OLEAN — Closed schools and businesses. Bans on hand shaking. Unscrupulous residents hoping to make a quick buck.
“Oh, it’s just the flu.”
No, that’s not from 2020, it happened more than 100 years ago.
In a review of Olean Evening Times editions from October 1918 — the height of the so-called Spanish flu pandemic in Olean — many similarities to the current pandemic can be seen.
The erroneously-named Spanish flu epidemic is believed to have begun in Kansas, later spreading globally in a pandemic that killed between 50 million and 100 million people.
Olean was hardest hit in October 1918, a time when many of the city’s men were off to war and vital industries like oil refining could not stand to shut down. The disease ravaged the city, leaving thousands stricken and hundreds dead.
But the first deaths of locals came not from the city itself, but from military camps and battlefields far away.
On Oct. 3, Hinsdale reported its first loss of a local in the service when Eddie Hooper died of Spanish influenza at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland. He left for camp in the end of July and was attached to the 2nd Battalion. “He is the first Hinsdale boy to have a gold star placed on the service flag,” the Times reported.
Bolivar native Pvt. Clair Kenyon Andrus made it to France to fight in the trenches before being cut down by the disease. His family was finally notified in December.
Between September and November 1918, at least a quarter of Army personnel were stricken by the disease, with estimates closer to 40% including minor cases.
More than 340,000 soldiers serving in France were hospitalized for influenza, compared to 227,000 for battle wounds. It’s estimated that four out of every 1,000 soldiers then serving died the same week as Andrus.
Today, the American Legion post in Bolivar is named after Andrus.
ORIGINALLY, officials were hopeful that only a handful would get sick locally.
But on Oct. 10 — just days after noting that the epidemic was passing — the city Health Department ordered all public schools, theaters and other public places closed as of noon and through the next week. By that point, more than 350 confirmed cases of the flu had been reported in the city. Closing the schools did little to stop the spread, as only a third of 3,900 pupils were well enough — and felt safe enough — to come to school that day.
By Oct. 15, officials again hoped the pandemic would pass by without killing more.
On that day, city Health Officer A.E. Smith prescribed precautions to keep people from getting sick — many of which fit in with today. Wearing masks, getting plenty of rest and the closing of ice cream parlors due to poor hygiene practices by owners would have been spot-on for COVID-19.
“Close personal contact, kissing and even handshaking should be avoided and crowded places as completely as possible shunned,” the state health department reported on Oct. 22.
Despite knowledge of germ theory and medical advancements brought on by the war, “it is interesting and significant … to note that our best safeguards against the ravages and spread of this highly communicable and distressing malady center in comprehensible and homely measures of intelligent personal cleanliness.”
However, others were a bit off the mark. The spraying of powerful antiseptics onto city street surfaces was also recommended. Unfortunately, officials had misattributed the cause of the disease to a bacteria, not to the relatively new classification of pathogen known as a “virus.”
Another change in life was similar to today — closed churches.
Churchless Sundays became common, with Christians urged by their pastors to help the sick, avoid large crowds and reflect on their own religious lives. A few unselfish women volunteered to cook for the sick — some families saw every member of the household stricken — but more help was always needed.
“To care for the sick and afflicted, to feed the hungry, etc. is the best part of any religious creed and as much a Christian duty as it is to go to church,” the Evening Times reported.
BUT LIKE TODAY, the newspapers kept rolling out. On Oct. 15, the Evening Times reported that eight of its paperboys did not report for work due to illness, and asked the public to bear with the publication for late deliveries.
After an employee contracted COVID-19 in March, operations at the Times Herald have continued for the most part remotely — thankfully today’s technology allows for newsgathering and production at a distance, limiting the chances of staff falling ill.
FORTUNATELY for business owners, there was a week in late October 1918 when liquor stores and saloons were seen as “essential,” providing alcohol in bulk and bottles without a doctor’s prescription. But as illness flared up again, officials ordered breweries, liquor stores and salons to shut down.
“The situation compels drastic action,” said Heath Officer Smith. “Some persons have a false conception of the value of liquor in cold and disease — it has no real value.”
The number of drunks found in the street after the liquor was allowed to flow again required the sales be stopped again, he added.
Of course, there were those who ignored the orders.
On Oct. 30, a North End resident pleaded guilty to violating the health law — defying an order of the health commissioner barring liquor sales. It was alleged the merchant was selling whiskey in the rear room of his men’s furnishing store on North Union Street. He paid his $200 fine and left, but a bigger punishment came later — the state was notified of the sales, his lack of alcohol license and his lack of tax collections.
Today, city police report few problems with businesses operating outside of government orders
AND, IT TURNS OUT, “fake news” isn’t new at all.
The Spanish flu is nothing new, reported the Evening Times, reporting the disease was simply “the old grippe” from the 19th century.
First appearing in 1831 in the U.S., the last epidemic was in 1890. The article states that only one in 400 will ever be at risk of dying, and the best course of action is rest, a laxative, aspirin and Vick’s VapoRub.
The “article,” however, was a thinly disguised ad for Vick’s VapoRub.
In the same edition, local reports indicate undertakers were busy in Olean and Salamanca, with dozens dead per day.
The ethics of journalism and advertising have advanced, though. Today, the Times Herald does not publish advertisements without disclosing that the contents are paid ads.
As the days wore on afterward, the number of reports diminished, leaving residents free of quarantine but not forgetting what had befallen many of their friends and neighbors.
(Contact City Editor Bob Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @OTHBob)