Between the start of “flu season” and the middle of October, nearly 7000 people in Camden, New Jersey fell ill with the flu. By October 19th, 615 of them were dead. Across the river in Philadelphia, the death toll climbed quickly past 700. No epidemic of this magnitude has been encountered before or since. One unfortunate victim, Albert Emerson Askew, succumbed to the flu on October 23rd, during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. He was 27 years old.
According to his obituary, published in the Philadelphia Public Ledger on October 25, 1918, he was survived by his wife, Florence Patterson Askew; his father, Thomas Askew; and his mother, Sadie Askew. A funeral service was held at the home of family friend William E. Comley, 418 N. 2nd Street, Camden. Interment took place at Riverview Cemetery in Wilmington, Delaware.
In 1918, the Spanish flu caused an estimated 675,000 deaths in the United States alone. The worldwide death toll may have been as high as 50 million people. It killed rapidly, often overnight, as infected people suffocated when their lungs filled with fluid. Some reports indicate a bloody froth spilled from their mouths. Secondary bacterial pneumonia infections were common. Those in the age range of 20 to 50 had the highest mortality rate, which is somewhat unusual for the flu. At the time, Philadelphia’s population numbered approximately 1.7 million. By October 25th, 150,000 cases of the Spanish flu had been reported there. The city morgue, designed for 36 bodies, overflowed with more than 500 dead stacked in the halls. Burials couldn’t keep pace. In Philadelphia, as well as in Newark, New Jersey, and other cities, the dead were sometimes buried in mass graves.
Some of the first reported case of the Spanish flu in the US occurred among a group of sailors in Boston at the end of August, 1918. By October 1st, the number of reported cases in Massachusetts exceeded 75,000. In New Jersey, more than 150,000 cases were reported, and by the end of October more than 4,400 people were dead. By contrast, this year Boston’s mayor declared a state of emergency when the number of confirmed cases of the flu reached 700 and 4 people had died.
Public response to the Spanish flu epidemic seems to have been mixed. In some cities, public gathering places such as schools, theaters, and churches were closed, and people were encouraged to don gauze masks. Not everyone agreed with this policy, however. One Philadelphia newspaper accused authorities of trying to “scare everyone to death,” and relegated news about the flu to its back pages, despite the mounting death toll. Ultimately, Philadelphia had the highest number of deaths of any US city with over 12,000 reported. Most of these occurred within four weeks during the peak of the flu season.
Still, many more people lived through the pandemic than died. Unfortunately, Albert E. Askew wasn’t one of the lucky ones. The odds may have been stacked against him, though, because he would very likely have come into contact with many sick people. He was a druggist. In those days, the fledgling medical profession had neither the knowledge nor the resources to mount an effective battle against this virulent strain of flu. Also, many doctors and nurses were overseas taking care of the soldiers fighting in World War I, leaving fewer “trained” medical personnel to care for the sick. The pharmaceutical industry was in its infancy, with druggists creating and dispensing “cures” for many ailments. They were often sought out by the sick for medical advice and treatment. There was no cure for the flu, however whisky was often proscribed. Druggists were a source of supply even when public places, such as saloons, had been temporarily closed during the height of the pandemic.
Where does Albert Emerson Askew reside on my family tree? I will tell you in my next post. Hint: we are 1st cousins, 3 times removed. If you don’t remember what that means, read this post again.
Here are a few of the sources I used for information about the Spanish Flu:
The 1918 Influenza Pandemic; http://virus.stanford.edu/uda/
Pandemic Flu History; http://www.flu.gov/pandemic/history/1918/
University of Pennsylvania article; http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/1198/lynch.html
Boston flu deaths for 2012-13 season total 6 before Jan 11th according to this article. Five were over 65 years old.