A gymnasium was converted into an infirmary at Camp Devens during the height of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. There were so many deaths resulting from the disease that the camp s library doubled as a morgue. COURTESY FORT DEVENS MUSEUM

DEVENS — The killer crept into the area unnoticed, slinking around the docks and decks of Boston Harbor and Camp Devens.

It attacked with impunity, and eventually killed about 675,000 Americans in one year, more than AIDS has killed in 40 years.

One hundred years ago this summer, the first Massachusetts case of the deadly Spanish flu was reported.

Soldiers and sailors were moving in and out of Boston during World War II, and many of them trained at then-Camp Devens before deploying to Europe. Also called “grippe,” the flu had such a grip on Devens that the library doubled as a morgue.

The disease hit healthy young adults the hardest. Older people had a more suitable immune system because they had fended off earlier outbreaks of typhoid and cholera. In the end, 40 million people died, with estimates up to 100 million.

David Kriebel, an epidemiologist and professor at UMass Lowell’s Department of Public Health, said the Spanish flu was an enigma compared to today’s influenza strains. “The high mortality rate was most likely the result of a combination of a particularly virulent strain of influenza and weakened immune systems.” He suggests that soldiers in the trenches had been fighting off microorganisms floating about the battlefields. At the same time the flu virus continued to evolve and become more lethal. “The virus changes because it is unstable.”

John Barry, writing in Smithsonian magazine in November 2017, explained the subtle difference in today’s modern flu from the deadlier strain of ago. “The influenza virus mutates rapidly, changing enough that the human immune system has difficulty recognizing and attacking it even from one season to the next. A pandemic occurs when an entirely new and virulent influenza virus, which the immune system has not previously seen, enters the population and spreads worldwide. Ordinary seasonal influenza viruses normally bind only to cells in the upper respiratory tract — the nose and throat — which is why they transmit easily. The 1918 pandemic virus infected cells in the upper respiratory tract, transmitting easily, but also deep in the lungs, damaging tissue and often leading to viral as well as bacterial pneumonias.”

The name of the first person who contracted the disease locally, or who may have unwittingly transported it to Massachusetts from parts unknown, is not recorded in any medical journal or records. Within five hours of the first reported flu-like symptoms, by a sailor in Boston on Aug. 27, 28 seamen were infected. By early September it slipped into the tents and barracks of Camp Devens.

The flu’s first mention in the media was subtle. On Sept. 13, The Lowell Sun’s front page celebrated the Boston Red Sox third World Series win two days earlier. One paragraph was buried on page 10, where the “Devens News” column appeared regularly. It was headlined: “Measles outbreak.”

Three days later, another headline read, “No Influenza Scare.” The story began, “A number of cases of Spanish influenza were admitted to the ‘base’ hospital yesterday.” A later paragraph read, “Two deaths from pneumonia were reported yesterday at the hospital.”

In another four days the front-page story was not about a pandemic, but an inconvenience. “Owing to the epidemic of Spanish influenza at Camp Devens, Army and Navy celebration day postponed,” the Sept. 17 story read.

The Sept. 21 headline: “Grippe under control.”

Within a month of its arrival, the flu was in nearly every town in northern New England. Trains and horse wagons full of occupied coffins were a common sight. When the coffin-makers could no longer meet demand, the bodies were transported in macabre stacks of toxic corpses. In many cities, a daily crier would parade through the streets yelling, “Bring out your dead.”

Between September and November, the flu had killed 800 soldiers at the camp.

Able-bodied men, who weren’t in Europe fighting the war, were afflicted. Boy Scouts were tasked with digging graves.

Every community was affected.

* Towns near the base, such as Shirley, were hit hard as the epidemic spread outward from the camp. Nearly two dozen deaths were entered into the record as having a “cause of death of ‘pneumonia’ or ‘influenza’,” the two primary maladies associated with the disease. Shirley Historical Society curator Meredith Marcinkewicz has been digging through the archives and photographs that have been buried away in the town’s depositories for decades, as forgotten as the victims but resurrected for nostalgia.

