“Don’t Congregate” – Police enforced social distancing in Mt. Carmel in 1918

Enforcing social distancing carried the full force of the law in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania in October 1918. Pandemic influenza arrived in the Northumberland County mining community in the days following a Liberty Loan Drive parade to raise funds the American war effort in Europe.

With the development of more than 100 cases of influenza and resulting pneumonia in Mount Carmel, the town’s board of health announced the following regulations on October 5, 1918:

The Board of Health of Mount Carmel announces that all homes where Spanish influenza or pneumonia exist are under strict quarantine. No persons are permitted to visit the sick except physicians or nurses and only when death is near will near relatives be permitted to visit the patient.

Emphasis is given to the general quarantine issued yesterday and no public assemblages of any character will be permitted until further notice.

It is impossible to state the extent of the epidemic in Mount Carmel at the present writing. There are practically 100 well-defined cases of influenza, but in addition there are scores of pneumonia cases which undoubtedly were caused by influenza.  

The previous day, the board of health had closed all theaters, restaurants, saloons, churches, and other places where people could congregate.

The board explicitly referenced the stores and public places on Oak Street in Mount Carmel and told people to avoid congregating in this area.

Don’t Congregate on Oak Street

Dr. R.W. Montelius, President of the Board of Health, announces that while Spanish influenza quarantine is in force the congregating of people on Oak Street, especially between Third and Fifth, will not be permitted. The crowds must keep moving and the police officers will see that they do move, as these crowds are a menace to health.

With these instructions apparently being ignored, the board had a notice published in the newspapers that threatened arrest if they ignored these new regulations:

Arresting for Congregating

The borough police are following out rigid instructions not to permit any congregating on Oak Street or any other street here and in order to show that they meant business had to make an arrest Saturday evening.

As the outbreak in Mount Carmel worsened, as it did throughout the Coal Region, deaths began to mount. Every day, new death notices were posted in local newspapers. With these deaths, understandably, people sought to have funerals. But these gatherings were also banned by the board of health’s regulations to keep people socially distant.

Mount Carmel Headline
October 14, 1918 headlines from the Mount Carmel Item

From the Mount Carmel Item, October 14, 1918:

Private Funeral Rule Disregarded

The rule of the Health Board calling for strictly private funerals is not being observed, or at least has not been, in many cases.

Health Officer Gross informed the Item that as many as fifty people have congregated in a single room where lay the corpse of a man who died from Influenza.

From now on funerals will be under the strict surveillance of the State Police and all offenders of the law will be arrested.

 Others in Mount Carmel were disregarding the rules against gathering in barrooms, saloons, and grog shops.

From the Item, October 15, 1918:

Congregated in a Bar-room; Four Arrested

By Corporal Parker and Fined by Justice Hughes, Proprietor Has Influenza

Congregating in barrooms despite the ruling of the State Board of Health continues here with the result that the State Police are active making arrests for the violation.

Corporal Arthur Parker of the local detachment of the State policy had George Pennypacker, butcher of Lavelle; Alex Kachalovich, Anthony Kutocus and Joseph Kulziski, arraigned before Justice Hughes for congregating in the saloon of Frank Tiknock, 140 South Locust Street.

It was charged the offense was committed on Saturday, entrance having been gained by way of the back door. The butcher was fined $25.00 and the costs and the other three defendants were fined $10.00 and the costs.

The proprietor Frank Tiknock, is bedfast, suffering from Spanish influenza and will be arraigned when he recovers for breaking the quarantine. The officials say that his wife was bar tender to the congregators.

But having the police on the streets came at costs. By October 19, Mount Carmel only had one police officer, John Rix, left on the beat. All the rest had fallen ill with influenza, including the borough’s chief of police.

The state police took up the charge of enforcement of the ban on public gatherings in the wake of the borough police department’s manpower shortage. On their rounds on the evening of October 23, they heard a commotion inside the town’s Exchange Hotel.

From the Item: 

Exchange Saloon Raided

By State Police, who find 18 customers congregated – Case tonight at Hughes

The state police strolled over to the exchange last evening and discovered that the quarantine law was also being broken in that town by a hotel man.

They raided the hotel of Joseph Horosko, and found 18 customers inside. Proprietor and customers will be given a hearing before Justice Hughes tonight. This is about the sixth hotel proprietor who has been arrested here and at Exchange for breaking the law.

By the end of the month, the quarantine was lifted and the costs were counted. Mount Carmel had experienced thousands of cases of influenza, but due to strict enforcement of the quarantine, fewer lives were lost in Mount Carmel as compared to neighboring communities like Shamokin, where the outbreak was much more severe and deadly.


Featured Image: Police with masks during the 1918 influenza pandemic, Seattle, Washington (National Archives)

Read more of our coverage of the 1918 influenza pandemic by clicking here


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