What was called “The Spanish Flu” touched Connecticut in the spring of 1918, subsided, then returned with a vengeance in the fall. Unlike COVID-19, that pandemic hit children and able-bodied adults hard, as well as old folks and those already susceptible, eventually killing over 8,500 Connecticans. With more than twice the population now, Connecticut’s COVID-19 tally by August 14, 2020, was 4,450 deaths. The current data is encouraging, indicating a recovery trend in this state, with hope for no upsurge in the fall.
In 1918 here in Suffield, there were school closings and concern about contagion, but none of the shelter-in-place and social distancing practices that our more knowledgeable and risk-averse world demands. The local news reports provide no hint that face masks were in use 102 years ago.
Dr. William Caldwell established his practice in Suffield in 1894 and was appointed Town health officer in 1905. His principal concerns were epidemics of measles and whooping cough and sometimes polio, and he fought for years to encourage the town to correct the troublesome situation of household sewage running in open ditches in closely populated neighborhoods. He reported over 50 cases of measles in the Town Report for 1918, but said not a word about the flu. (In those years Suffield’s fiscal and reportable year ended on September 1.)
It was a different story in the 1919 report. He wrote, “. . . it was an eventful year, marking the end of the World War and marking the world epidemic of influenza. . . . In our little hamlet the mortality was greater than any other contagious disease in my recollection.” Dr. Caldwell, who became a truly beloved town hero before his death in 1937, was evidently a man of few words.
Reviewing the Observer’s “100 Years Ago” columns reveals that the Windsor Locks Journal for September 20, 1918, reported on the “Spanish influenza: “So far there has been only one suspected case of the disease in Suffield.” But on October 1 the report was “there are still a number of cases of the Spanish influenza in town and every precaution should be taken to prevent a serious epidemic.” And in the October 18 report, “the number of cases is assuming goodly proportions, but fortunately a large percentage of cases are light and with proper precautions do not result seriously.” For November 8, “Principal Hobart G. Truesdell of the Suffield Military School [now Suffield Academy] has decided to drop all games on the football schedule on account of the influenza epidemic and the close quarantine that is now being maintained at the school.”
But two weeks later, “The influenza epidemic seems to be on the wane in this town, as only as only two or three cases were reported this week. . . . It has been decided not to open the Suffield School [another Academy name] until December 2d. Some of the district schools that are still closed will re-open next week.” There were no further reports of the Spanish flu.
Dr. Caldwell spoke of the disease’s “mortality” in Suffield, but “100 Years Ago” mentioned no deaths. Unfortunately for this summary, the news excerpted for the Observer’s column often omitted obituaries, and as a consequence of this year’s pandemic the library’s scrapbooks reviewed for the column are not readily available to this reporter for a recheck.