* Lowell Historical Society member Walter Hickey has painstakingly amassed a complete list of victims who died as a result of the flu or unspecified similar ailments often associated with it. Pneumonia and other respiratory symptoms were early designations that doctors wrote on death certificates before the scourge had a formal name. Hickey pored through old archives and medical records to individually identify by name all those who succumbed.

“There were 191 burials in October of 1918,” he said. “And that is just in one cemetery … Edson, on Gorham Street.” Churches stopped services for two weeks and schools all along the Merrimack Valley were closed for a month.

* Fitchburg Historical Society members Shirley Wagner and Susan Navarre have exhumed city records. Their work, which delves into town yearbooks, hospital records and newspaper articles, unearthed that of the city’s 40,000 residents (according to 1915 census), more than 4,000 contracted the flu. Nearly 300 died from Sept. 27 through New Year’s Day.

Wagner’s research and report shows that two “emergency hospitals” were set up to ease the overflow from Burbank Hospital. She also discovered a diary of Fitchburg native Elizabeth Stolba, who at the time worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. In that diary, according to Wagner, “are typed instructions about health measures to be taken daily to prevent Spanish Flu.” Those instructions were prepared by a federal agency to both fend off acquiring the disease and to survive if infected.

The King of Spain was a high-profile victim of the flu, although he did not die. This led to the “grippe” being called the Spanish Flu, perpetuating the noting the illness was born in Spain. According to conventional medical consensus, China is another suspect as the place of origin. England, France and Ethopia have also taken responsibility. So, too, does Haskell County, Kansas, which reported “flu-related deaths” in January 1918, far earlier than anywhere in the world.

But if it was borne there, where did it hide for eight months?

The truth is, according to Kriebel, “it still remains unknown where it originated.” Modern scientists have exhumed the bodies of some victims to extract DNA and study the virus and its properties.

The scourge went from annoyance to epidemic to pandemic, killing as many as five times more people than the concurrent World War. Large gatherings of people like that on military bases or in expanding metropolises helped the disease flourish. Advanced technologies in transportation helped move the deadly disease between groups.

The pandemic gave rise to opportunistic, albeit unscrupulous, merchants who promoted “legitimate preventions and cures.” There was no cure and prevention was a matter of random immunity. Advertisements for ‘Vicks Vapor Rub’ and ‘Burnham’s Soluble Iodine’ and hundreds of other goods claimed to be panaceas.

Professor Kriebel theorizes that if such an outbreak were to surface today, the results would be catastrophic.

“The speed and ease with which people travel these days could cause a rapid spread of any epidemic.” And there are few groups of people that are truly “isolated” from society, so the disease would creep into every corner of civilization.

In the century since the deadly plague, which, according to doctors’ notes from the day was referred to as “purple death because it caused the skin to turn the color of wet ashes and sparked sudden nosebleeds,” there have been no new outbreaks.

The Fort Devens Museum is spearheading the installment of a monument to honor the victims of the deadly disease, a simple metal placard, 20 inches by 16 inches, fastened to a boulder at the Devens Memorial Circle. The Devens Enterprise Commission has donated the funds for the project and Massachusetts Development has granted the land for it near downtown Devens.

The stone encompasses 120 words, 100 years, more than 800 dead in Devens alone:

“The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 — Within days of arriving in Boston at the end of August 1918, the Spanish influenza epidemic quickly moved 40 miles west to Camp Devens where, on September 8, it began its devastation of the cantonment constructed for 35,000 troops. Overcrowded with almost 45,000 enlisted men, 15,010 fell ill with the virus and bacterial infections by month’s end. By January 1919, when the worst of the epidemic was over, 821 enlisted men had died at Camp Devens from influenza and related respiratory diseases. Several doctors, nurses, other camp medical personnel, and a chaplain also lost their lives.

In remembrance of the stalwart men and women who died and those who cared for them during the 1918 influenza epidemic at Camp Devens. Fort Devens Museum 2018.”


Shirley Historical Society curator Meredith Marcinkewicz will present her program on the Spanish flu at 7 p.m. on Saturday at the Shirley Historical Society’s building at 182 Center Road. The event is free.

Lowell Historical Society member Walter Hickey will present his findings about the flu’s impact on Lowell on Sept. 22 at Pollard Memorial Library. The talk will begin at 1 p.m..