Medical science today cannot pin down exactly where it began. One prominent theory states that H1N1 influenza began with swine farms in Haskell County, Kansas in late January 1918. Like other incidents of mutated influenza virus “jumping” from livestock to humans, it could have fizzled out in the local population. Yet nationwide mobilization in response to the United States’ entry into World War I meant that military camps were ubiquitous and population movement intensified. Influenza was transported to Camp Funston, Kansas, where it spread to other camps, other towns.
The first wave of influenza traveled from the United States to Brest, France, in April 1918. Within the next month, it spread to Spain. Spain, neutral during World War I, was less likely to censor press reports of the disease. Hence, although the U.S., Britain, and France saw just as many cases of influenza, such incidents were not reported. The uneven press coverage created the appearance of the disease originating in Spain, giving it the incorrect moniker “Spanish Influenza.”
Influenza was documented in China and India by May 1918. The spring wave, however, was comparatively mild. The second wave of Fall 1918 would be devastating. As the summer of 1918 wore on and Allied victories in Europe continued, state and federal medical officials assumed disaster had been averted.
But the virus would mutate. In fall 1918, incidents of “grip” or “la grippe” increased among home front medical reports. It arrived in Philadelphia in late June, New York by early August, and Boston in late August. Municipal, state, and federal medical officials struggled to respond. Influenza patients could succumb to the disease in as little as twelve hours; suffering from intense secondary pneumonia, turning the patient blue as they suffocated from lung hemorrhage. Even more alarming, 1918 influenza struck the young and healthy the hardest. Mortality among patients ages 15-34 years soared to rates twenty times higher than previous influenza epidemics.
One hundred years ago this month, influenza arrived in New Orleans.
Boston’s first cases of influenza would arrive in late August 1918, likely originating from Navy traffic at Commonwealth Pier or from nearby Camp Devens. On August 27, the Pan-American Oil Company tanker Harold Walker departed Boston for Tampico, Mexico. En route to Mexico, the steamer’s crew began to fall ill, with at least three sailors dying at sea. It is likely that the first influenza cases in Tampico were a result of contact with the Harold Walker’s crew.
On its return voyage to Boston, the Harold Walker stopped in New Orleans around September 16. The city Board of Health was notified the vessel had influenza on board and was directed to drop anchor in the middle of the Mississippi River as a means of quarantine. Three more sailors had died at sea en route to Louisiana, including seventeen year-old New Orleans-native John James Louis Orthmann. After docking, four men were transported to Charity Hospital for influenza treatment. Hours after that transport, the captain of the Harold Walker requested ten more of his crew be hospitalized.
Days later, around September 18, the United Fruit Company tanker Metaphan arrived in New Orleans from Colon, Panama. It, too, had influenza on board. Of the fifty-one soldiers, fifty civilians, and eighty-six crew on board, eleven were ill with influenza – all of whom were soldiers. Like the Harold Walker, the Metaphan was quarantined, but only for twenty-four hours. The ship carried perishable bananas, which could spoil if left on board much longer.
The second wave of influenza pandemic, more virile and deadlier than the first, likely arrived on either the Harold Walker or the Metaphan. However, other cases had already been identified in Louisiana. The spread of pandemic influenza in 1918 was inevitable in a port city like New Orleans. Its deadliness would be determined by the response that came afterward.
Epidemic disease had been commonplace in New Orleans since the city’s founding. Throughout the nineteenth century, waves of cholera, yellow fever, typhoid, and others were a yearly occurrence – with some years much worse than others. The city had even suffered in the influenza epidemic of 1830-1832.
Since the late 1860s, New Orleans had seen waxing and waning efforts to curb the spread of disease. Beginning with the sanitarian movement brought by Northern military occupation in the Civil War and expanding with growing understanding of germ theory, measures to combat epidemics were advancing. Slaughterhouses and sewage disposal were regulated to stop the spread of intestinal maladies like cholera and typhoid. Cisterns were covered and eventually eliminated after the mosquito was identified as the vector for yellow fever. A vaccine for typhoid was developed in 1896. The last yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans was more than ten years in the past.
