In today’s times, it seems like the majority of media and newspaper coverage is focused primarily on anything and everything related to the COVID-19 pandemic. A few of the articles that I have read have also mentioned another pandemic that devastated the world 102 years ago.
Although most commonly known as the Spanish flu, it did not originate there, surprisingly. The flu was first observed in Europe, the United States and also in parts of Asia. It was called the Spanish Flu because it was officially recognized as a disease for the first time in Spain. During the first World War, Spain was a neutral country and was not impacted by any wartime censorship that occured in many other countries.
It seems that Niagara Falls was not immune to this type of media censorship. Very little flu information was recorded in the Niagara Falls Review. Some say that this was an attempt to “soft-pedal” the seriousness of the situation which would in turn lessen the panic among the city’s population of 12-15,000. On October 9th, 1918, a health notice appeared in the newspaper which stated that: “Until further notice, and from this date, all schools, churches, theatres, lodges and clubs shall be closed and no public meetings shall be held”.
Exact figures for death tolls are difficult to obtain due to the lack of medical record keeping that was common at the time. It is estimated that 150 people perished from the flu in Niagara Falls. There was a significant increase in the number of obituaries published in the Evening Review during the fall of 1918 and it is interesting to note that the cause of death was rarely mentioned in these obituaries.
Since the newspaper was not reporting all of the facts, alternate sources must be used to fill in missing information. Records from the Morse and Son Funeral home reveal that there were 91 deaths due to influenza during the fall of 1918, compared to just 2 influenza deaths for the same time period in 1917.
The citizens of Niagara Falls were often afraid to venture out of doors, and if they did, they wore masks made of gauze for protection. The hospital on Jepson Street was filled to capacity and the Jepson Street Baptist Church basement was converted into an emergency flu victim hospital. Volunteers were often recruited to help the overwhelmed hospital staff care for the sick.
The economy in Niagara Falls also took a hit. Although in its final stages, work on the hydro canal project was greatly hampered by absenteeism. Many families had to deal with lost salaries and many businesses were adversely affected by this lost income.
Although there are many similarities and differences between the Spanish flu and today’s COVID-19 pandemic, I hope that we have learned a few things. The library is hoping that you will help us collect as much information as we can about how we are coping as a city during these difficult times. The Library’s Our Stories: Niagara Falls COVID-19 project would like to hear about your experiences. Please send us your stories, social media posts, drawings, short stories and images, etc. through the the library’s website at: https://services.nflibrary.ca/ourStories/
We can also be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Cathy Roy
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