'A Terrible New Weapon of War': The Spanish Flu Had Its Own Share of Conspiracy Theories

Bacilli from underwater, germs in aspirin tablets and German ships carrying the virus to U.S. shores: A century on, reports from the time of the Spanish flu offer a chilling parallel to current events

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Doctors, army officers, and reporters tour a hospital to observe Spanish influenza treatment of patients.
Doctors, army officers, and reporters tour a hospital to observe Spanish influenza treatment of patients. Credit: Bettmann Archive / Getty Images
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The report that appeared in June 1918 in Hatsfira, the leading Hebrew-language paper in the former Russian empire, was frightening. Under the headline “The disease returns,” the journalist and writer Yosef Haftman chronicled the spread of the Spanish flu pandemic.

To read his report 102 years on, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, is an unpleasant experience for those who believe that history repeats itself.

“All the public and government buildings in the capital are shut,” Haftman wrote, most likely from Madrid. “The trams have ceased to operate. The factories and industries have closed down. The schools are locked, and the students, who were just now preparing anxiously for their examinations, were sent home. More than 100,000 people lie ill in bed, and among them are also the king and his ministers, who are first in the kingdom, for they too have been struck by this strange and wondrous disease, which suddenly swooped down on the country of Spain.”

He added, “The disease is expanding and spreading across the whole country. The number of those who are ill has already reached 10 million. The affliction has also struck the expeditionary force stationed in Morocco and the Canary Islands. The doctors are at a loss. There is mounting horror in every corner of the nation.”

The Spanish flu pandemic returned to the headlines this month in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, too, has invoked it time after time in his statements as a threatening example of a doomsday scenario that the coronavirus episode might come to resemble.

The Spanish flu appeared toward the end of World War I; its peak lasted about a year, from April 1918 until the spring of 1919. Hardly any place in the world was spared, not even remote Eskimo villages.

No one was safe. Estimates say that between a third and half of the world’s population was infected by the disease. It particularly struck down young and healthy people in the 20-to-40 age group, who usually are not susceptible to dangerous complications of flu.

Within a few months, the pandemic killed more people than any other disease in human history in a comparable span of time. We don’t know the exact number of victims, but estimates range between 20 million and 100 million people. It’s not necessary to look at the big numbers in order to grasp the scale. One frightening statistic will suffice: In 1918, the Spanish flu reduced the average life expectancy in the United States by 12 years.

The pain in Spain

A spate of rumors sprang up about the cause of the Spanish flu. Numerous “guilty parties” were cited. The first barbs were aimed at the Germans. “The newspapers … found in this [disaster], too, reasons to stir the wrath of the masses against Germany and its allies. They published a short report stating that one of the German boats that cruise under the water brought to the shores of Spain those strange bacilli which infect people with the disease,” Haftman wrote.

Beds with patients in an emergency hospital in Camp Funston, Kansas, in the midst of the Spanish flu in 1918.Credit: Otis Historical Archives

Indeed, there were those who believed this was a “terrible new weapon of war” – as Gina Kolata, a science reporter for The New York Times, noted in her 2001 book “Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It.” According to one account, the pandemic arrived via a camouflaged German ship that infiltrated Boston harbor under cover of darkness and “released the germs that seeded the city.” There was even an “eyewitness,” Kolata notes: “an old woman who said she saw a greasy-looking cloud that floated over the harbor and wafted over the docks.”

According to a different version, the Germans stole into Boston harbor in U-boats and came ashore secretly, carrying vials filled with germs, which they let loose in theaters and other crowded places. A report to that effect appeared on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer, citing Lt. Col. Philip S. Doane, head of the health sanitarian section of the Emergency Fleet Corporation.

Another, equally scary version maintained that the germs were inserted into aspirin manufactured by the German pharmaceutical firm Bayer. “Take an aspirin for a headache and the germs will creep through your body. Then your fate is sealed,” Kolata writes, describing the mood of suspicion and dread.

The flu was termed “Spanish,” even though the epidemic did not break out in Spain – some accounts maintain that its place of origin was the United States – and did not wreak greater havoc on the population there than it did elsewhere.

