Looking back: COVID-19 not first pandemic to hit Youngstown

Coronavirus

A man told of crowds watching the dead carried out of a school turned into a clinic

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — Joseph Higley Jr. wasn’t the only person whose dreams were changed by the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

Growing up in turn of the century Youngstown, Higley dreamed of becoming a doctor.

But all that changed in late 1918, when as a student at The Rayen School he was responsible for tending to flu patients at a makeshift hospital at the former Jefferson Elementary School and getting them ready for the undertaker after they died.

He estimated that of about 380 patients in the makeshift hospital in October and November of 1918, about 90 died, according to an interview he gave in 1977 as part of the Oral History Project at Youngstown State University focusing on the former Youngstown College Of Law.

Also dying was his dream of becoming a doctor. Instead, he went to law school, working himself through college as a reporter for “The Vindicator.” He became a lawyer, ran for municipal judge in 1941 and also served on the staff of an admiral in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

“It was a horrible thing. We had as many as nine patients die in one night,” Higley told his interviewer. “After everything was over, my desires to become a doctor faded away.”

As with the COVID-19 outbreak gripping Youngstown and most of the world now, drastic measures were taken in 1918 to combat the flu. In several places across the country, including Youngstown, schools were closed and large public gatherings were banned. Complicating matters in 1918, however, was the United States was in the final throes of The Great War, also known as World War I, and vital industries needed to keep production going in order to help the war effort.

Being in uniform did not keep someone safe from the flu. More American soldiers died of disease than in combat during the war. It is estimated by some, according to History.com, that up to 40% of the sailors in the U.S. Navy came down with the flu, which is not surprising, given that troopships were transporting thousands of infected soldiers across the Atlantic to Europe regularly.

HOW IT STARTED

The pandemic started in early 1918 and lasted until 1920. In 1918, a mild wave began in the spring. In the United States, it is thought to have originated in Kansas, specifically at Fort Riley, Kansas.

The mild wave seemed to fade away only to come back with a vengeance in the fall of 1918.

It is estimated globally that 500 million people became infected, and 20 to 50 million died. Deaths in the United States are thought to be about 675,000, but thousands also died of pneumonia that could have been brought on by the flu.

As the flu took its toll among the armies fighting in Europe, news of the outbreak was heavily censored by both the Allies and Central Powers. However, when it broke out in May of 1918 in Spain, which was not in the war, it was widely reported on, which was how it got its name.

Those who were stricken in the fall could die within hours of becoming ill, if not days. The skin of those afflicted would turn blue and their lungs would fill with fluid, which would build up to the point where they could no longer breathe and die.

In 2008, researchers were able to discover how the 1918 strain of the flu became so deadly; a victim’s bronchial tubes and lungs were weakened by a group of three genes, which cleared the way for bacterial pneumonia, according to History.com

Today, with local libraries and museums closed, studying the local effects of the 1918 outbreak depends on internet searches. Besides Higley’s oral history, which is available through YSU’s Maag Library, there are general stats and the online archives of the “Youngstown Telegram,” which covered the flu extensively, especially in Youngstown, where just about all facets of life were affected.

LIFE IN YOUNGSTOWN

Mayor Alvin W. Craver (referred to in “The Telegram” as Mayor Craver) was sounding the alarm early in October, ordering schools and gatherings banned to stop the spread. On Oct. 10, The Telegram reported, the city saw a huge increase in cases, with 153 for the month and 63 in one day. It was decided on Oct. 16 to enlist teachers and schools to help deal with the overflow of patients in the city’s hospitals.

Schools that were used, according to “The Telegram,” were Jefferson, South High School and Baldwin Memorial Kindergarten.

Sean Posey, the author of “Lost Youngstown” and “Historic Theaters Of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley,” said several of the teachers who worked at South caught the flu themselves and died.

One of the volunteers who died at South was Earl O. Van Kirk, a 33-year-old janitor from Shehy Street who, reports in “The Telegram” said, was warned not to work at the makeshift hospital.

“His family and friends advised against such action, at the time fearing his condition was not such as to resist the disease,” The Telegram wrote.

The headline for the story announcing his death read: “Gladly Gives His Life For His Home City.”

