For weeks horses could be heard lumbering past the cryptic Spit-Spreads-Death signs posted in a panic on lampposts up and down city streets, pulling open carts piled high with bodies, exhausted Seminarians from local Catholic Dioceses walked alongside hollering, “Bring out your dead…Bring out your dead!” This was not Medieval Europe or a satirical Monty Python movie scene, it was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the city of brotherly love, entrenched during the catastrophic Flu Pandemic of 1918 through 1920.
Few cities in the United States were harder hit during the pandemic than Philadelphia, where on Sept. 28th, 1918, the soon-to-be reviled Public Health Commissioner Wilmer Krusen, a political appointee with no prior public health experience, ignored the pleading of honest-to-goodness Medical Doctors with genuine University Degrees. With a flu pandemic already ravaging his city of no medical stockpiles and no plan, Krusen refused to cancel a parade to promote the sale of government war bonds that would be attended by a tightly packed multitude of 200,000 misguided townsfolk, patriots, and soldiers, a decision since held up by the Centers for Disease Control as a prime example of what not to do during a pandemic.
Within three days, with nearly 75% of city medical professionals overseas for the war effort, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was occupied. Within a week, 45,000 people were infected, 2,600 had died from the flu or its complications. By the second week in November, 12,000 Philadelphians were dead. Many fervent churchgoers collapsed and began dying while praying for deliverance from the very pestilence itself. Churches closed. Schools, restaurants, liquor stores, bars, theatres, and parks were closed. Delivery trucks stopped running, grocery stores ran out of food and were summarily closed. Public gatherings were banned throughout the entire city as it shut down. It was too late.
Hospital beds were placed down the middle of hospital hallways to accommodate the massive influx of patients. Some patients were placed on the floor next to beds where advanced cases were near death, then transferred to the, often still warm, sheets once death arrived for the previous occupant. Confidence in public officials who continue to deny the seriousness of the situation was shattered. People began offering bribes to nurses. Patients developed the deathly hue of Cyanosis, certainty that death was imminent, a blue so deep that many terrified witnesses mistook it for a sign indicating the return of the notorious black plague.
Tricked into action, the mighty conflagration of civic duty deniers suddenly built 12 emergency field hospitals, recommended social distancing and the wearing of masks, drafted all the city’s taxi drivers into using their automobiles solely for ambulatory services, created an emergency telephone bank restricting phone calls to emergencies only, and cut service to any violators thereof. Doctors and Nurses became sick. In a pinch, wheelbarrows and Potato sacks were used to deliver loved ones to the city morgue. Bodies began to pile up on sidewalks after the morgue ran out of coffins and was overwhelmed. Pits for mass graves were dug with steam shovels, while individuals earnestly began digging graves for their families in their own back yards.
In some cases, volunteer public-health nurses walked into over-crowded tenements to find entire families dead. Others thought to be sleeping in their front yards were upon closer inspection, often dead, and on occasion the children of expired parents were left to starve due to fear of contamination. The beleaguered Philadelphia Police Department finally stopped responding to distress calls and what little crime remained. Teams of Scientists began working on vaccines to battle the flu, but the equipment of the time were only able to detect bacteria, not smaller pathogens, and it was not yet understood that the flu was actually a virus. It was generally believed that the flu was some sort of communicable disease that attacked the respiratory system, but there was no evidence of this. So the battered City of Philadelphia continued under siege without any hard-won vaccine, which would not arrive until the 1930’s, and people continued to die.
Meanwhile, science and ethics notwithstanding, a variety of old fashioned Snake Oil salesmen dutifully slithered out and conjured up super-secret die!-flu-die! potions available for only cents on the dollar. An unempathetic American President, Woodrow Wilson, himself stricken by the virus, with all the warmth of a block of ice uttered not one word about the crisis during the entire pandemic. Inevitably unsubstantiated rumors began to circulate among the conspiratorially inclined, near hysterical of the populace, that certainly it was those most heinous of Germans who’d unleashed this killer flu on unsuspecting American citizens via spies who’d secretly arrived on flashy yet hidden U-boats that bristled with all sorts of uber-dangerous weaponry.
The Riot Within
It is difficult to explain to people entitled by power, wealth, race, gender, religion, status, health, education, willful ignorance, and favorable circumstances, why riots happen and why they matter.
While those of us of peaceful protest rightly do not condone violence, purveyors of violence throughout history have relied on the anger of the masses in order to pursue unpopular agendas. Short of inciting others to riot, inciting others to violence, murder, the spontaneous reactions of an angry populace who feel they have been targeted, suppressed, systematically punished, murdered and ignored, is to be expected and deserves to be expressed. Riots are the outrage of despair.
People search for justice in a tone-deaf world rife with injustice, for empathy where there is none. People are afraid. People are outraged. To facilitate real change where change is needed in a broken system is the enviable pursuit of justice, not vengeance. Vengeance is just hate, and hate begets hate.
The riot within us demands that we do something.
Copyright 2020 by Jeffrey Spahr-Summers.