“This misleading nickname originated in the absence of censorship in neutral Spain, as opposed to clampdowns on dissemination of information in the belligerent countries” during World War I, wrote Prof. Guy Beiner, a historian from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, in a 2006 essay in the journal Cultural and Social History. As a result, Spain did not prevent the publication of reports about the epidemic.

Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C., during the influenza pandemic of 1918.Credit: National Photo Company Collection

In fact, from May 1918, Beiner also noted, the Spanish press reported extensively about the spread of the disease throughout the country, not excluding the fact that King Alfonso XIII had been infected, together with the prime minister and some ministers. As in other cases of the outbreak of worrisome infectious diseases, Beiner observes, each country accused the inhabitants of a rival, unpopular country of spreading the disease.

In July 1918, the English satirical magazine Punch wrote that “Spain has rendered itself unpleasantly conspicuous by developing and exporting a new form of influenza.” But in Madrid, the disease was dubbed the “Naples Soldier” (the name of a song from a popular operetta); in Italy, it was called the “German disease”; in Germany, the “Russian plague”; in Russia, the “Chinese sickness”; and in Japan, the “American disease.”

‘Dropping like flies’

An article last summer in the journal Science Translational Medicine, marking a century of research on the Spanish flu, asserted that despite all the time that has passed, the source of the disease’s outbreak in humans (the identity of “patient zero”) is still unknown, as are the reasons for its high mortality rate among young people.

The researchers agreed that it entered humans from birds and that its features were unprecedented. The highly aggressive virus brought about unusual symptoms, including acute pneumonia and blood poisoning. Those who were infected developed a high fever and were beset by hallucinations, before losing consciousness. In some cases, the skin turned blue when the lungs filled up with liquids. Also frightening was the speed with which serious symptoms appeared. Some patients died within days, or even hours, of being infected.

The historical descriptions do not make for easy reading. “Visiting nurses often walked into scenes resembling those of the plague years of the 14th century,” the historian Alfred W. Crosby wrote in a 2003 book, referring to the Black Death, which claimed millions of lives in Europe and Asia between 1347 and 1351. “One nurse found a husband dead in the same room where his wife lay with newly born twins.” Gravediggers were also worn out from the unceasing work, he added, and in some cases the dead remained in their homes for some days, unburied.

“The streets have been full of funerals all day and ambulances all night,” Katherine Anne Porter wrote in the autobiographical short novel “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” She was a journalist in Denver, Colorado, at the time of the epidemic, came down with the flu and barely survived it. A nurse in Reading, southern England, meanwhile, recalled that there was hardly room to pass between the folding beds on which the stricken lay in large numbers.

American Expeditionary Force victims of the Spanish flu at U.S. Army Camp Hospital no. 45 in Aix-les-Bains, France, in 1918.Credit: Uncredited U.S. Army photographe

The disease, which was initially called the “three-day fever,” was also characterized by its suddenness and fierceness. A personal account, difficult to read, quoted by Beiner in a later article he wrote in Zmanim, described how Cape Town resident Charles Lewis, a driver from the Ordnance Corps, boarded a streetcar for a 5-kilometer (3 mile) trip to visit his parents. “Suddenly the conductor collapsed and died before his eyes. Lewis took his place and helped drive the car, but within a few minutes another passenger died and shortly afterward another person. Five times the streetcar was stopped to remove bodies to the roadside… until the driver himself fell and died before the streetcar reached its destination.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in the United States, four women were playing bridge late into the night; by morning, three of them were dead from the flu.

Soldiers were also among the casualties. The activity of many units worldwide was suspended or revised after soldiers fell ill. Evidence of this is found in a letter left by a physician who visited a military camp near Boston in September 1918. “This epidemic started about four weeks ago and has developed so rapidly that the camp is demoralized and all ordinary work is held up till it has passed. All assemblages of soldiers taboo.”

He continued, “It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible. One can stand it to see one, two or 20 men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies sort of gets on your nerves. We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day.”

Moreover, “It takes special trains to carry away the dead. For several days there were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce, we used to go down to the morgue (which is just back of my ward) and look at the boys laid out in long rows. It beats any sight they ever had in France after a battle.”

