Like nearly every other East Coast city, Albany was struck by the influenza epidemic in late-September, 1918. It arrived quickly and with little warning. As physicians were not yet required to report cases, neither State nor local health officials had an accurate idea of just how many cases had developed in the city and surrounding areas. Although City Health Officer Dr. Arthur Sautter did not believe there were many cases in Albany, physicians in nearby towns were claiming hundreds of suspected cases. On September 27, New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Herman Biggs issued a letter to state newspapers, listing the symptoms and treatment of influenza and asking them to warn their readership to brace for the epidemic. He also asked all New York physicians to report at frequent intervals the prevalence of influenza and pneumonia in their localities.1
Initially, Health Officer Sautter was optimistic about the situation in Albany. On October 5, he declared that the city “[had] been unusually fortunate” compared to other cities across Upstate New York, and therefore closure orders would likely not be necessary. Two days later, however, he changed his tune when reports from local physicians indicated approximately 6,000 cases of influenza in Albany. Sautter now advocated for a general closure order if the influenza situation did not improve dramatically within a few days.2 The next day, on October 8, as dozens of new cases were reported, Albany Commissioner of Public Safety James Sheldon Frost, upon Sautter’s recommendation, ordered all schools, churches, theaters, movie houses, and libraries closed, and indoor public gatherings suspended, effective at 8:00 am on October 9. The City Council made it a misdemeanor to cough or sneeze in public without covering the mouth, with a whopping $500 fine and the possibility of a year in prison for offenders. Residents were warned not to spit in public or risk arrest and a $10 fine.3 The city’s orphanages closed their doors to visitors or new intakes. Albany buckled down for the epidemic.
Quickly the number of new cases mounted. When the city’s hospitals were overrun with patients ill with influenza and pneumonia, Sautter arranged to have the newly constructed Smallpox Hospital, with space for 100 patients, made available. The heads of Albany’s administrative departments lent as much aid as they could. The police chief had patrol cars drive patients to the hospitals. The president of the common council loaned his personal automobile as an ambulance. The school superintendent assigned school nurses to work for the Bureau of Health. Other, private citizens and organizations helped as well. The dean of Albany Medical College arranged to have his medical students provide on-call care to patients. The Guild for Public Health Nursing, the Catholic Women’s Service, and the Red Cross all lent their aid as well.4
By the third week of October, nearly 6,000 influenza cases had been reported in Albany. The number of new cases had been steadily declining, however, and Sautter believed the epidemic was essentially over and that the danger had passed. On October 23 he recommended to the city’s Board of Estimate and Apportionment that the closure order be lifted. The Board agreed. The next day, after only two weeks, Albany reopened. Schools and most movie houses were to remain closed until at least November 2, however, as concern remained that Albany’s youngsters were still at risk for contracting and spreading the disease. The city’s four performing arts theater–Harmanus Bleecker Hall, the Grand, the Empire, and the Majestic–catered to an adult crowd and were allowed to reopen along with the rest of Albany.5
By November 1, some 7,091 cases of influenza had been reported in Albany. Fortunately, the worst appeared to be over. Hospitals, once crowded, now had plenty of beds available. And, for the first time since the start of the epidemic, no hospital deaths were reported. Still, Sautter remained cautious. Fearing a second spike in cases if children were allowed back into their classrooms, he recommended to the Board of Estimate and Apportionment that schools be kept closed for an additional week. Theaters, he suggested, could reopen with little danger, provided they shorted their operating hours. The Board accepted Sautter’s recommendations and ordered Albany’s schools to remain shut until at least November 9, and allowed theaters to operate from 7 pm to 11 pm starting Thursday, November 7.6
On Monday, November 11, Albany’s theaters reopened for normal operating hours and children returned to their classrooms. All classrooms were disinfected, and school nurses inspected each student for illness before admitting them. Overall, only a few students were found ill with influenza. With the last of the epidemic orders now removed, life in Albany slowly returned to normal.
For some residents, however, the aftermath of the epidemic would be felt for some time to come. Over 450 Albany citizens died during the epidemic. Hundreds of children had lost at least one parent to influenza, and at least fifty had been completely orphaned. The city’s orphanages still under protective sequestration, however, so these cases could not be placed. The Catholic diocese offered the use of its School of Mothers and the Cathedral settlement house for these children, some of who had influenza themselves.7 The St. Elizabeth’s Guild opened its doors to orphans as well when even more were discovered amongst Albany’s children. The Associated Charities of Albany also pitched in, inspecting homes of those still convalescing in hospitals before they were discharged and distributing food to the sick.8 Together, these organization, public officials, and private citizens slowly pieced together life in Albany.
1 “Two Soldiers Are Influenza Victims,” Albany Evening Journal, 2 Oct. 1918, 1.
2 “Albany Officials Confident,” Albany Knickerbocker Press, 5 Oct. 1918, 2; “Albany Reports 600 Grip Cases,” Albany Knickerbocker Press, 7 Oct. 1918, 1.
3 “Order of Frost Barring Indoor Gatherings,” Albany Knickerbocker Press, 9 Oct. 1918, 1; “Epidemic Crusade Started by State,” Albany Evening Journal, 12 Oct. 1918, 16.
4 “Report of the Department of Health,” in Proceedings of the Common Council, Vol. II: Message of the Mayor and Reports of City Officers (Albany: Argus Printers, 1918), 236-237.
5 “Closing Ban Has Been Modified,” Albany Evening Journal, 23 Oct. 1918, 1.
6 “Flu Ban on Schools to be Continued Next Week,” Albany Evening Journal, 2 Nov. 1918, 1.
