansas to birds to humans, then carried around the world by soldiers as World War I wound down.

The war ended on November 11, and the Spanish flu was forgotten in the excitement but the most visible lasting effect was the gravestones in dozens of Chicago’s cemeteries.

9749ce93028729eeb9ac703318c75dcf--influenza-virus-grave-monuments - Copy

So we are again facing hard decisions today with the Covid19. The buzzword today is social distancing. The silliness is hoarding toilet paper. Hopefully technology will help us never again see a disaster the size of the one in 1918.

Please be safe, each and every one of you.




7 thoughts on “Bring out your dead! – Chicago’s 1918 flu epidemic”

  1. Thanks for the timely and interesting article. My grandmother passed in Feb 1919 in Lombard from this when my dad was just 2 years old. It must have been horrific.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: