The only known photograph taken on Capitol Hill during the 1918 pandemic. Courtesy Eloise Langenbach. Rest your cursor on the photo to reveal more info. If you have any leads on where I can find others, please let me know!
With over half a million reported deaths so far and communities on varying levels of lockdown worldwide, we are at present hostages to a flu pandemic the likes of which has not occurred in over a century. A modern-day plague. When struggling with a difficult present such as this, we tend to look to the past for meaning, reflection, and perhaps most importantly, a way forward. The last Pandemic to reach this scale occurred in 1918 and despite the many warning signs, not enough people seemed to notice or take it seriously until it was too late. The 1918 flu pandemic was ultimately 25 times more deadly than the regular flu, killing an estimated 20 million worldwide. Over 650,000 deaths occurred in the United States alone (.06% of the population). Finally, out of the 1400 deaths in Seattle, 40 could be attributed to victims who either lived, worked, or attended school in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood based on available reports.
Similar to today, the 1918 flu pandemic also caused a major and rapid societal shift in Seattle due to a five-week ban on all mass gatherings and shutdown of non-essential businesses. During that time, Seattleites had to change how they passed time, communicated with one another, traveled, acquired food and supplies, and made a living. Other events, such as World War I, the rising cost of housing, and the breakdown of Seattle’s telephone system, exacerbated the flu’s impact and vice versa.
The following account, particularly the impact of the 1918 flu pandemic on Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, emerges from local newspapers, city directories, and email exchanges with the descendants of survivors. It also explores some of the similarities and differences between the 1918 and 2020 pandemics, looks at what life was like in 1918, and imagines how Capitol Hill residents might have experienced the onset of the flu pandemic and the subsequent fallout.
Early Warning I had a little bird, Its name was Enza. I opened the window, And in-flu-enza.
On Thursday April 4, 1918, a little report flew in from Washington. The Seattle Times buried it in the film section on page 12, far beneath the bigger headlines focused on the Great War. One called for a ban on the German language and the other reported the successful thwarting of Germany's spring offensive ("Kaiserschlacht") in France, which was completed that week. As for the little report, it ran with the War Department’s tagline “Health of American Army Continues Good” despite the deaths of 237 soldiers that week due to respiratory illness, a slight increase from the total the previous week. Anyone who read this probably didn’t realize that a major health crisis was underway.
Compare the above Seattle Times Report on the left with Seattle Star Reports on the Right and below. April 4, 1918.
The Seattle Star, however, took a more urgent tone. They printed the story on page two without the above-mentioned tagline and then ran an additional piece from Washington D.C. on page six. The article headline featured a new slogan from the U.S. Army Medical Corps: “Don’t Cough, Don’t Sneeze, Don’t Spit.” It was a national campaign to stamp out respiratory illnesses such as the flu, pneumonia, measles, diphtheria, mumps and others, which were the leading causes of death in the military at the time. The article described this particular health problem as “serious.” However, the Star tended to sensationalize things by getting people stirred up around pet-causes. So, could this be why this harbinger of the coming global health crisis went unheeded? Or was it just that the future appeared much brighter to the average reader? Or perhaps both? Certainly, daily life on Capitol Hill appeared to be running at a fever pitch.
When the story hit the newsstands that evening, Nellie Cornish, founder and director of Cornish School of Music, then at the corner of Broadway and Pine, was busy hosting a reception that marked the elevation of her school onto the world stage. The guests of honor were world-renowned theatre directors Ellen Van Valkenburg and Maurice Browne, founders of the recently folded yet critically acclaimed Chicago Little Theatre. The couple had come here, of all places, to direct Cornish’s new Theatre department.
Town Crier v13 no 13, March 30, 1918 via Seattle Public Library
Then there was Madame Myra Pless, founder and director of another school of the arts, the Pless Day & Boarding School at Harvard and Thomas, and her daughter Madeline. They would likely have been practicing for “Children’s Day” at the Women’s University Club that Saturday. The Club was hosting a performance of “The Brown Owl” for which Mme Pless directed the music and in which Madeline played a supporting role.
