100 Years Later: Philadelphia, the Spanish Flu, and Laurel Hill Cemetery

On September  28th, 1918, a perfect storm was brewing right here in Philadelphia. By the time it was over, more than 12,000 city residents would be dead in a matter of months. Some of those souls are buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery.

The culprit was the 1918 Influenza virus often incorrectly referred to as “The Spanish Flu.” (More on that later…) It’s breeding ground was the Liberty Loan Parade, which, by all accounts, should never have been allowed to take place given the mounting public health crisis.

September 28th, 2018 is just around the corner, and it marks the 100th anniversary of a mysterious, misunderstood, and wildly dangerous pandemic which ultimately infected 1/5 of the world’s population.

What happened, why was this particular flu so deadly, and are we certain it won’t happen again? Let’s take a closer look at all the factors which went into making this pandemic one of the deadliest in human history.


The Perfect Recipe for a Worldwide Pandemic

To give you an idea of how efficiently the 1918 flu killed its victims, the average life expectancy of an adult living in the United States in 1919 dropped by a full decade. Ultimately, the number of people killed worldwide by the flu (20 – 50 million) dwarfs the number killed by World War I (16 million).

Part of this staggering loss of life was due to the virus itself. The flu affects people every year, but this time it was different for several reasons:

  1. It came with more severe symptoms such as a very high fever (sometimes hitting 105 degrees), severe nosebleeds, and acute gastrointestinal problems.
  2. After the initial virus passed, it morphed into a devastating secondary bacterial pneumonia infection which filled the lungs with fluid at an unprecedented rate. The condition of flu victims was reported to deteriorate from “sitting up and talking,” to “dead” in a mere hours.
  3. This flu strain was attacking and killing those who normally had the best odds of surviving flu season: healthy adults in their 20s and 30s.

1918 didn’t have the same medical advantages we have today, but they certainly weren’t living in the stone age either. Germ theory was largely accepted and understood among medical professionals, so one would think we might have been better at containing this massive outbreak.

What went wrong?

Masked nurses preparing to care for influenza patients

Why the Epidemic Spread So Fast

There were a number of things working against us on a global scale at the time of the pandemic.

  1. There weren’t many strictures in place about who could and could not call themselves a “doctor” at the time. Unskilled professionals likely misdiagnosed and mishandled many early flu cases.
  2. Many of the skilled doctors had been called in for the war effort, meaning there was less medical care available to civilians. Some areas had as many as 3/4 of their doctors serving overseas.
  3. WWI prompted human movement on a huge scale. Troops crossed borders and oceans in the close quarters of ships and other transports, spreading the disease not only to each other, but also to new populations.
  4. Flu outbreaks often happened in military hospitals where men recovering from wounds or other illnesses wouldn’t be able to effectively fight off the virus.
  5. While many countries strove to keep track of deadly diseases, the flu wasn’t considered a reportable illness for many. Therefore news of outbreaks didn’t reach governments, which may have been able to take preventative measures sooner.
  6. Public transit, along with venues like theaters, churches, and dance halls put many civilians in close quarters, allowing the virus to jump to others easily.

Add onto all these factors the fact that wartime meant the majority of national newspapers were monitored, if not outright censored. There was a pervasive idea that bad news would mean bad morale, so there were policies in place preventing the sharing of things like, say, a global pandemic.

In fact, one of the only countries with zero restrictions on the press was Spain, who reported widely about flu outbreaks. Hence the name “Spanish Flu.” In reality, most experts now think the flu began as an H1N1 strain from an avian source somewhere in the American Midwest.

It looks like this one was on us…

boxing match

Philadelphia Takes the Brunt of the Virus

Philly was uniquely situated to become the epicenter of the disease. Troop movements during the war brought thousands of people into the Philadelphia Navy Yard, many of whom were already sick with the disease. Yet still, it’s possible the flu might have been somewhat contained if it hadn’t been for the Liberty Loan Parade.

On September 28th, nearly 200,000 servicemen and civilians came together in crowds on Broad Street to watch this parade, giving this virus its greatest opportunity to spread and multiply.

Within days, 600 Philadelphians had contracted the disease, and that was only the beginning.  Three days after parade, every bed in each of the city’s 31 hospitals was filled with the sick and dying. According to Department of Health records, on October 1, 117 people died of influenza in a single day –  just three days after the parade.

On October 5th, 254 people died in Philadelphia. On October 6th, 300 more. October 7th saw another 300 die. On October 8th 428 people died.

The city was reeling. In a desperate attempt to stop the death toll from climbing, all public meetings were banned, including public funerals. Any exposure to the disease was too risky.

Before it was over, more than 12,000 Philadelphians were dead.

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Philly’s Dead, the Funeral Industry, and Laurel Hill

With more than 4,000 people dying in the first three weeks, and several more thousands sick, it’s probably no surprise that Philadelphia’s medical professionals were completely overwhelmed. Doctors were pulled out of retirement, and medical students were pressed into early service to make up for the huge lack of available care.

But when the sick did die, there was the question of how to effectively handle the bodies. Reports of dead bodies piling up in the streets began rolling in. Unscrupulous undertakers began charging five times their normal rate to bury the dead, leaving families with few choices but to leave their dead where they lay. Fear of secondary infection from dead bodies prompted the department of health to get involved and begin embalming bodies as quickly as possible.

Some of the victims of the 1918 Flu came to rest here in Laurel Hill.

The first recorded burial of a flu victim is 15 year old Charles F. Anck on October 4, 1918.  He is buried Section 16, Lot 307.

Charles Anck
Charles Anck’s burial card, from the Laurel Hill archives.

Over the coming weeks and months, more flu victims were buried here.

Three more on October 11th, eleven on October 18th, seven on October 25th, one on November 1st, one on November 15th, and so on..

The Laurel Hill burial records are just one of many places throughout Philadelphia where the 1918 Influenza Pandemic left its mark. Today, studies are still ongoing to help experts fully understand the pandemic, so they can be prepared in the event of another deadly disease making its way into our city.

Workers dig mass graves for flu victims

A very special thank you goes out to Michael Brooks, Laurel Hill tour guide and volunteer for over 40 years, for researching Laurel Hill’s burial records and providing us with names, dates, and lot numbers of the flu victims. For more information, contact our office at info@thelaurelhillcemetery.org

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4 thoughts on “100 Years Later: Philadelphia, the Spanish Flu, and Laurel Hill Cemetery

  1. Doreen D. Gittings September 26, 2018 — 1:07 am

    Very interested in the information on Spanish Flu. I been trying to find my Paternal Grandfather.My father was raised by a stepfather.did not know that till he was 16yrs.old.My father was born in 1919.


  2. This was written in 2018, two years later we are living with/in a pandemic. The past repeated itself, but this time we were perhaps better prepared. Thank you for a very informative article. Take care and be safe.


  3. Deborah A Urbanski March 4, 2021 — 5:14 pm

    I would like more information. I am looking for the grave of my husbands great grandfather’s grave. He died from Spanish flu and was taken from his home. The family was never given a death Certificate and were not told where he was taken too.


    1. Hi Deborah, can you email the name of the deceased to eas@thelaurelhillcemetery.org? I can take a look at
      our records. – Beth


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