“If we Syracusans are selfish enough to ask for a year-round camp here, we will have to put up with this condition all the time during the fall and winter.” Thus spoke Dr. Dwight H. Murray of the city’s Crouse-Irving Hospital on September 21, 1918. The condition to which he referred was influenza, which had recently attacked the Syracuse Recruit Camp and had put several hundred sick soldiers into city hospitals. Murray was not the only one exceedingly unconcerned with the sudden rise of influenza cases. Other hospital physicians simply chalked it up to “a combination of germs” resulting from the mixing of soldiers and recruits from across the country. Even city health officials seemed rather blasé about it, with one doctor calling it the same old-fashioned grippe that Syracuse residents had been dealing with for the past several decades.1
Within a few days the number of cases in Syracuse’s hospitals jumped even higher. Most of the hospitalized were soldiers, but civilian cases were on the rise as well. Hospital staff was already working round-the-clock to care for the sick, and the epidemic had only just begun. Bed space was at a premium; the Crouse-Irving Hospital crammed 300 influenza cases into a ward designed to handle only 200 patients. To help alleviate some of the pressure, hospitals converted specialized wards into influenza treatment areas. A shortage of nurses led to a call by the Red Cross for all graduate nurses in the area to assist in the fight against influenza. The commandant of the Recruit Camp detailed orderlies to work at the city’s hospitals, where they were assigned duties in the kitchens, laundry facilities, and in some cases even the wards. Syracuse threw all the resources it could muster against the rising tide of the epidemic, with little apparent effect.2
The situation continued to deteriorate rapidly over the next several days. Finally, on September 28, Lieutenant Colonel B. G. Ruttencutter, commander of the Syracuse Recruit Camp, ordered the camp under quarantine.3 Soldiers were now prohibited from leaving the camp and mingling with civilians, and civilians were likewise barred from entering from camp. It is likely that the quarantine had little if any effect on Syracuse’s epidemic, however. By this time, hundreds of sick soldiers were being cared for in civilian hospitals, and countless more soldiers had mixed with city residents. In fact, civilian cases were now on the rise as military cases at the recruit camp were declining.4
On October 4, after discussing the epidemic situation with Syracuse Health Officer Dr. David M. Totman and Commissioner of Public Safety Walter W. Nicholson, Mayor Walter R. Stone requested that city physicians report all civilian cases of influenza to the Health Department. It was only a request, however. As Health Officer Totman stated, “Influenza is not a reportable disease, and it is too late now to issue a regulation requiring that it be reported.” Instead, officials would rely on the cooperation of doctors in order to obtain accurate case data.5 The next day, 22 of Syracuse’s 170-odd physicians reported a total of 724 new cases. Totman estimated that, at that rate, the city had approximately 5,000 total cases of influenza. Mayor Stone took solace in the fact that this number did not seem proportionately higher than in other American cities, and he therefore did not see the need to issue a closure order at this time.6 For now, Syracuse waited, hoping the worst had passed.
