“Nothing to really compare with this” – A reflection on the 1918 influenza epidemic in Wilkes-Barre

When the Wilkes-Barre Semi-Weekly Record examined the data on the impact of influenza in Luzerne County in December 1918, the numbers were shocking.

“According to figures submitted yesterday… figures which were were obtained from State records [show] Luzerne County has had 2,396 deaths from influenza and the attendent  [sic] pneumonia since October 1,” a state correspondent wrote on December 23, 1918. The figures consulted broke down the number of deaths of each community within the county.

Luzerne County Deaths
December 23, 1918

Just after the epidemic peaked in early November 1918, a social columnist with the Wilkes-Barre Record attempted to place the outbreak in a larger historical context in Luzerne County. The long-time resident failed to find another event from his lifetime to match the horrors of the 1918 outbreak. He pointed to the “tears and groans” of the mourners and that a grave forty miles long would be needed to bury all of the dead in Pennsylvania alone – state officials had placed the death toll in excess of 40,000.

His editorial provides an adroit contemporary commentary on the devastating impact of influenza in the Coal Regions of the northeastern Pennsylvania.

… Nearly or quite 2,000 persons have died in our county within the last five weeks, the great majority of them dying of influenza and pneumonia. It is, or was an epidemic or a plague. Note: three hundred miles of funeral processions, and the tears and groans that accompany these sad partings.

Nearly 40,000 deaths in Pennsylvania! A grave forty miles long, made in our dear old State inside of two months! Some say that pestilence and war go together.

When myriads of our young men are being offered up on Calvarian hills, and pestilence walks in darkness, and destruction slays at noonday, we indeed should consider, and walk humbly.

Here two brothers in one day; here two sisters, here husband and wife, there father and son, and here mother and daughter.

I mention one case: in my travels, in a green, quiet vale. I found school boy and girl. There again; they had courted, and been united in marriage. There again; they had a little store and the post office, and a son. Again, the son, a stout young man, had wed the maiden of his choice. Again, the young man had the store and a young son. The other day the young man, an only child, died, leaving father, mother, wife and child. Today the papers say the little son, with pleasant and grand-sounding name, is dead and rests beside great, manly “papa” in the graveyard near the wildwood.

A life, or an existence, in which such things come to pass, and we can still go on living and retrain sane mentality, is certainly a big thing, and all this argues for us bigger things, here and there, and it does not yet appear what we shall be.

A gentleman asked me if I had ever before seen anything like this, I relied: “No, in my short lifetime I have seen nothing to really compare with this.”


Featured Image: Red Cross stretcherbearers carrying an influenza victim in 1918 (LOC)

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