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With the onset of the 2020 Covid 19 pandemic in New England and the nation, Norwood residents have seen their daily lives altered to deal with this virus.  A similar pandemic swept the world in 1918/19.  Old Parish Preservation Volunteers founder and volunteer, Patricia J. Fanning, researched Norwood's earlier pandemic response in her 2010 book Influenza and Inequality*.   Scroll down to read excerpts from this book in a 14 episode series titled "Norwood Has Been Here Before".​

*Influenza and Inequality One Town’s Tragic Response to the Great Epidemic of 1918

Copyright ©2010 by Patricia J. Fanning

All rights reserved

Printed in the United States of America University of Massachusetts Press Amherst and Boston

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Norwood Has Been Here Before

Although the influenza epidemic began in Boston in August, 1918, it was mid-September before it hit Norwood. After thirteen deaths and widespread illness, on September 28, 1918, at the request of Norwood’s town manager and the chief of police a Special Committee on the Epidemic was created. Herbert Plimpton was elected its chairman. Since the Norwood Hospital was filled to capacity and its staff and nurses already overworked, the town needed another site to send patients. George Willett immediately offered the Norwood Civic Association building—called “the Civic”—for use as an emergency hospital. In the Committee’s opinion the building was particularly appropriate because it was near the center of town, close by the existing hospital, and its architecture made the isolation of certain parts of the building possible. The Social Hall, an upstairs room used for dancing lessons and small parties, was proposed as the women’s ward. Everett Hall, the largest room in the building, one often used for plays, graduation exercises, proms and town meetings, was designated for men.  The gymnasium was turned into a morgue, with empty coffins stacked outside. There were also ample rooms for storage of supplies, rest areas for volunteers, and any other needs that might arise.

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Norwood Has Been Here Before

On October 2, the Epidemic Committee decided to open a well-nursery to care for children whose mothers were too sick to care for them. The next day, with the permission of the School Committee, a facility was established at the Winslow Elementary School [today’s Winslow Medical Building], located in the “Swedeville” neighborhood, close to South Norwood. It was supplied with food, cots, and bedding for the children.  As the Norwood Messenger described it, the children’s accommodations were set up in the front rooms of the building where beds equipped with “sheets, pillowcases and warm blankets” were assembled. A dining room was installed “directly across the hall, equipped with a gas range, tables and chairs.”  A supply room for food, milk, butter, and other staples was set up separately in a room where the windows could remain open keeping the area “cool enough to avoid the necessity of purchasing ice.” Six teachers immediately volunteered to take charge of the nursery and by the evening of October 3, three children had already arrived. 

[The Winslow School is located at the Corner of Chapel St & Winslow Ave. In 2020 it is known as the Winslow Professional Building housing medical providers.]


Norwood Has Been Here Before

The volunteers at the Emergency Hospital continued to work at a brisk pace and the Well-nursery for children that was set up at the Winslow School began to fill. On October 3, two physicians were sent to Norwood by the National Health Service Bureau via the State Board of Health to aid with the care of patients. Schools were closed for another week with an anticipated re-opening on Monday, October 14. Meanwhile, local businesses tried to make the best of the situation by advertising in the October 5th Messenger. H. E. Rice & Company, a dry goods store, advertised a good variety of “mourning hats” for their customers and Orent Brothers suggested their Overcoats were just the thing to “avoid suffering from Influenza.”

[In 1918 Orent Bros. clothing store was located across from today's Post Office Sq. on Guild St.]



Norwood Has Been Here Before

Inside the Emergency Hospital, Dr. Lewis H. Plimpton, a retired physician, assumed leadership of the medical care. Nurses were directed by the supervisor of the Norwood Hospital. The coordination of the kitchen, food, housekeeping, and general administration was put under the direction of Mrs. Marcia Winslow, who admitted her only administrative experience had been with cooks and chambermaids in her own home. More than a hundred cots were secured. Girl Scouts initially scrubbed floors, set up cots, and made the beds. Once the Emergency Hospital opened, they were assigned to the front desk to sign in patients, answer the telephone, and check incoming supplies. Boy Scouts carried water and ran errands. A call went out for more women to assist with the nursing duties. Thirty school teachers volunteered. Between October 3 and October 9, forty-five people died of influenza in Norwood, more than a quarter of the usual annual death toll.