7 “City Will Care for flu Victims’ Orphans,” Albany Evening Journal, 4 Nov. 1918, 2; “Caring for Little Ones Left Orphans by the Epidemic of Influenza,” Albany Evening Journal, 13 Nov. 1918, 10.
8 “Influenza After Care System Organized,” Albany Evening Journal, 5 Nov. 1918, 3.
|200||Excess Death Rate (per 100,000)|
September 28, 1918
The first possible cases of influenza appear in Albany. Two soldiers arrive by train feeling ill. After an examination, both are sent to the hospital and Dr. Arthur Sautter, City Health Officer, is notified.
October 2, 1918
Health Officer Sautter says there probably aren’t many cases in the city, and even though epidemic is spreading across the country, “it will not be necessary for the Bureau of Health to take drastic steps, such as the closing of public places in this city.”
October 5, 1918
Following a meeting with Health Officer Sautter, Mayor James R. Watt announces that general closure orders will not be necessary as long as residents follow general influenza prevention guidelines.
October 7, 1918
About 6,000 total influenza cases are reported, although this number is unofficial since influenza is not yet a reportable disease. Health Officer Sautter meets with Mayor Watt and Commissioner of Public Safety James Sheldon Frost and advises closing schools, theaters, and churches. For the time being, no action is taken, although Dr. Sautter hints that a closure order is likely.
October 8, 1918
Health Officer Sautter and Frost issue an order closing all schools, churches, theaters and movie houses, and banning indoor public meetings, dances, social gatherings, and public funerals beginning at midnight tonight and lasting until midnight Saturday, October 12.
October 9, 1918
Today is the first day of Albany’s closure order and gathering ban.
October 10, 1918
The Bureau of Health orders streetcars to be properly ventilated with front and rear windows kept open.
October 11, 1918
Influenza is made a reportable disease by the New York State Department of Health. The City Council makes it a misdemeanor to cough or sneeze in public without covering the mouth, with a potential $500 fine and/or a year in prison.
October 12, 1918
At a meeting of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, Health Officer Sautter recommends that the closure order be extended an additional week, until Saturday, October 19. Mayor Watt agrees.
October 13, 1918
Representatives of social organizations meet and pledge to recruit volunteers to assist in the fight against the epidemic.
October 15, 1918
Albany Hospital is having difficulty keeping up with the influx of influenza cases. All non-emergency surgical procedures have been postponed, and no non-influenza patients are being admitted so that staff can focus on influenza and pneumonia cases.
October 16, 1918
Health Officer Sautter tells the public that Albany now has the upper hand on the epidemic, but urges residents to maintain vigilance.
October 17, 1918
Mayor Watt, Health Officer Sautter, and Commissioner of Public Safety Frost decide to cancel the annual parade of the Police and Fire Departments scheduled for October 26 after some firemen fear that marching would cause a relapse for firemen who have just recovered from influenza.
October 18, 1918
Mayor Watt and Health Officer Sautter decide to recommend to the Board of Estimate and Apportionment that the closing order be extended.
October 19, 1918
Mayor Watt and Health Officer Sautter present their recommendation to extend the closure order to the Board of Estimate and Apportionment. The Board adopts the recommendation and directs Commissioner Frost to continue the closure order until at least Wednesday, October 23.
October 21, 1918
The Bureau of Health launches an anti-spitting campaign with the support of the police. Anyone caught spitting will be arrested and fined $10.
October 22, 1918
Newspapers report that banks and places of business have been hard hit by the epidemic, with approximately 15–20% of their workforce out sick and many customers sick as well. The streetcar company has had to diminish number of cars because so many conductors are out sick. Only drug stores, on the other hand, are doing brisk business.
October 23, 1918
Health Officer Sautter recommends to the Board of Estimate and Apportionment that the closure order be lifted. The Board agrees, and rescinds the order effective tonight at midnight. Schools and movie theaters are to remain closed, however. Four theaters–those that pay $100 license fee rather than the usual $50–are allowed to reopen.
October 24, 1918
A delegation of movie theater owners protest the fact that they must remain closed while four theaters are allowed to open; Commissioner Frost replies that it is a health order and will therefore stand.
October 28, 1918
Health Officer Sautter is happy with the recent influenza case tallies. “I am convinced beyond a doubt that the epidemic is losing its grip on the city, when I find that I have 40 vacant beds to-day at the Albany Hospital, where but a few days ago I did not have one,” he tells reporters.
October 27, 1918
Albany’s churches open for first time in two weeks.
October 30, 1918
The Red Cross helps Health Officer Sautter organize an emergency committee to plan for the aftercare for flu convalescents.
October 31, 1918
The Board of Estimate and Apportionment announces that, if conditions continue to improve, it will rescind closure orders on schools and movie theaters Saturday, November 2.
November 1, 1918
The annual convention of the New York State Teachers’ Association, scheduled to take place in Albany over Thanksgiving, is cancelled due to the large number of lost school days experienced by schools across the state.
November 2, 1918
Health Officer Sautter announces that schools will remain closed until at least up to Monday, November 11. Theaters can reopen on November 7, but they are only allowed to operate 7-11 pm.
November 6, 1918
Number of influenza cases is now at a normal, seasonal level. Health Officer Sautter will closely monitor cases throughout the winter, but is confident that the epidemic is over.
November 9, 1918
Upon the recommendation of Health Officer Sautter, the Board of Estimate and Apportionment votes to reopen schools on Monday, November 11. Movie theaters can return to normal operating schedules.
November 13, 1918
School officials announce that children presenting with influenza symptoms will be excluded from school.
January 25, 1919
Some 280 new influenza cases are reported this week, but Health Officer Sautter tells the public that there is no cause for alarm since many of these cases are in fact mild colds.