‘Spanish Flu’ in Lancaster

In the fall of 1918, World War I was drawing to a close. A virus that began in Kansas was carried to Europe where it mutated and return with our returning veterans, eager to come home.

In March of that year, the City of Lancaster had just celebrated its Centennial anniversary. With a population of roughly 172K souls in the County then, we have about 544K today, more than triple in just 102 years. But a quick scan of the census numbers across the decades, 1910 to 1920 was the lowest increase ever.

The Journal article outlines some problems that we today are likely to experience in our current pandemic crisis. I believe that we should all hunker down and recognize that it’s going to be a drawn-out and difficult process, with confusion and conflicting opinions just as happened here in 1918.



The first death in Lancaster from the “Spanish Flu” was reported on September 26. Locally, such reports continued until December. Oddly, even at the end, denial maintained a foothold as many of the deaths were attributed to pneumonia at a vastly greater rate than in prior years. Some folks simply didn’t want to recognize what was happening.

Just as today, public health and economic concerns or institutional groups were often in substantial conflicts over how and when to act. The local Board of Health did not always follow the quarantine measures dictated by the State. Wishful thinking, inadequate reporting, and an overwhelming desire for things to return to normal all got in the way of clarity for making appropriate decisions.

14 Oct 1918, 1 - Intelligencer Journal at Newspapers

Remember that trolleys were a major form of public transportation. Crowded trolley cars were highly discouraged. The windows were supposed to be left down for fresh air. This caused discomfort for many as the October temperatures dipped. Both Lancaster General and Saint Joseph’s filled to capacity and emergency hospital preparations were made at the Elk Club and the Moose Club.

Unfortunate predictions of the peak having been passed were made and almost immediately contradicted. Plans to suspend the quarantine were oftentimes over-ridden by State officials. The desire to return to work was enormous. The debate continued even past Halloween being canceled. Lancaster newspapers called for the quarantine to be lifted. It wasn’t until November 5 that the State agreed to lift the quarantine. Their decision was driven partly by what they were observing in Philadelphia, where the toll was far greater.

As the crisis waned, restrictions of survivors continued to keep the infection at bay. Placards were placed on homes to warn would-be visitors.

In the end, the final official death count of 301 is truly an understatement, due to doctors and undertakers being too busy to provide accurate counts. The writer suggests adding 20% to the number, bringing it to 361. Again, we are triple that in the population today. It’s a different virus, we probably have a greater percentage of elderly. But, there are greater measures in place today for the elderly in retirement communities to be protected. Plus, we have easier means of communicating with each other.

Who knows where this will all end up or when? But, I think this crisis is one in which each of us can be socially responsible by heeding the warnings, staying informed, and being mindful of our neighbors.

It seems to me that we learn over and over again how connected we truly are not just with each other and the larger world around us, but with our past and more importantly with our common future.

Which brings me to a question I pose for your consideration: What steps would you like to take?


2 thoughts on “‘Spanish Flu’ in Lancaster

  1. I think we should ride it out. Let’s take it very slow before we jump ship. These people that are making the decisions are not out in the REAL WORLD. Let’s listen to God…hmm

  2. Stumbled onto this post over 6 months into the COVID pandemic…how prophetic. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

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