Also stricken at South was Ron Kittle, a 35-year-old teacher. His death notice was published on Oct. 30, 1918, along with 10 other people who perished from the flu.

Posey said authorities at the time did the best they could to stop the spread of the flu, but because of the conditions at the time, it was almost impossible. Saloons stayed open because in that time, that was where a lot of working-class people got meals, Posey said.

Also kept open were several hotels in the city, mostly in the downtown area, where railroad men often stayed because the city was a hub for rail traffic generated by the mills.

Especially hard hit by the flu were camps filled with replacement workers who were in town to work in the mills during a steel strike, Posey said. Posey did add that Sheet & Tube concentrated on a sanitary work environment for its employees, who were needed day and night to keep the mills cranking out steel for the war.

“Youngstown Sheet & Tube workers were not really hit that hard,” Posey said.

Still, they did suffer some losses. The death of one worker was reported who died at a hospital the mill had just for flu patients.

Bill Lawson, head of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, said the area was not prepared for the outbreak. Even though the population of the city was twice then what it is now — he estimated over 120,000 people — there was a shortage of hospital beds, which is why schools were pressed into service.

He also noted the outbreak lasted well into 1919, as it went in spurts.

“It was a very stressful time,” Lawson said.

What was most remarkable about that strain of the flu was the victims, Lawson said: It tended to hit the younger population hard, when they were in their prime.

THE TOLL MOUNTS

From the warning on Oct. 10 to the enlisting of teachers to help treat patients Oct. 16, things went south pretty fast. Readers of the Oct. 19 Telegram were informed that 155 new cases of the flu were reported, with 36 deaths as well as an additional 19 deaths from pneumonia.

“The flu hit Youngstown pretty hard and pretty fast,” Posey said.

It was not an uncommon occurrence to see up to 15 death notices a day for people who died from the flu, and often the places they died at were either South or Jefferson, or their own homes.

In the Nov. 4 issue, 15 notices were published for people who died from the flu including one for Frank Sweargen, who died at South High and who had a daughter who also died. A 15-year-old also died at South, and a 10-year-old died at his home.

On Oct. 21, there were 14 notices for deaths from the flu, including a 4-month-old boy.

Doctors were “overwhelmed,” The Telegram reported, and teachers were also having trouble finding their students or entire families.

The epidemic seemed to slow down in December, but there were still days of vast amounts of death and heartache. On Christmas Eve, it was announced that Alden Biel of Parkwood Avenue died of the flu, just eight days after her son died Dec. 16 of the flu. Her husband was also seriously ill from the flu, it was noted.

Sometimes so many people in a family got sick that arrangements had to be put on hold until — or if — they improved. On Oct. 28, it was announced the body of Emil Krautheim would be placed temporarily in a mausoleum in Belmont Park Cemetery and he would not be buried until his father recovered from his own bout of the flu.

On Dec. 23, there were only 30 new cases of the flu with five deaths, it was reported, but the costs were still staggering. In the Sharon-Farrell area across the state line, it was estimated that 118 people died from the wave that hit in the fall. A headline on Dec. 10 declared: “Influenza: More Deadly Than War.”

Youngstown suffered heavily, according to a government study published in 1927 that is available online at the University of Michigan Medical School’s Influenza Encyclopedia. In 1918, Youngstown was sixth in the nation with flu deaths with a rate of 78 per 100,000, and in 1919, Youngstown was second in the nation only to Pittsburgh in flu deaths with 41 per 100,000 people.

“The Telegram” reported that in Mahoning County alone, it was estimated 108 children under 5 died from the flu, but it is not clear if that figure encompassed the whole year or the wave of flu that struck in the fall.

Youngstown wasn’t the only place locally that was hit hard. Posey said Lowellville and East Palestine also suffered. In Salem, a ban on gatherings was lifted and then reinstated Dec. 5 after a second outbreak of the flu.

The pandemic also almost postponed what was rapidly becoming the city’s biggest high school football rivalry; the Rayen-South football game. The two teams first began playing in 1911 and fans in the city had quickly taken to the series, pitting the city’s two high schools against each other. In his history of the series, “Down Memory Lane With Rayen And South,” Victor Frolund wrote that before the ban on gatherings was put into effect, each team had only played two games.