Window or door

The pandemic struck British Mandatory Palestine, too, but there is no reliable documentation about the number of casualties. According to medical historian Prof. Shifra Schwartz, from Ben-Gurion University, the Spanish flu “barely affected the Yishuv” (the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine) and the major disasters that afflicted it were hunger, typhoid fever and cholera.

Yet several memoirs in Hebrew depict the pandemic’s effect on Jews, both in Mandatory Palestine and elsewhere. “An unwanted guest spares hardly any home in the city: Spanish influenza (Ispanka),” Tova Berlin-Papish wrote in “Sounds that Were Not Forgotten: From Mohilev to Jerusalem,” using the Russian term for “Spanish lady.” Her mother, she recalled, “was the first to fall ill but she recovered quickly, amid looking after my sister, who was stricken after her. Finally came my turn, too, and I received the ‘guest’ in a particularly serious way. At times my temperature rose to 40 degrees [Celsius; 104 degrees Fahrenheit]. My girlfriends did not heed our warnings to beware of becoming infected, and visited me almost daily.”

A second testimony appears in one of the memoirs of members of the Second Aliyah (the 1904-1914 wave of Jewish immigration to what was then Ottoman Palestine) that were published under the editorship of Yaakov Sharett and Nachman Tamir. “My body, which was faint from hunger and lack of food, was infected by the Ispanka disease. My temperature climbed as I entered Jerusalem. Friends looked after me in the hotel of Galilee wagoners and took me, unconscious, to the Wallach hospital [Shaare Zedek Medical Center, where Dr. Moshe Wallach was the director]. There I lay ill for three weeks, far from my family,” the memoirist wrote.

Policemen in Seattle wearing masks made by the Red Cross during the Spanish flu pandemic, December 1918.

Reminders of the disease’s outbreak here exist can be found at various places in modern-day Israel, such as the Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv: Three headstones state that the deceased died from the “Spanish disease,” all of them in December 1918. One of the deceased was Yehoshua Vishni, 38; another was 21-year-old Menachem Mendel. The headstone of Yehoash Goldberg states that he died of the disease “in his fifth year of life.”

The headstones were documented by Zalman Greenberg, a Jerusalem microbiologist, Health Ministry alumnus and researcher of the history of medicine in Israel. Greenberg found that 42 people were diagnosed with the Spanish flu in Shaare Zedek Medical Center in 1918; four of them died. “That is the only record of the course of the epidemic in the local population in the Land of Israel,” he says.

Some of the newspapers of the time reported about the disease and the rising number of deaths it caused. On January 2, 1919, Haaretz reported: “In the past few days, the Spanish disease has begun to stalk our streets in its various forms, in light and in serious versions. The number of those dying from the disease relative to the general number of deaths is quite considerable.”

Among those who died the paper noted “two young people who were taken in the prime of youth.” One, Menachem Stavrovsky, was “a good young man possessing a national sentiment who left his parents’ home abroad and immigrated to the Land of Israel in order to study in the Hebrew midrasha in Jerusalem. … And then there came the accursed disease and bore him down to the lower depths.” The second was Zerubavel Hayutman, the son of one of the founders of the Ahuzat Bayit group that established Tel Aviv.

The following month, Haaretz reported that “the flu disease is very widespread in Haifa. There is hardly a home that does not have someone sick.” In many cases, the report added, “the disease also assumes a serious form. There are many case of complicated pneumonia and also cases of death.” A December 1920 report in Haaretz noted that the disease had spread to Jerusalem. “The flu in the city has increased by leaps and bounds. The hospitals are filled with the sick, the physicians have their hands full.”

As is the case today, the authorities back then took various measures to stem the epidemic. The noted physician Dr. Hillel Yaffeh issued guidelines for coping with the disease. For example: “On every clear day the bedding must be taken outside, camphor powder or naphthalene spread on the beds, the floor washed and then dried in a cross-breeze.”

Another directive referred to people who developed initial symptoms of the disease. “With the start of every case of the sniffles, however mild, handkerchiefs must be used, which need to be kept in tin boxes with slices of camphor or naphthalene. In case of a runny nose, swab the throat with an antiseptic medication and use ointments. … It’s best to remain in a warm bed for a day or two.”