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Norwood Has Been Here Before

One of the aspects of the epidemic that was especially difficult for townspeople was the social isolation. Much of life in 1918 was devoted to fraternal, social, cultural, and religious organizations and activities. The Masons, the Odd Fellows, the Elks Club all held meetings and lectures year-round, as did several ethnic groups. Lithuanian Hall was always busy with groups that included a Literary Society and a Glee Club. Finnish Workingmen’s Association on Chapel Court sponsored men’s and women’s athletic clubs and choirs, a band, a drama club, and sewing circle. Young people were encouraged to participate in theater, music, and athletics. Suddenly these social outlets were shuttered. At the request of state officials, all theaters, churches, and social halls were closed to large gatherings. Special announcements appeared throughout the paper. For example, the weekly Red Cross meeting was canceled, as was the regular meeting of the Norwood Elks Club. State Guard drills were suspended and the Daughters of Veterans rummage sale was postponed.

[Today Conrad's occupies the site of the Premier Theater in 1918.]

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Norwood Has Been Here Before

The uncertainty about how the disease was transmitted compounded anxieties and eroded routine interactions. Grocery deliveries were left outside on porches, and mail was baked in the oven before being opened. One woman recalled, “And Peter Flaherty, the store down where Shurfine is now. We traded with him and he’d bring, you know, whatever my father needed and leave it on the doorstep. No one would go into each other’s houses.” The question of quarantines came up at the Epidemic Committee meetings. The committee voted to place placards bearing the words “INFLUENZA – VISITORS NOT ALLOWED” on every house where disease had struck. A few remembered how it felt. One resident remembered the police nailing “a great big white sign that said INFLUENZA in red letters” on her front door. “I was like quarantined….kind of scary. I’ll never forget it.” Another gentleman recalled: “I remember them talking about those signs—quarantine signs. It was as if, I don’t know, they’d done something wrong. And they were being punished.”



Norwood Has Been Here Before

Alarmed by the sudden spike in cases and understaffed at the Emergency Hospital, the Epidemic Committee called on the services of the State Guard. Ordered by the state’s adjutant general, about 20 members of Company H of the Thirteenth Regiment of the Massachusetts State Guard arrived. The deployment was a setback to the local industrial and mercantile interests. Many members of the State Guard who were called to duty had been recruited from among the office and middle management employees of the Plimpton Press, Norwood Press, and tanneries. Housed in the Billiard Room at the Civic, they drove makeshift ambulances, collected laundry, mopped the wards and corridors, and guarded fever-disoriented patients. On one occasion, a delirious patient left the men’s ward without permission and two State Guardsmen formed a search party; they located the man in South Norwood and returned him to the hospital. On October 14, the Epidemic Committee authorized the Guard to set up tents for convalescing patients. By the next day, they had pitched five tents for male patients on the civic grounds and one tent on the roof just outside the women’s ward for female patients.



Norwood Has Been Here Before

Tom Cullinane

For those unlucky enough to come down with the flu, symptoms appeared quickly and were varied. All had the body aches, weakness, and exhaustion that come with influenza. High fever, sore throat, and delirium were commonplace – “I remember seeing things crawling up the wall,” one resident recalled – and many had severe nosebleeds and headaches. Tom Cullinane was ten years old when he and his mother were brought to the Emergency Hospital. A few days later, he recalled waking up there with his pillowcase full of blood: “It ran out of my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth.” A nurse quickly told him it was his fever breaking. The child recovered, but, unfortunately, his mother did not survive.