Only two days later, on October 7, as cases continued to mount, Mayor Stone ordered all schools, churches, theaters, dance halls, skating rinks, and other public places closed, and barred all public meetings, funerals, and other gatherings. The trustees of the city library system closed all library buildings. Parents were encouraged to have their children play outside but to prevent them from congregating in groups. School medical inspectors were released to work in their private practices, and school nurses were asked to carry out visitation work for the health department. No formal isolation or quarantine orders were issued, but residents were instructed to remain at home without visitors if they fell ill. Lastly, streetcars were to be fumigated daily, and restaurant sanitary conditions would be closely monitored by health inspectors.7 Mayor Stone asked the New York State Railways, an affiliation of several urban and interurban streetcar companies across the upstate region, to ensure that cars were not overcrowded. The company responded that, on the contrary, the epidemic had caused a drastic drop-off in ridership.8
To help the anti-influenza effort, Syracuse University suspended all large classes and requested that faculty and students stay away from the city’s business district. Cadets in the Student Army Training Corps were only allowed off campus with a special pass.9 Even the Boy Scouts had their activities curtailed when Safety Commissioner Nicholson ordered them to stop the door-to-door distribution of Liberty Loan literature and selling of war savings stamps.10
Syracuse’s hospitals struggled to accommodate the increasing number of patients, prompting officials to announce the opening of City Hospital to influenza cases provided enough nurses could be found to staff the facility. Health Officer Totman did not yet know where additional nurses could be found, as nearly every community across New York was being hard hit by the epidemic. The American Red Cross, Visiting Nurses Association, and even the United States Employment Service were doing their best to put out the call for trained nurses and volunteers, but demand outpaced supply.11
By mid-October, it appeared that the tide had turned. Physicians still reported large numbers of cases, but the daily tallies were declining. The local chapter of the Visiting Nurses Association reported a similar trend. Mayor Stone and Totman were cautiously optimistic that the closure order and gathering ban could be removed within a week’s time, provided the epidemic situation continued to improve.12 However, Totman was having difficulty obtaining accurate case data from physicians, despite influenza being made a mandatory reportable disease by the New York Board of Health (effective October 12).13 Not all physicians were reporting new cases in a timely manner, and the state health department pressured Totman to rectify the situation. Totman responded by reminding Syracuse’s doctors of their legal obligation to report cases and notified them that he would report any physician who was remiss. As a result, it was temporarily unclear whether the epidemic situation was improving, worsening, or stable.14 Totman believed that, at the very least, the existing evidence did not point to a substantial enough improvement to warrant lifting the closure order and gathering ban.15
Within a few days, however, as reports of lower case numbers continued to file into the health department, Totman and Mayor Stone began to believe that indeed the worst had passed. On Wednesday, October 23, after meeting with Totman and Stone, Safety Commissioner Nicholson announced the removal of the gathering ban effective 6:00 am Friday, October 25. Schools would reopen on Monday, October 28, where each of the city’s 25,000 schoolchildren would be monitored closely for signs and symptoms of illness.16 Dance halls, movie theaters, playhouses, and other gathering places were ordered to fumigate their premises and to maintain proper ventilation; those that could not would be forced to make the necessary renovations to allow adequate fresh air flow. To help avoid a recurrence of the epidemic, the health department decided to initiate a public education campaign. The Department printed circulars and posters warning about influenza and the practices that recently had helped spread it.17
Syracuse’s theaters reopened to capacity crowds as residents rushed to see plays and movies after several weeks of entertainment-less evenings. Similarly, church pews were filled on Sunday. Residents seemed eager to return to their normal routines of urban life. As the local newspaper put it, “The red-lettered placards of the Bureau of Health were the only reminders of the period through which the city has passed.”18
Overall, Syracuse’s excess death rate for the second wave of the epidemic (September 1918 through March 1919) was 541 deaths per 100,000 people, a rate comparable to most other Upstate New York communities as well as cities across the greater Northeastern region. But, unlike most other area cities (and indeed communities across the United States)–which continued to experience cases and deaths through early-spring 1919–Syracuse’s bout with influenza essentially ended by the last days of November. In January and February 1919, the city did have a slight increase in influenza cases and deaths, but the numbers were hardly above the baseline for seasonal outbreaks of the disease. By far, the worst of Syracuse’s influenza epidemic had passed by the last days of October.
1 “Need Not Fear Epidemic Here of Influenza,” Syracuse Post Standard, 21 Sept. 1918, 6.
2 “Doctors Work Night and Day Caring for Influenza Cases,” Syracuse Post Standard, 26 Sept. 1918, 6; “12 More Soldiers Dead in epidemic of Influenza,” Syracuse Post Standard, 27 Sept. 1918, 6.
3 “Percentage of Deaths under Other Camps,” Syracuse Post Standard, 28 Sept. 1918, 6.
4 “Camp Officers Gratified by Day’s Report,” Syracuse Post Standard, 1 Oct. 1918, 6.
5 “Physicians to Report Influenza Cases; 7 Deaths Occur Among Camp Soldiers,” Syracuse Post Standard, 4 Oct. 1918, 7.
6 “City Takes Steps to Combat Influenza,” Syracuse Post Standard, 5 Oct. 1918, 6.
7 “Schools, Theaters, Churches and Public Meeting Places Closed,” Syracuse Post Standard, 7 Oct. 1918, 6; “Public Library and Branches Ordered Closed by Trustees,”; “Public Library and Branches Ordered Closed by Trustees,” Syracuse Post Standard, 10 Oct. 1918, 6.
8 “City Continues Vigorous Efforts to Stamp out Epidemic Influenza,” Syracuse Post Standard, 10 Oct. 1918, 6.
9 “Large Classes Suspended at University by Dr. Day,” Syracuse Post Standard, 8 Oct. 1918, 6; “SATC Men Put Under Quarantine,” Syracuse Post Standard, 9 Oct. 1918, 6.
10 “Activities of Boy Scouts Curtailed by the Epidemic,” Syracuse Post Standard, 9 Oct. 1918, 6.
11 “City Continues Vigorous Efforts to Stamp out Epidemic Influenza,” Syracuse Post Standard, 10 Oct. 1918, 6; “Appeals for Aid,” Syracuse Post Standard, 10 Oct. 1918, 6.
12 “Drop in New Cases of Influenza Indicated in Physicians’ Cards,” Syracuse Post Standard, 15 Oct. 1918, 6.
13 State of New York, Thirty-ninth Annual Report of the Department of Health, for the Year Ending December 31, 1918, Vol. 1 (Albany: J. R. Lyon Company, 1920), 86.
14 “Health Officer Orders Doctors to Report Cases of Influenza,” Syracuse Post Standard, 17 Oct. 1918, 7.
15 “New Cases of Influenza Slowly Decreasing Here,” Syracuse Post Standard, 19 Oct. 1918, 7.
16 “Ban on Public Meetings Will End on Friday,” Syracuse Post Standard, 23 Oct. 1918, 7; “Schools Again Take up Work Following Ban,” Syracuse Post Standard, 28 Oct. 1918, 6.
17 “Teach Public How to Avert Second Plague,” Syracuse Post Standard, 24 Oct. 1918, 7.
18 “Theaters and Churches Filled to Capacity Show Fear of Epidemic is Over,” “Theaters and Churches Filled to Capacity Show Fear of Epidemic is Over,” Syracuse Post Standard, 28 Oct. 1918, 6.
|200||Excess Death Rate (per 100,000)|
September 19, 1918
Dr. David M. Totman, City Health Officer, reports that he is not concerned about health conditions at the Syracuse Recruit Camp. Totman doesn’t anticipate that there will be an influenza epidemic.
Dr. A. J. Gigger, City Bacteriologist, is analyzing blood specimens taken from soldiers stationed at the Syracuse Recruit Camp because of the recent incidence of influenza in Army camps on the East Coast.
September 21, 1918
Health officers do not think the disease that has sent many local soldiers to area hospitals is Spanish influenza.
There are an estimated 136 cases at the Crouse-Irving Hospital, where there is a shortage of cots and 25 nurses are also ill. There are 106 cases at the Hospital of the Good Shepard. St. Joseph’s Hospital has 50 cases.
Dr. Totman, City Health Officer, confirms that there are a few influenza cases in Syracuse but tells the public not to worry.
September 22, 1918
The situation at the Syracuse Recruit Camp is becoming more serious. As of today there are 500 sick soldiers convalescing in local hospitals. Despite preventative measures, conditions in the Camp continue to deteriorate.
Dr. O. W. H. Mitchell, City Bacteriologist, believes the disease present in Syracuse is influenza. He warns the public to use precaution but stresses that there isn’t any reason to panic.
September 23, 1918
Dr. Totman, City Health Officer, plans to discuss methods for preventing an influenza epidemic in Syracuse with Commissioner of Public Safety Dr. Walter W. Nicholson.
Syracuse women who’ve taken the Red Cross first-aid course are helping tend to the sick.
September 24, 1918
Captain Sidney F. Mashbir reports that the influenza epidemic at the Syracuse Recruit Camp is declining. Dr. Totman, City Health Officer, is similarly optimistic.
The General Hospital now has over 1,200 influenza patients. Special wards have been prepared.
September 25, 1918
Although 519 soldiers are currently hospitalized with influenza, authorities believe that conditions in the Syracuse Recruit Camp are improving. The recent poor weather conditions are blamed for the spread of sickness.
A total of 112 new patients entered city hospitals today.
September 26, 1918
Local hospitals are crowded and resources are running low.
Dr. Charles L. Schlosser, City Physician, treated over 30 cases before falling ill himself.
Nine people have died within the past twenty-four hours.
September 27, 1918
All city hospitals are operating beyond their capacity.
Mayor Walter R. Stone assures the public that all precautionary methods against influenza are being taken and that the situation is under control.
September 28, 1918
10 soldiers die from influenza at the Syracuse Recruit Camp. Major Arthur F. Thompson reports that the situation is under control at the Camp.
Lieutenant Colonel B. G. Ruttencutter, commander of the Syracuse Recruit Camp, orders the Camp under quarantine. Soldiers are prohibited from leaving the Camp and civilians are likewise barred from entering.
September 29, 1918
Nine soldiers at the Syracuse Recruit Camp die over the course of the day. 131 cases -- many thought to be “light colds” -- developed during the same period.
Major Thompson reports to the War Department that conditions in the Camp are improving.
September 30, 1918
Officials at the Syracuse Recruit Camp report a decrease in deaths among influenza patients. Five deaths and 125 new cases are reported at the Camp.
October 1, 1918
The number of cases in city hospitals decreased by 101 but the number of deaths increased by 14. Thirty-six cases were admitted to hospitals and 126 were discharged.
Dr. Totman, City Health Officer, reports that conditions are improving in the city.
October 2 , 1918
Dr. Totman, City Health Officer, inspected hospitals today at the request of Mayor Stone. Dr. Totman praised the efforts of volunteers, stating that without their assistance the epidemic conditions would be much worse.
Dr. Totman cannot comment on influenza conditions among the civilian population because influenza is not a reportable disease. He acknowledges that conditions are serious but doesn’t believe the public should be alarmed. Although few cases are severe, the epidemic is spreading rapidly within Syracuse and neighboring towns. Physicians are having trouble caring for all affected.
Major Thompson announces that the quarantine on the Syracuse Recruit Camp will probably be in place until the end of the week.
October 3, 1918
After conferring with Dr. Totman, city health officer, and Commissioner of Public Safety Nicholson, Mayor Stone requests that physicians report influenza cases in the civilian population. The New York State Department of Health requested specific influenza case totals from Mayor Stone for monitoring purposes. Physicians are not required to report cases; their participation at this time is voluntary.
Major Thompson reported to the War Department that cases at the Syracuse Recruit Camp continue to decrease. Today there were twenty new influenza cases and seven deaths. It is believed that health conditions in the camp are almost back to normal. More nurses are needed to tend to the sick.
Once the quarantine is lifted, the Syracuse Recruit Camp will close.
Syracuse University is taking all necessary steps to prevent the spread of epidemic among the undergraduate population.
The Visiting Nurse Association treated 34 new cases of influenza. More cars are needed to transport nurses to patients.
October 4, 1918
724 influenza cases reported.
Mayor Stone does not consider the situation to be alarming.
Dr. Harry Myron, Acting School Physician, reported to Mayor Stone that school authorities are against closing schools. They believe children are safer in schools than outside them.
Twelve deaths from pneumonia reported in the civilian population.
Fifteen cases of influenza and thirteen deaths from influenza reported at the Syracuse Recruit Camp.
October 5, 1918
32 deaths among civilians and soldiers reported. The number of pneumonia deaths has doubled.
The majority of physicians polled by the Post-Standard believe public places should close to combat the spread of influenza.
October 7, 1918
After meeting with Public Safety Commissioner Nicholson, Health Officer Totman, and the medical advisory counsel, Mayor Stone orders all public places to close to combat the spread of influenza. Places to close include: schools, churches, theaters, dance halls, Sunday schools, libraries, and roller skating rinks. All public meetings will cease. Mayor Stone states that restrictive measures will remain in place until health conditions improve. Police officers will ensure the measures are followed.
Mayor Stone asks the New York State Railways to limit crowding within cars.
Nurses are encouraged to register with the Red Cross for service in private homes.
Chancellor James Roscoe Day requested that faculty and students at Syracuse University avoid the city’s business district. Social gatherings are forbidden. Small classes may be held, at the discretion of faculty. Members of the Student Army Training Corps are only allowed to leave campus with a special pass, under orders from Captain Clifford A. Gross.
Twelve pneumonia cases were reported within the civilian population. The number of pneumonia cases is decreasing.
October 8, 1918
Public funerals for influenza victims are not allowed. Only relatives of victims are allowed to attend.
Health Bureau officials are confident that restrictive measures are successfully conquering the epidemic.
Although the number of deaths and cases are dropping, health authorities ask the public to remain vigilant.
Health Officer Totman received reports of 1,771 cases. From this, he estimates a total of 4,250 cases.
Sixteen deaths from influenza reported in Syracuse and five in surrounding towns.
Fourteen firemen, out of a total of 217, report being ill with influenza.
October 9, 1918
The closure order will be removed when conditions improve.
Twenty-four deaths from pneumonia reported in Syracuse.
October 10, 1918
With the number of cases in Syracuse around 5,000 and hospitals overcrowded, officials have decided to open the City Hospital, provided they can secure a large enough nursing staff. The hospital will accommodate 150 patients. The decision was made after a meeting between Mayor Stone, Commissioner of Public Safety Nicholson, and the District Sanitary Inspector Dr. F. W. Sears.
Stone asks New York State Railways to ensure that cars are not crowded.
Stone does not plan to repeal the closure order on public places any time soon. He does not believe that extending the ban to stores, offices, or factories is necessary at this time, if ever.
There is an urgent request for nurses and volunteers to help care for influenza patients in their homes and deliver meals to the sick. Teachers and volunteers have been preparing food at local high schools.
3,561 cases were reported, including 285 cases of pneumonia. It’s estimated that there are thirty-nine influenza patients for every physician in Syracuse, or 6,591 cases.
Health Officer Totman received serum from Boston for use in vaccinating nurses working in hospitals. Vaccination is voluntary. If vaccination is successful, all emergency aid workers might receive a dose.
October 11, 1918
According to reports from physicians, there are currently 6,000 cases in Syracuse.
The City Hospital opened. The ambulance was in use the entire day.
Further measures to fight the epidemic are planned. Railway companies are required to heat, ventilate, and fumigate their cars.
Following a conversation with Dr. Royal S. Copeland, Health Commissioner of New York City, Dr. Totman, Syracuse Health Officer, ordered that every nurse in the City Hospital be inoculated with anti-influenza serum, obtained from the New York Board of Health. This measure will extend to other hospitals as well.
Five new cases and two deaths reported at Syracuse Recruit Camp.
Deputy Commissioner Seibert T. Friedrich has received numerous complaints about people burning leaves in the streets, in violation of the city ordinance. Anyone discovered burning leaves will be arrested.
October 12, 1918
Dr. Hermann M. Biggs, State Commissioner of Health, is in charge of coordinating statewide efforts to fight the influenza epidemic.
The New York State Board of Health made influenza a mandatory reportable disease, beginning today.
The Public Health Council has made coughing and sneezing in public a misdemeanor punishable with a $500 fine or a year in prison.
Although reports show that influenza cases are increasing in Syracuse, Mayor Stone is optimistic, citing the effective results of the public gathering ban and the low death rate.
Estimated that there are currently 7,000 cases of influenza receiving medical treatment.
Dr. Totman, City Health Officer, plans to paint red warnings on sidewalks to keep people from spitting on the ground.
The high level of absenteeism among factory workers is negatively affecting manufacturing in Syracuse.
Thirty-four deaths from influenza reported.
October 13, 1918
One case and two deaths reported at the Syracuse Recruit Camp.
According to Captain Gross’s report, there are no new cases among Syracuse University’s Student Army Training Corps.
October 14, 1918
The home service section of the Red Cross requests that women volunteer to care for sick soldiers. Compensation is $35 a week.
With churches closed, clergy and Sunday school teachers have been volunteering their time helping the sick.
1,805 cases reported. 167 of these were pneumonia. Thirty-three deaths from influenza and pneumonia were reported. This is one of the highest death rates yet.
Between the Syracuse University Student Army Training Corps and the Syracuse Recruit Camp, three soldiers passed away from influenza and four new cases developed.
October 15, 1918
A death rate of forty-two is reported. This is higher than expected.
October 16, 1918
Even though influenza is a reportable disease, not all physicians are reporting case totals and deaths to the Bureau of Health in a timely manner. The State Department of Health gave City Health Officer Totman the authority to make reporting mandatory.
Forty-four deaths from pneumonia are reported in Syracuse and Onondaga County. The number of deaths in Syracuse, thirty-five, has fallen within the past few days.
The Visiting Nurse Association, American Red Cross, and city hospitals report that the number of new patients is decreasing.
Two new cases at the Syracuse Recruit Camp and the Syracuse University Training Camp.
Forty deaths from pneumonia reported.
October 18, 1918
Dr. Totman, city health officer, states that although physicians reports show that epidemic conditions are improving, they do not yet justify lifting restrictions.
A woman died because the influenza epidemic has depleted the city’s oxygen supply.
One case reported at the Syracuse Recruit Camp. No new cases Syracuse University detachment.
The Visiting Nurses Association makes an appeal for additional vehicles to carry nurses to homebound patients.
The General Manager of the Syracuse Electric Railway announces that the schedule has been cut down because of reduced traffic due to the epidemic and the large number of sick train operators.
Twenty-three deaths reported. This is an improvement over recent conditions.
October 19, 1918
The Bureau of Health makes the discovery, after examining physicians’ questionnaires, that the city is fighting the epidemic with half of the physicians thought (74 instead of 169). This means that the number of cases is much lower than previously estimated. The number of cases in Syracuse is probably closer to 2,500.
Approximately 1,000 factory employees have been affected by the epidemic. This has had a detrimental impact on industry in Syracuse.
Nineteen deaths reported.
October 20, 1918
Liquor dealers report a steep rise in the sale of alcohol as a treatment for influenza.
Mayor Stone establishes a Central Committee to direct epidemic relief work and avoid duplication of effort. If successful, this may become procedure when dealing future epidemics.
No cases reported within the past day at the two local army camps.
Twenty-four deaths from influenza and pneumonia reported. This is four more than the previous day.
October 21, 1918
Mayor Stone’s relief committee meets.
Reports received by Dr. Totman indicate that the number of influenza cases is falling in Syracuse.
Seventy-eight new influenza cases reported.
October 22, 1918
Mayor Stone meets with City Health Officer Totman and Commissioner of Public Safety Nicholson and decides to end the closure of public places at 6:00 AM on Friday, October 25th.
Totman requests that physicians continue to report influenza cases after the closure order is lifted.
October 23, 1918
Eighteen deaths from pneumonia reported.
No new cases reported at the Syracuse Recruit Camp or Syracuse University.
Commissioner of Public Safety Nicholson announces the closure order affecting public places will be repealed effective Friday, October 25th at 6:00 AM.
October 24, 1918
Ten deaths from pneumonia reported, a significant drop over the past few days.
The Board of Education orders the thorough fumigation of school classrooms. Teachers are ordered to dismiss children suffering from colds when schools re-open on Monday, October 28th.
October 25, 1918
The gathering ban is repealed and all public places (with the exception of schools, opening October 28th) are allowed to open again after being closed for eleven days to prevent the spread of influenza.
An estimated 1,500 influenza patients are still under treatment, with an average of 150 cases reported daily.
Reports indicate that health conditions are improving. It is estimated that there are currently 1.2 influenza cases for every doctor in Syracuse.
16 pneumonia cases reported.
October 27, 1918
Churches and theaters are filling to capacity now that public places are open again after being closed for eleven days.
October 28, 1918
Schools re-open after being closed as a non-pharmaceutical intervention against influenza. Domestic science classes are postponed for one more week because the Red Cross still needs teachers’ assistance preparing and delivering meals to the sick.
November 2, 1918
Commissioner of Public Safety Nicholson asks the Legislature to revise the second class cities charter and remove the Bureau of Health’s jurisdiction over the Department of Public Safety.
Dr. Nicholson: “I am convinced, as a result of our experience during this epidemic, that the health service should be a separate department of the municipal administration. The health officer should have absolute control of health matters, subordinate only to the Mayor, who would appoint him. No layman should be asked to shoulder the responsibility of guarding the public health.”