One recommendation was to expose oneself to “pure air,” which was termed “one of the best means against the flu.” In that regard, “It’s good to keep the window or door of the room always open, even at night.” Also recommended was bathing in cold water – “but the body has to be accustomed to this little by little,” readers were warned.

Like today, the newspapers urged people “to beware of crowded meetings in a closed place, to avoid contact with others as much as possible, not even to shake hands while greeting someone.”

Anyone infected should “be placed in a special room – it’s better to move him to a hospital for infectious diseases – and if that is not possible, to have an experienced nurse look after him at home. But most important is to have the sick person get into a warm bed immediately, even if he has a low fever.”

A street car conductor in Seattle in 1918 refusing to allow passengers aboard who are not wearing masks.

There was still work to be done after the illness passed.

“The patient’s room must be purified, his linen boiled in water, lime should be used on the pillows and the other objects cleaned, or disinfected with formaldehyde. The healed individual needs to be careful for some time, as he can still endanger healthy people, parasites remain in his throat and nose, so he must go on swabbing his throat and nose and using ointments. His handkerchiefs should be boiled in water from time to time before doing the laundry.”

‘Wondrous’ new disease

The authorities in the United States launched a publicity campaign against coughing, spitting and sneezing. Archival photographs from 1918 show signs to that effect that were posted on streetcars, for example, or a conductor not allowing a person without a face mask to board a train. In addition, cities were placed on lockdown; schools and churches were shuttered, along with theaters, swimming pools and other places of leisure.

Gas masks were used by some U.S. states to cope with the epidemic: One photo shows baseball players wearing masks to cover their mouth and nose during a game. The spectators did likewise. “No person shall appear in any street, park, place where any business is transacted ... without wearing a mask covering both the nose and the mouth,” the Arizona health department declared.

An emergency hospital at Base Hospital, Camp Jackson, South Carolina during the Influenza Epidemic, 1918.Credit: National Museum of Health and Me

Like today, anyone who was sick was advised to stay home. “Coping with the crisis considerably improved the development of the public health sphere; as such, the influenza epidemic is a milestone in stirring awareness of a need for comprehensive medicine,” Beiner wrote.

Testimonies of the devastation wrought by the Spanish flu are still found across the world. In 2009, a special commemorative ceremony – centering on a prayer service in memory of infants from the community who died in the 1918 epidemic – was held in a church in the township of Woodbridge, New Jersey. The event took place after a burial plot for unbaptized children was discovered by chance on the church grounds.

Returning to the report in Hatzfira: “We must affirm that there is some sort of agile and industrious regisor [film/stage director] who supervises the world order and the roles that each country and each nation has therein at the appointed time designated for it,” Haftman philosophized, trying to offer an explanation for the outbreak. “And this regisor, seeing that much time has passed and one of the backward nations has not taken the stage to appear before the audience that is calling it to demonstrate its skills, hurries backstage and grabs it by the earlobes and yanks it powerfully to its place. Accordingly, we now see the Spanish nation being swept and pushed, fearful and frightened, to the stage, to see and show for the audience, the large audience of readers, who are thirsty for news and who expect great and wonderful things.”

Haftman’s article powerfully evokes what we see every day on our television screens today. “Because, indeed, what else is there to serve up to this hungry audience? It is already sated ad nauseam with offensives and fights. Large ships being torpedoed and going up in a storm or plunging to the depths have become a daily delicacy. … Another moment and the audience will start stamping with its feet and calling out like an aurochs bellowing from its stall: ‘Give us one of those plays we haven’t yet seen, not the wars and not the revolutions, but some innovation, a sensation the like of which was never yet seen.’ And even as the manager of the circus scurries to find some attraction for the mass of viewers, his feet get tangled up with those of a Spanish fellow sitting restfully on a bench at the side, sleeping soundly. … Well, the turn has come for Spain, too, to shine before us. And it has stepped forward with a new disease, strange and wondrous.”

One of the victims of the Spanish flu was the grandfather of U.S. President Donald Trump. The businessman Frederick (originally Friedrich) Trump, who immigrated to New York from Germany at 16, died of the virus on May 30, 1918, at 49. According to the family story, while out walking with his son Fred (Donald Trump’s father), he suddenly took sick and was put to bed immediately. He died the next day. He turned out to be one of the first victims of the Spanish flu.

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