Monday, May 22, 2006


A remarkable piece from Toni Reinhold
detailing her grandmother's memories of the last time a bird flu virus grew into a human pandemic - the 'Spanish Flu' of 1918, or 'The Grip' as it was known then - and its impact amongst the burroughs of New York City.

My grandmother lived through the Great War, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War Two, the cultural revolution of the '60s and three decades beyond.

There was little that could threaten her nerve but until the day she died, Marie Starace was afraid of two things. One was lightning. The other was "The Grip" -- the deadly flu that wreaked havoc on the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood where she was born and raised.

"It was a terrible thing. So many people died from the grip when I was a little girl that it seemed like every family lost someone," my grandmother told me.

"It was heartbreaking to see mothers crying for their children. Some of them lost two and three children. I'll never forget one woman crying in my mother's arms because she lost her children and her husband."

"Some people went out in the middle of the night to get the undertaker because they didn't want it to get around that someone in their house had died from the flu. They were afraid of being reported to the Health Department and quarantined."

In 1918, word of the illness in Europe was carried to Brooklyn's shores by troops returning from the battlefields of World War One and seamen who helped breathe life into New York City's ports. It was suspected that some of them carried the flu as well.

"Momma would make soup and bring it to the sick," Granna told me. "A lot of them were very poor and the war didn't help. We didn't have so much but she did the best she could."

The Grip caused high fevers, headaches, coughing, pain, and a pneumonia so virulent that it left people struggling for breath until they suffocated. Death came quickly by many accounts.

"They had a hacking cough and raging fevers," Granna said. "But they couldn't go to hospitals even if they wanted to because they were filled up. And they died so fast."

"It seemed like there was a black wreath on almost every door," my grandmother said of the markers of loss.

"So many people died that they ran out of space for the dead. Bodies were put on ice inside horse-drawn trucks that came around to pick up the dead. There were hardly any funerals. I don't know how they could have had that many funerals. And besides, people were afraid to go to church."

By a number of accounts, bodies piled up as morgues ran out of space and the supply of coffins dwindled. At a time when wakes for the dead were often held at home, funerals were restricted to only minutes to limit people's exposure to each other.

"No one really knew what to do. No one knew how to treat it. What could anyone do? You couldn't stop living," Granna said.

In 1918, 4,514 people in Brooklyn died from influenza from a population of 1,798,513, according to almanacs published in 1918 and 1920 by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper. Thousands more had been infected but survived.

The whole story is definitely worth a read.

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