“The pall of death hung low over the city,” wrote the local reporter for the Harrisburg Courier on October 20, 1918, “and the end is not yet.” Few places illustrated the massive loss of life accompanying the Spanish Flu pandemic more than the region’s funeral parlors and morgues. Many ran out of space to store the remains of influenza victims and had no way to quickly bury the dead.
The Spanish Flu epidemic held Central Pennsylvania in its grip throughout October 1918. As millions struggled with the illness across the nation, those in the Keystone State felt the disease’s impact particularly hard. During one week in mid-October, 150 victims in Harrisburg died of influenza or pneumonia related to the influenza outbreak. On October 19 alone, 45 residents of the capital died from complications related to the outbreak.
One family’s horrible fate, described by the Harrisburg Courier, details the outbreak’s incredible power to kill and to kill quickly.
One home, that of Herman R. Sourbeer, 323 Crescent, was made particularly sad by the visitation. On Thursday morning at 3 the father died. An hour later, two children, newly-born, followed in death, the father knowing nothing of their demise and the news of the father’s death being kept from the widow, who had just passed through her travail [child-birth]. Other homes have been sorely stricken. Mrs. Sourbeer died Friday evening.
The Sourbeer family’s tragedy left three children orphaned. They were not alone – thousands of Pennsylvania children were left without parents due to influenza and pneumonia, which disproportionately impacted young men and women.
As the death toll climbed in mid-October, a crisis began among those tasked with caring for the dead. “Harrisburg undertakers may be compelled soon to bury influenza and pneumonia victims in mere rough boxes because of big demand and the shortage of coffins and caskets, some of the funeral directors announced today,” wrote the The Evening News on October 17, 1918.
The shortage of burial cases here is described as acute. Undertakers are compelled to hold bodies for six, seven, and eight days; some have their morgues filled with bodies, and coupled wit the difficulty to get coffins the funeral directors have found that the cemetery associations are having trouble to get graves opened in time for funerals…
Officials of the cemetery associations said this morning they have a limited force of grave diggers… The shortage of labor is so serious that one man had to dig his wife’s grave so that the funeral could be held on scheduled time.
An appeal for prisoners from the county prison to be detailed for grave digging was one of the more novel ways that cemeteries attempted to overcome their labor shortage, but county officials refused to go along with the scheme.
In neighboring Lebanon County, undertakers were pleading for help from local lumber companies due to the scarcity of coffins. One funeral director called on the Miller Brothers lumber establishment in the city of Lebanon and made an order for 12 coffins. This particular undertaker already had nine bodies of flu victims collected in his facilities, awaiting burial.
In Steelton, the coffin crisis had political fallout. A local election was scheduled for late October and one of the polling places in the city was in L.B. Heile’s undertaking establishment on South Front Street. “The County Commissioners were asked this morning to change the polling place of the First Precinct, Second Ward, Steelton, because the present one… is partly filled with bodies of unburied influenza victims, due to the scarcity of coffins and lack of grave diggers,” recorded a local newspaper on October 28.
The month-long outbreak in Central Pennsylvania began to ease as November began and influenza cases plummeted. The disease moved on after claiming more than 40,000 lives in Pennsylvania between October 1 and November 14, according to state health officials.
The memory of the horrific outbreak faded quickly as celebrations surrounding the end of hostilities in Europe began on November 11, 1918. But the horrors of the Spanish Flu outbreak remained with those who survived, especially for the thousands orphaned by the virus.
Featured Image: Influenza victims at a hospital in Harrisburg, October 1918