1918 Rayen Football team
Credit: Mahoning Valley Historical Society

However, after much deliberation, Superintendent of Schools Dr. N.H. Chaney agreed to let the game go forward, however, warning fans that because the teams only had two games under their belts, they should not except a top-notch display of football.

After both teams played a sort of warm-up game, they clashed on a muddy South Stadium field on Thanksgiving Day with the Warriors blanking the Tigers 19-0.

As the end of the year approached, “The Telegram” and other local officials blamed a crime wave in the city on the flu. Hardly a day went by when some sort of robbery or other crime was reported, often with a weapon involved. In fact, the wave of “unrestrained outlawery,” as “The Telegram” branded it, was compared to the flu.

It got so bad that on New Year’s Eve, readers were informed of a plan by Mayor Craver to use soldiers who just came back from the war to help patrol the streets of Youngstown.

“Returned soldiers armed with riot guns and given orders to shoot to kill,” The Telegram reported in one of the few local stories above the fold on the front page during that time, “will patrol the streets of Youngstown in an effort to end the carnival of violence and vice which has got beyond the control of the police.”

Tucked away in the pages of the last edition of the year was this warning, however: “Mothers Warned To Guard Babies Against Influenza.”

HIGLEY’S STORY

Higley was 17 at the time and lived on Clyde Street. He said he was a reserve on the Rayen football team because of his lack of size and was asked by the principal of Rayen, Edwin F. Miller, to help out at Jefferson, which was located at Jefferson Avenue and Virginia Street in Brier Hill, when it was being converted to a hospital.

Higley accepted the offer and enlisted three of his friends to also help. They arrived for their first shift at seven in the morning and took out all the seats, stored them, then installed beds. They got a rude awakening, however; the first patient admitted to the clinic died, Higley said.

“I had the preliminary job of laying him out, washing him, and calling the undertaker,” Higley said.

A priest from St. Elizabeth, Father Griffin, appointed the young Higley as the chief receiving orderly. Looking back over 50 years later, Higley said, “It was a horrible thing.”

As chief orderly, Higley had a responsibility to not only help give medications while assisting the nurse who was on duty during the night, but to get the dead ready for burial.

“It would be my job to get them ready, call the undertaker, and then since the ambulance driver usually came alone, I’d have to get on the end of the stretcher and haul them down to the wagon.”

He did all this with an audience; Higley said crowds would gather in the neighborhood when the ambulances came and watch the dead being hauled away.

“A circle of neighbors, maybe a hundred, would be in the background curiously watching us bring these corpses out,” Higley said.

What saved the staff at the Jefferson clinic was the preparation of food by one of the chefs at a country club, Higley said. He could still recall the man’s name more than 50 years later; Archie Thomas.

“I never ate so well in my life and never will again,” Higley said. “There will never be another chef like Archie Thomas. We would finish off the night’s work and get a breakfast that was fit for a king, go home, go to bed, go back over there and get our supper. Then at midnight, we would get another banquet and go home at six in the morning.”

During the day, nuns from St. Elizabeth would help care for patients, but at night it was Higley, his three friends and a nurse. Sometimes a patient would need minor surgery and he would have to wake up Mr. Riley, who owned Riley’s Drug Store, to get medicine for the patient.

Higley credited a “guardian angel” for keeping him healthy during the epidemic as he worked at the clinic. Higley’s friends also came through the ordeal unscathed.

“Not one of us boys ever got a sniffle from the flu, yet people were dying all around us,” Higley said. “We had to wash them, feed them, change their beds and carry out the deceased.”

Higley survived and went on to become a well-known attorney. He also ran for municipal judge in 1960 but lost that race as well.

But he might not have ever gone to law school had he worked in the clinic. At the end of his interview, he was asked if he ever had any regrets about not going into medicine.

“No,” Higley said. “That was only for a brief period of time.”

The school where he tended to patients and prepared the dead for their final journey no longer stands. It was torn down several years ago by the city school district. All that remains now is a field.

The area itself has seen its share of grief as well, with several vacant houses burned to the ground, others in disrepair and crumbling streets and overgrown sidewalks. There is nothing to show a visitor of the suffering that went on, or the crowds that would gather in the night to watch the dead carried away.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Trending on WKBN.com