Part I: The outbreak of 1918

Newspaper articles from Oswego in 1918, seen above, show how that year's influenza pandemic dominated headlines with advice, predictions and a daily mortality count of the disease's local victims.

Editor's note: Below is the first entry in a Palladium-Times exclusive four-part series on how Oswego has fought an insidious viral foe before — and won. Through research and meticulous combing of historical records, reporter Jeremy Houghtaling pieces together the local voices reaching across more than a century.

OSWEGO — It all started with a couple lines in the May 28 edition.

The Oswego Daily Palladium in 1918 published a report out of Madrid: “A mysterious plague, resembling influenza, is sweeping Spain. Forty per cent of the population, including the King, is ill with the malady.”

Over the next seven months, the Spanish influenza — referred to by some in the medical field as “the mother of all outbreaks” — would spread from the front lines of World War I to the United States and wreak havoc. Up to 50 million people died worldwide by some estimates, and newspaper reports in 1918 counted more than 300 deaths in Oswego — 216 civilians and 87 soldiers at Fort Ontario, which was converted from an infantry post to a hospital.

Paul Lear, historical site manager at Fort Ontario, said the similarities between that outbreak and the current COVID-19 outbreak are that they both “snuck up” on people, and that eventually, big events and gatherings were banned, as they are being today.

The fort had 1,067 hospital beds at that time, and dozens more buildings. Unlike today’s novel coronavirus, which has been especially threatening for older adults and those with compromised immune systems, the Spanish Flu preyed on younger people in their teens and 20s.

The Spanish flu took its name because Spain — neutral in World War I — was the first to openly report on its spread, but historians believe it actually originated in France, Kansas or China.

While the Spanish flu and the current coronavirus crisis are different viruses, the timeline of outbreaks show correlations in how quickly a virus can spread through society.

In 1918:

After the initial report in May, the term influenza shows up again in July when prisoners of World War I reported illnesses in Europe. The article references it as the “Flanders Fever,” “grippe,” “Spanish influenza” or “whatever the strange malady may be called.”

The news picks up in the fall:

Sept 23 - 422 soldiers from Syracuse recruit camp fall ill. 300 “convalescents from the disease” are brought to the General Hospital at Fort Ontario in the last four days.

Sept. 24 - Boston schools close due to the epidemic. 1,800 reported ill at Camp Dix.

Oct. 1 - More than 30,000 new cases reported in army camps during 48 hour span. Pneumonia cases numbered 733 and deaths 277. Total pneumonia now over 5,000, with more than 1,500 deaths.

Oct. 2 - Four deaths reported in Fulton. Public schools close. The YMCA offers rooms to sick soldiers. Another report has 10,000 cases in Wilmington, Delaware, forcing the city to close all saloons, schools, churches and theaters.

Oct. 3 - Epidemic “now raging in 43 states and the District of Columbia.” Reports of thousands falling ill across New England and the North Atlantic.

Oct. 4 - Red Cross doctors are set to arrive in Oswego to “take charge of the situation.” The Welland, the old Normal School boarding house, is set up as a temporary hospital.

Oct. 7 - State department has 14 nurses and seven doctors working in Oswego as epidemic continues to spread. 1,200 cases are reported in Gloversville.

Oct. 11 - 4,000 are reportedly sick in Watertown.

Oct. 14 - A headline reads “Doctors still hopeful the worst is over” and cites fewer and milder cases.

Oct. 18 - Paper proclaims “Epidemic is about over” and “Expected that everything will be in shape for reopening of schools by October 28th.”

Oct. 24 - Fulton set to reopen buildings Saturday: “If there are no new developments in the epidemic, public places will be reopened on Saturday. No new cases and no deaths have been reported in the last twenty-four hours, and many of the hospital patients have been discharged.”

Dec. 6 - Oswego Mayor John Fitzgibbons asks the county to reimburse the city for care given during the epidemic. The report cited 10,000 cases in the city, 216 deaths among civilians and 87 among soldiers at Fort Ontario.

Dec. 7 - A story calling it the “Great American Defeat” estimates 300,000 to 350,000 deaths in the US alone.

Dec. 27 - Spanish influenza has reappeared: Multiple cities report more cases and deaths. “Reports from all over the United States today indicated that cold weather is checking the second Spanish influenza wave. The disease is now ‘spotty,’ being regarded as serious only in a few widely scattered communities. For the most part it is diminishing.”

In 2019-20:

Dec. 31 - A day earlier, China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) of several flu-like cases in Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province.

Jan. 1 - The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies a market in Wuhan, China as the suspected hub of the outbreak.

Jan. 7 - Virus is identified as a coronavirus, which is a family of viruses including the common cold, SARS and MERS.

Jan. 11 - First coronavirus death reported in Wuhan.

January 13-20 - Cases confirmed in Thailand, Japan and South Korea.

Jan 21 - US confirms first coronavirus case, a man in his 30s admitted to a hospital in Washington after returning from trip to China.

Jan. 23 - China implements travel bans to and from Wuhan. More restrictions come over the next several days.

Jan. 30 - The US confirms first case of person-to-person transmission.

Feb. 1 - Coronavirus reaches Russia, Spain, Sweden.

Feb. 11 - WHO gives new name to coronavirus : COVID-19. Death toll worldwide exceeds 1,000. Ten days later the death toll doubles.

Feb. 29 - First coronavirus death reported in US. Man was in his 50s and from Seattle, Washington. He reportedly had underlying health issues.

March 1 - A 39-year-old health care worker from Manhattan is the first New Yorker diagnosed with the coronavirus. A Westchester lawyer became the second case a day later.

March 8 - More than 100 cases are reported in New York state.

March 14 - An 82 year-old woman, who also had emphysema, is the first New Yorker to die from complications from the coronavirus.

March 15 - State of emergency is declared in Oswego County over “an abundance of caution” in relation to the coronavirus. All schools in the county are closed.

March 16 - A woman in her 70s is the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Onondaga County.

March 18 – Cayuga County announces its first coronavirus case.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.