By the beginning of 1918, women had been officially fighting for the right to vote for 70 years. President Wilson finally came out in support of a national amendment for women’s suffrage. The House of Representatives had passed a suffrage bill. The bill was now in the Senate. Suffragists were hopeful. By March of 1918 a deadly strain of influenza was first detected in Kansas but it seemed like a minor issue in the middle of the country. Suffragists pressed on, but racism reared its ugly head again. Conservatives, especially those in the South, feared what would happen if Black women were allowed to vote. Twice, the Senate stalled by scheduling the vote on the bill and then cancelling it. They were able to postpone the vote until the fall of 1918. By then the pandemic has caused massive waves of death around the world. Suffragists continued to fight. Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was so sick that she was forced to stay in her bed and continue to wage the campaign for women’s suffrage from there.
All of the usual fundraiser and awareness tactics were halted. No more open-air meetings, large gatherings, suffrage parades, and speaking tours. It was almost impossible to raise funds. Wisely, the women switched to more personal tactics and the smaller scale of going door-to-door and talking with neighbors, friends, and family members. Despite being incredibly ill, as a resident of the newly enfranchised state of New York, Catt was able to vote in the 1918 election.
In November of 1918, WWI came to a close; the bill for national suffrage was still alive in the Senate but had not been passed and the pandemic raged on in America for one last wave of destruction until April of 1919.
The pandemic of 1918-1919 is often mislabeled as the “Spanish Flu”. In truth it was a worldwide outbreak of influenza that was spread even faster due to the additional factor of WWI. Although the deadly illness was appearing in many countries, most newspapers refused to report on it for fear of lowering the morale of already embattled troops who were fighting a seemingly endless and bloody war. Spain was a neutral country during the war and chose to publish stories on the virus leading to it being called the “Spanish Flu”.
Even more dangerous than the fact that newspapers weren’t reporting on it, is that such a devastating illness which wiped out whole families and had a world wide death toll of 50 million people was erased from society’s collective memory. In October of 1918, 200,000 Americans died in the span of 4 weeks, making it the deadliest month in the entire history of the United States. Philadelphia had the highest mortality rate of any major city with a startling statistic of 20,000 dead in six months (and that’s probably an underestimate) yet there is not a single plaque within the city that mentions the event.
The 1918 pandemic completely changed the way that American society relates to their dead. Funeral homes, morticians, and embalming existed in 1918 but it was still a fairly new field. Most of the time, the family would clean and care for the dead body themselves. It was a loving thing to say goodbye with one more act of caring for the person by washing and dressing a body without any embalming. Viewings were often held in the family’s house. With so many deaths happening at once, people might have lost three, five, or eight family members within just a few days. Possibly being sick themselves or not wanting to risk getting sick, people outsourced caring for the dead. Sadly, there was so much death that bodies were piled on the porches and streets like trash to be taken out. Children played on pyramids of coffins without really thinking about what was inside. There was a shortage of undertakers and coffins. There was price gouging. Many people had to dig the graves for their loved ones themselves or be forced to dump them in mass graves thus adding to the trauma. Public funerals were banned and loved ones couldn’t even open the casket or touch the deceased to say goodbye. American society distanced itself from the final rituals involved with processing death and learned to emotionally push it away or hold it deep inside and never talk about it.
As a nation, we repressed the memory of the 1918 pandemic.There was a feeling of helplessness and the horror of randomness to the disease. People weren’t dying for cause; they were just dying. Prevention measures helped, but there was no cure, and the underlying feeling of grief was never properly processed. From its first detection in March 1918 to its final documented cases in April 1919, an estimated 675,000 people in the United States died from the virus. (The American Civil War had an estimated 650,000-1,000,000 deaths over four years of bloody conflict.) Many museums and historical societies had temporary exhibits marking the 100th anniversary of the 1918 pandemic. On Sept 28, 2019 the Mütter Museum and an artistic collective called Blast Theory collaborated and held a commemorative parade in Philadelphia to honor those who died during the pandemic. The Mütter Museum has several excellent YouTube talks about their exhibit, “Spit Spreads Death”, that examines the 1918 pandemic. A virtual tour of the exhibit, and interview with a professional mortician are in the links below as is a reading of a beloved poem from Emily Dickenson.
This week’s song pick:
“Keep Holding On” by Avril Lavinge. The song was used in the movie “Bridge to Terabithia” based on the book of the same name https://youtu.be/J2u3i2ba_ME
Mütter Museum’s curator Anna Dhody interviews professional mortician Caitlin Doughty about Philadelphia’s response to deaths from the 1918 pandemic https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lH2Laha7llI
Virtual tour of the exhibit “Spit Spreads Death” at the Mütter Museum. It is professionally narrated by curator Anna Dhody https://youtu.be/pY2Jo4S15hU
A short film of the poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickenson
Episode 76 Sources: