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  • Kathleen Walter, G.R.B.H.

Glen Rockers and the 1918 Flu Pandemic

I had a little bird and its name was Enza I opened the window and in-flu-enza

This was not the first article I planned to write as Glen Rock Borough Historian. I was trying to continue Sue Tryforos amazing decade series on Glen Rock and was completing my research on the 1930s when the libraries closed. Instead, in this strange time I thought it appropriate to pivot to another topic that was similar to what is going on right now.

That children's jump rope rhyme was heard nationwide during the height of another pandemic. As with the “Where’s Waldo Social Distancing both of the youngsters’ jokes play on family stresses during these times, and many Americans turn towards humor to help alleviate that anxiety. The “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918-1919 ravaged the world, killing more people than World War I. It infected 25% of the entire population of the United States and more than 700,000 people died from the illness, mostly during September to November 1918. Just like with many other national events, Glen Rockers (and future Glen Rockers) were on the front lines fighting the war against the virus in 1918.

In response to the unrestricted submarine warfare that sunk American merchant ships in the Atlantic and the sinister machinations by the German Empire in Mexico, on April 6, 1917 Congress endorsed Woodrow Wilson’s request for a formal declaration of war. Shortly after that, future Glen Rocker, Cathleen Cunningham (later Seager) – born on May 6, 1896 and raised in Medford, Massachusetts – responded to President Wilson’s call for volunteers. At the age of 21, she signed up to become a navy nurse on April 19, 1917. Women in the navy were still something of a novelty: the navy only officially accepted 20 women into its ranks starting in 1908, and on the eve of World War I there were only 160 nurses formally in service. With her swift response to the President’s call, Cathleen Cunningham helped swell those numbers to 1500. Yeoman nurses of the navy served all over the US and at sea during the war, including the naval base in Cape May that was opened in 1917 at the beginning of the American war effort. It started as an amusement park pier and was converted into Naval Section Base 9/Camp Wissahickon (now the location of a U.S. Coast Guard base). The navy turned the skating rink into a mess hall and sleeping quarters, the stage into a kitchen, the “human roulette wheel” into a scrub table for surgeons, and the “barrel of fun” into substantially less fun military police jail. Camp Wissahickon navy nurses treated sailors who survived German U-boat attacks. In May of 1917 alone, six American cargo ships were torpedoed just off the coast of Jersey Shore towns.

Many from New Jersey joined Cathleen Cunningham in that war effort. Military bases were built all over the state. Camp Merit, in nearby Cresskill, was the largest embarkation camp in the U.S. where over a million soldiers on their way to France were given their final training and supplies before shipping out (you might have passed the obelisk monument to this base in the roundabout on Madison Ave and Knickerbocker Rd). Some New Jersey towns created “Home Guards” and others donated land for recovery hospitals. United States Surgeon General William Gorgas was a former Army physician who gained international fame for his earlier work combatting yellow fever and malaria during the construction Panama Canal. In 1917, Gorgas predicted that more soldiers would die of disease than battle during this War to End All Wars. His influence was felt at U.S. Navy medical facilities throughout the world as they posted “Circular 1:”

“For the protection of others, if you are really sick stay at home and

remain there until the fever is over. … If you are up and about, protect

healthy persons from infection – don’t spray others with the secretions

from your nose and throat in coughing, sneezing, laughing, or talking.

Cover your mouth with a handkerchief. Boil your handkerchiefs and

other contaminated articles. Wash your hands frequently. Keep away

from others as much as possible while you have a cough.”

The social impact of the disease soon became apparent, both in ways similar to and very different from our current response to COVID 19. By the first week of October, the New Jersey Department of Health, under Governor Walter E. Edge, issued instructions to all local health boards. Schools, churches, dance halls, and theaters were shut down. Some parks were closed and public drinking fountains were shut off. Funerals of those who died from the flu were prohibited. Glen Rock shut down in 1918 in ways that seem eerily familiar to us today. Contrarily, during WWI, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League used the war crisis to link alcohol with menacing foreign influence and the un-patriotic use of grains, to further their cause. Oddly, it worked in Glen Rock. On Election

Day, November 5, 1918, Glen Rock voters passed a referendum bringing Prohibition to the borough: 141 “dries” narrowly outscored 131 “wets” (only men were allowed to vote then by the way). This vote came a mere 6 days before the armistice that finally quieted the guns of the Great War was signed on the “11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” in 1918. I am sure that many of those stuck in their houses today cannot imagine being quarantined without Kilroy’s beer, Beekman’s wine, or Bottle King’s hard seltzers! The entire country followed Glen Rock into “teetotaling” on January 17, 1920 after the ratification of the 18th Amendment. Alcohol would not be legal again in the Rock until 1933.

At home, as the death toll mounted, a frantic public stripped medicines from pharmacy shelves. Prescriptions, often for “medical whiskey” (it was a thing), skyrocketed. The shortage of healthcare workers quickly became an issue. Many doctors and nurses had been shipped overseas to the war, and, as the pandemic progressed, many of those who remained on the home front fell ill. Just like today, there was no effective medicine to cure the disease but, good care made a difference in survivability. Nursing was nine-tenths of the battle in recovering from the influenza. Since there were only palliatives for the flu and the pneumonia it developed into, doctors were not the essential ingredient in fighting the disease. With often no time or supplies to treat her patients with anything stronger than sips of "hot whiskey,” Yeoman Chief Cathleen Cunningham was one of those nurses who should be given credit for reducing mortality from 38% to 4% in naval hospitals because of cleanliness drives. As a consequence, the country was besieged by calls for more nurses to care for the sick. As Cathleen Cunningham worked to save as many lives possible, General John J. Pershing, commander of all American troops in Europe, sent an urgent appeal for more nurses.

The newly minted “Glen Rock Home Guard” created a local newspaper called The Glen Rocket that ran from 1918-1919 to report on the status of Glen Rock men and women in uniform. The Rocket published many lovely letters from Frank Squires, a resident of Bradford Street, to his wife, Hilda. Squires was a Glen Rocker born in England, who volunteered to serve with the Hamilton Mounted Rifles in Canada at the start of the war. Wounded in battle, Squires was recovering in a military hospital in France when he became one of the victims of the pandemic flu just nine days before the 1918 armistice.

The pandemic peaked in October of 1918 in New Jersey: there were an astounding 8,477 flu deaths, followed by 1,629 more in November. Thankfully, the New Jersey numbers continued to wane through 1918, and as of February 1919 there were only 672 deaths that month. By the summer of 1919, the influenza pandemic had abated.

Cathleen Cunningham was honorably discharged from the Navy on August 5, 1919. She worked for the U.S. State Department in Poland from 1919-1935 as a secretary to 3 different US ambassadors. In 1935, when Cunningham returned from her diplomatic posting, she married Paul S. Seager, a World War I Navy doctor himself, in New York City. The couple had a son, John, and then relocated from the city to 39 Forest Road in Glen Rock, where they stayed for the rest of their lives. Cathleen Cunningham Seager died at the age of 94 in 1990.

Just like with the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, Glen Rockers are pulling together to help reduce the impact of COVID 19. As soon as we conquer this pandemic and complete our construction at the museum the Glen Rock Historical and Preservation Society would love to have visitors come down and take a look at our collection, which includes a military nurse’s uniform!

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