In late September 1918, the Pennridge region was deeply involved in the effort to end World War I. Little did people know the Spanish flu epidemic had arrived in their own backyard, starting perhaps the toughest five-month period in our local history.
Today, the 1918-1919 global influenza pandemic is getting new attention as America deals with the COVID-19 outbreak. To be sure, the coronavirus situation deserves public scrutiny and preparedness. But any comparison to the Spanish flu epidemic should be made with great caution.
Experts believe the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic killed approximately 50 million people around the world as 500 million people were infected with a strain of the H1N1 virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the 1918-1919 flu killed about 675,000 people in the United States when the country had a population of 103 million residents.
The flu epidemic in the United States came in three waves. The first wave popped up in March 1918 at a military camp in Kansas. The second wave, which had the highest mortality rate, started in September 1918 in the Northeast region and diminished by late November. The third wave started in the winter of 1918-1919 and ended by the summer of 1919.
On September 28, 1918, as a great Liberty Loan Drive parade was underway in Philadelphia, the flu had arrived in Perkasie Borough and East Rockhill Township undetected.
A comparison of reports in the Perkasie Central News (recently digitized by the Perkasie Historical Society) and death certificates digitized by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission gives us the first detailed picture of how the flu swept through Perkasie, Sellersville, East Rockhill, West Rockhill, Bedminster, and Hilltown between September 1918 and March 1919. By the time the influenza left, 88 people had lost their lives in the Pennridge region. The death certificates confirm people died mostly from pneumonia brought on by influenza. The certificates also show how long each victim was sick.
On October 2, 1918, the Central News reported the passing of the first local victim: Rosie Crouthamel, 35, the forelady of the Crouthamel Clothing factory in Perkasie. The Central News said Crouthamel died that day, which also was her birthday. The doctor’s note on Crouthamel’s death certificate said she had suffered from influenza for 12 days before coming down with pneumonia.
Other death records confirm the flu’s arrival in Perkasie in the third week of September 1918. Margaret Fisher and Margaret Underkoffler, second-grade classmates in Room 2 of the Arch Street school in Perkasie, died on October 2, 1918 and October 4, 1918. Fisher had been sick for 9 days and Underkoffler for 12 days.
In the next week, all public buildings were closed in the region and the State Board of Health issued a public proclamation about the influenza epidemic. The public buildings, including schools and churches, would stay closed through October. Acting state health commissioner Franklin Royer told citizens to exercise good hygiene and to avoid overcrowded public events, trains, and trolleys.
Officials at first believed the influenza was similar in nature to an outbreak in 1889-1890. Soon it became apparent the Spanish Influenza posed a more serious threat. The headline in the October 9 edition of the Central News was “Death and Disease Alarm Perkasie.” In a town with about 3,000 residents, about 500 people had been diagnosed with influenza. That number in town would nearly double over the two weeks to 960 cases. The newspaper reported 10 deaths by October 9, including the passing of Private Horace Swink at Camp Merritt, N.J. One victim, Preston Hartman, 29, of Perkasie, jumped through his bedroom window as he suffered from a fever.
A week later, the Central News gave a picture of an area in a fight for its life. “Face to face with the most serious epidemic the town has ever known, the greatest amount of vigilance possible and no relaxation of effort marks another week’s progress in fighting the influenza spread,” it told citizens. “A monster is stalking the town with bold tread.”
By early November 1918, 45 people in the Pennridge area had died in the flu epidemic. In addition to Private Swink, two other local soldiers, E. Harold Moyer and George Gross, passed away at military camps as the flu wave hit these large concentrations of recruits. Among the 45 local fatalities before November 2, 1918, 34 people had died who were between the ages of 18 and 42. Between November 1918 and March 1919, another 43 people died in the Pennridge area, with 33 deaths coming the flu’s third wave, which coincided as the winter season started in December.
Several families were hit with multiple tragedies during the epidemic. On November 1, Florence Crouthamel, 18, died after battling the flu for a month. Her parents owned the hotel in South Perkasie, where she had worked. Listed among the survivors was her older brother, Private Earl Crouthamel, who died the next day while serving in action in Belgium. Oscar Hartzell, 15, died on December 15, 1918 from the flu. A month earlier, Sallie F. Hartzell had learned that another son, Private Calvin Hartzell, had been killed in action in France.
At least three mothers died from the flu and pneumonia while they were pregnant, and their unborn children also died. And James Bolden and his daughter Sadie died within two days of each other in East Rockhill Township in early October 1918.
The Central News reported the dire situation on October 16, 1918 at the Detweiler home on Marshall Street in Perkasie. Both parents, David and Sadie, had been sick with the flu along with their five young children. David Detweiler, 32, and a one-year-old had been taken to Grand View Hospital after Sadie Detweiler, 30, died on October 13. David Detweiler passed away right before the newspaper was printed and the infant remained in critical condition while neighbors took care of his siblings. The infant survived, but five children were left without parents in just a matter of two weeks.
John G. Weeks, 64, a day laborer in Silverdale, was the last recorded fatality of the flu epidemic in the area. He passed away on February 28, 1919 after falling ill a week earlier. A few cases of the flu were reported in March in Sellersville, but without fatalities. In the end, Perkasie’s mortality rate was 86 percent higher in 1918 than it was in 1917; in Sellersville, that rate was 143 percent higher since it hosted Grand View Hospital.
The Spanish Flu epidemic left a marked impression on the generation that survived it. In 1939, the Perkasie Central News raised the specter of the Spanish Flu in an editorial when it condemned the rise of dictatorships in Europe as another World War was imminent. Comparing the dictators to the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, the newspaper recalled that not since “the plague we call influenza” came in 1918 “has there been such an insidious and menacing enemy turned loose on the world.”
Influenza Deaths In The Pennridge Region: 1918-1919
|Date||First||Name||Age||Place of Death|
|10/3/1918||Horace G.||Swink||26||Camp Merritt, NJ|
|10/12/1918||Mary L||Kramer||25||West Rockhill|
|10/14/1918||E. Harold||Moyer||22||Camp Greenleaf, GA|
|10/17/1918||George||Gross||25||Camp Pitt, PA|
|11/17/1918||William R||Savacool||17||West Rockhill|