Left image: Myra Pless drawn in the Seattle Times, 1909 | Right Image: Madeline Pless, BHS Yearbook, 1925
Similarly, the Broadway Red Cross Auxiliary, reportedly one of the city’s most active and successful, was looking forward to an event the group organized at 803 E Prospect St the following Tuesday. It featured a stereograph presentation on Rainier National Park by renowned local photographer Asahel Curtis, followed by a musical performance.
Asahel Curtis on Mt. Rainier c1915. Washington State Historical Society
Finally, telephone operator Helen McKinley, a member of the recently formed Executive Council of Electrical Workers and Vice- President of Local Union 42A, was busy planning the council’s first annual dance on April 27th at the Capitol Hill Masonic Temple. Could any of these average citizens going about daily life on Capitol Hill have predicted the coming horror? Might any of them have even worried as they planned for the months ahead? Whether or not they did, this horror, a force more deadly than the Germans, was quickly mobilizing and no amount of U.S. reinforcements would be great enough to stop it.
Helen McKinley c1920. Courtesy Sara Trexler
Society Theatre c1920. Marquee and poster photoshopped to make it look as it may have appeared on May 28, 1918. Image: Museum of History and Industry
If you and your Broadway High School sweetheart decided to go out on the evening of Tuesday May 28th, 1918, you might have walked over to George Ring’s Society Theatre, located at Broadway and John (Rite-Aid, today), to catch the last screening of Mary Pickford’s latest moving picture “Amarilly of Clothesline Alley”. It was a romantic comedy that used coincidence to drive the plot. In an eerily prophetic coincidence, the film made reference to Amarilly’s neighborhood being quarantined with Scarlet Fever. When you left the theatre that evening, the idea of a quarantine would have been waiting for you right outside.
At the adjacent newsstand, you may have overheard people discussing that evening’s edition of the Seattle Star, particularly the front-page headline: “Plague Sweeps Spain; King Is One of Victims.” You might have learned that an estimated 40% of Spain had reportedly been afflicted with a “mysterious plague” suffering from flu-like symptoms, an ominous note on which to carry on the remainder of the evening. You would then be reminded of it the next morning at the memorial flag dedication at the Broadway High School auditorium you would likely have attended. You would have watched solemnly as five stars were added to a special flag of 718, representing the BHS alumni who had served and died in the military since the school’s founding. Two of those five had died not in battle, but of pneumonia.
Broadway High School Auditorium as it appeared in 1909. Image: University of Washington
However, at that point, you wouldn’t have known that the “mysterious plague” in Spain had also been spreading in the world’s militaries for weeks without acknowledgement from authorities lest it harm morale. After all, on the same day reports of the flu in Spain were first published here, the number of U.S. troops in France had just surpassed 1 million and the U.S. had just seen its first major combat in the victory at Cantigny. American military authorities feared the flu would slow this momentum, but efforts to suppress the flu proved futile.
Battle of Cantigny. May 28, 1918. Image: McCormick Research Collection
Six days later, 700 deaths were reported in Spain and the illness had spread to Morocco. By July 3rd, the Seattle Star reported 100,000 cases in Germany with cases showing up as far away as the UK midlands, while supposedly skipping over France. Likely a piece of war-time propaganda, both the Times and the Star reported the flu was only dangerous to the Germans because their lack of nutrition made them more susceptible to it, insinuating this was also the reason the Germans were losing the war. By this point, people were probably fearfully speculating about this new flu in daily conversation. However, given that this threat still appeared a distant one, life continued on. Besides, summer was fast approaching and people still had a war effort to support, festivities in which to participate, and most importantly, local injustices to rally against.
** Stay tuned for part 2 in which we will look at the summer lull, the flu's second wave, and the flu's arrival in Seattle from a Capitol Hill point of view **
** If you have ancestors who lived, worked, or went to school on Capitol Hill during the 1918 pandemic please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to incorporate their stories into this series if possible! **