Norwood Has Been Here Before

With no medical or institutional guidance, many turned to folk medicine to prevent and to treat the influenza. There was an almost universal recollection by those who had been children during the epidemic of some kind of preventive measure. “I remember my mother rubbing sulfur on my chest before going to bed,” one woman said “That was supposed to prevent influenza. Sulfur on the chest and then she’d cover it with flannel.” Another recalled, “We had to wear little camphor balls, two in a little pouch, pinned to our clothes. To keep the flu away.” A third remembered her mother preparing small pouches of garlic on a string to wear around her necks during the day. A German-American woman recollected that her father would “take a shot of whiskey every day to prevent getting the flu and he walked to work to get the fresh air.”

If people were unlucky enough to catch the flu, treatments varied as well. A woman recalled “a small spoonful of whiskey, that was the medicine.” Another agreed, “One of our neighbors had little ones and they got the flu. The father gave them a small dose of the hard stuff, you know. It sweat the deuce out of them and they got better.” One man remembered his mother taking paregoric to make her vomit, “then she started to feel better.” Another recollected spirit of nitre in water to break the fever, and a black salve rubbed on the throat. Finally, one gentleman remembered: “When my father got sick, you know what he ate? Some people you know like chicken soup or whatever, well, he went for herring…He got better so maybe it helped.”



Norwood Has Been Here Before

When the Epidemic Committee realized that there was much illness in South Norwood, it instituted a house-by-house canvass of that neighborhood. Even if they wished to remain at home, people with suspicious symptoms were transported to the Emergency Hospital. Recalling the medical inspections they had endured upon entering the country, and frightened by the sudden intrusion of town authorities, residents of South Norwood resisted these forced evacuations. Some simply refused to open their doors. One couple hid their five-year-old son in the closet when officials knocked; it was a frightening experience he remembered for the rest of his life. Another couple who lived in South Norwood was taken to the Emergency Hospital over their protests. Their three children – boys aged 4, 6, and 8 – were left at home. When the authorities returned for them, they found the children had fled. According to the family, they lived in the woods for days, returning to the house only long enough to eat the food left by neighbors who understood the children’s fear of “capture” by officials. Their mother died, but their father, after having been mistakenly tagged as dead, eventually recovered and returned.



Norwood Has Been Here Before

Sensing that the crisis had passed, on Thursday, October 17, the Epidemic Committee agreed that churches could be reopened on Sunday, October 20, and that public gatherings might resume on Saturday, October 19 at 6:00 p.m. The Winslow School well-nursery was to close on Monday, October 21, but schools would not reopen until October 28 to allow time for fumigation and for teachers who had volunteered at the nursery and the emergency hospital to obtain much needed rest. The Norwood Messenger ran a general review of the epidemic on Saturday, October 19, congratulating the Emergency Hospital staff and volunteers for “an unparalleled and unprecedented accomplishment in the annals of the town.” On October 22, all special epidemic regulations except those regarding quarantine were lifted. At 6:00 pm on October 23, the Emergency Hospital closed its doors with the final eight patients transferred to an isolation ward on the third floor of the Norwood Hospital.

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Norwood Has Been Here Before

Norwood’s Morrill Memorial Library was already operating on reduced hours in 1918 because of the Great War (World War I). Hours had been cut back on January 13th leaving the library open from 12:30pm to 8:00pm most days, and closed on Sundays. This action was taken to conserve fuel and electricity during war time. Once the epidemic hit, first the reading room was closed so people could not gather. Then, as the situation worsened, the circulation department followed suit and the entire library was closed. Regular hours resumed December 1 (after the end of war). The total circulation for the year 1918 was 44,776 volumes, down from 49,961 for 1917. According to the Trustees’ annual report, the decrease was thought to be due to the war activities coupled with the closing during the influenza epidemic.

When the Morrill Memorial Library reopened on December 1, the town believed the epidemic had ended. But they were wrong. 



Norwood Has Been Here Before

In December and January, influenza returned to Norwood. On December 21, the Messenger noted that from the beginning of December, twenty-seven cases had been reported, including five deaths. And, many people were absent from work. On December 28, the newspaper’s headline read “Influenza Again a Menace” and acknowledged 150 new cases. On Monday, December 30, one resident wrote in her diary that “Influenza raging again—almost 200 cases in Norwood.” By January 4 there were eight deaths and 280 diagnosed cases of influenza. Still, the relatively small number of cases led the Epidemic Committee to decide reopening the Emergency Hospital was not warranted. As a precaution, public gatherings were banned from January 4 through January 15. The Board of Health requested that funeral attendance be restricted to close relatives only. By January 11, 1919, the influenza situation was clearing up. The Board of Health estimated 389 cases since the end of November with about 130 active cases left. By January 18, only six cases required daily attendance by a physician. Norwood had weathered the final phase of the Great Epidemic.

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Norwood Has Been Here Before

Over 100 people died in Norwood during the October, 1918 wave of influenza.* Eighty-one were Norwood residents. October 1 through October 12 was the deadliest time period with fifty-eight resident deaths during those twelve days. Sixty-four of these townspeople were buried in Highland Cemetery; sixteen were interred outside of Norwood. Only one victim was buried at Old Parish Cemetery. 

Edna McElhinney Reynolds was 31 years old and had lived her entire life in Norwood and was a member of several local organizations. Before her marriage, she had been a well-liked operator at the Norwood Telephone Exchange. Edna died at Norwood Hospital on October 1, a few days after giving birth to a daughter. Her husband, who also came down with influenza, eventually recovered. Edna Reynolds is buried in the family plot with her mother, father, and brother.

*In 1918 Norwood’s population was 12,000. Today, if a comparable percentage of deaths occurred, the number would be close to 250.



Readers Respond

As published in Scientific American (online), January, 2021

A recent Scientific American feature explores how the catastrophic 1918 influenza pandemic seemed to quickly slip from public discourse. The event killed more than 50 million people worldwide, yet it takes up comparatively little space in society’s “collective memory.” The article considers, by analogy, how the current COVID-19 pandemic might be remembered by future generations. Scientific Americanaccompanied the feature with a call for letters telling the stories of families affected by the 1918 crisis. Below are some examples of what we received.

Regarding the lack of collective memory of the 1918 pandemic, I had the same question when I heard of the pandemic and that my grandmother had died during it. It was the only family story ever told about her. Gone at 38, leaving five small children. My father was nine years old. In my book, Influenza and Inequality: One Town’s Tragic Response to the Great Epidemic of 1918, I wrote of this lack of memory. My book covers the epidemic, and epidemic behavior, in one small town—Norwood, Mass. I have dozens of personal stories in there, stories I heard from survivors, families and descendants. I believe that this lack of collective memory is linked in large part to the population of victims: the majority were young, foreign-born and poor. Influenza did not discriminate but, like today, those who could afford to stay home and avoid infection were the privileged. Then, as now, it was marginal communities—those who lived and worked in hazardous environments and lacked medical access—who were struck down. In 1918 Hispanics and Asians in California; Mexicans in New Mexico and Texas; Polish, Italian and Irish immigrants in northern cities; and, as always, Native Americans and Black individuals were the most severely affected. Children left orphaned were often adopted by others and never told of their history. And, of course, unlike today, the majority of victims were between 20 and 40 years old. Who was going to remember young, poor immigrants? Who was going to build a memorial or write a history for such outcasts? They were nameless, voiceless and, as one scholar noted, “rapidly replaced.” Another early historian of the 1918 epidemic wrote, “If the pandemic had killed one or more of the really famous figures of the nation or the world it would have been remembered.... Spanish influenza characteristically killed young adults and therefore rarely men in position of great authority.” That’s no defense. Hopefully, today’s victims will not be so invisible and easily forgotten.

Patricia J. Fanning
Professor emeritus of sociology, Bridgewater State University

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