In 1918, public health officials in Louisiana had expected the new virile strain of influenza to spread to New Orleans. However, some presumption existed that New Orleans’ epidemic would be mild given the warmer climate. This was to be proven tragically false. The pandemic peaked in New Orleans from mid-September to mid-November 1918. In the United States, only Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, both overwhelmed by the influenza epidemic, had higher death rates than New Orleans.
On September 26, sixteen-year-old Morris Maurer died of influenza. By this time, cases had also been reported elsewhere in the state – in Harvey, Marrero, McDonoghville, and Garyville. Cases were observed in military camps in the city as well – in Camp Nicholls in Bayou St. John, in Camp Martin at Tulane University, and at the Algiers Naval Station.
On the day of Morris Maurer’s death, seventy-five nurses met at the Grunewald Hotel in downtown New Orleans to discuss the oncoming influenza epidemic. Led by State Board of Health President Dr. Oscar Dowling, plans for nurse recruitment and response from the Red Cross were laid in place. Said Dowling, “We shall indeed be fortunate if we don’t have an epidemic in New Orleans and the whole state. [Influenza] is very contagious, the death rate being about four out of twenty-five cases.”
On October 1, a British steamer sailing from Bermuda arrived in New Orleans with fifty-six influenza cases on board. They were transported to Charity Hospital.
On October 4, Charles Brookman, a twenty-four year-old New Orleans native, died of influenza at Camp Beauregard near Opelousas. Camp Beauregard was reported to have hundreds of cases of the illness as troops continued to be transported outward to other bases. Brookman was buried in St. Roch Cemetery No. 1.
On October 8, Lieutenant Anthony Bourdet, thirty-two years old, died of influenza. He had been stationed at the quartermaster’s building in Audubon Park near Camp Martin and had fallen ill early in his assignment. He had been ill for days but was beginning to feel better, then quickly succumbed to a secondary pneumonia infection. Lt. Bourdet was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
On October 9, Maurice Joseph Picheloup Jr., twenty-five years old, died of influenza. Picheloup was a sailor stationed at Algiers Naval Station. Like Lieutenant Bourdet and many others, Picheloup was beginning to recover, then fell victim to pneumonia. His wife blamed a draft from the bathroom in which he shaved. Picheloup was buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3.
The Great War which had been the tinderbox for pandemic flu had also laid the infrastructure with which to combat it. Popular support of the war, bolstered by governmental and private boosting, meant that the Red Cross was heavily staffed and hospitals supplied. Fraternal organizations were poised to do their part for the war effort, which translated into doing their part fighting the epidemic. All citizens were called upon to buy Liberty Bonds, to conserve commodities like gasoline, and to be ever vigilant, for “every idle hour helps the Kaiser in his damnable attempt to enslave the world.” In the first days of October 1918, the Red Cross pledged to make 50,000 gauze face masks for use in influenza wards throughout the city.
State and municipal public health officials instated mandatory reporting for influenza, although complaints continued through October that insufficient reporting stymied epidemic response. On the single day of October 8, more than two thousand new cases of influenza were reported by local doctors.
Streetcars were ordered to run at half-occupancy to prevent overcrowding, which was difficult because too many streetcar operators were sick themselves. Less than a week after the ban on public gathering, the city experienced shortages of soup and ice cream. Milk was in even shorter supply. Streetlamps were extinguished to prevent nighttime gatherings of people. The epidemic in New Orleans, like in other cities, was even thought to have caused the crime rate to plunge.
In the face of the ramping epidemic, the Red Cross and the US Public Health Service moved to convert a building on the Touro Infirmary campus for the exclusive care of influenza patients. It opened on October 20. The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks supported home visits and medication dispensaries, as well as cancellation of their public gatherings.
On October 15, Dr. J.M. de Mahy died of influenza. Dr. de Mahy was a nerve specialist who left his private practice to care for influenza victims at Touro Infirmary. He was buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3.
On October 18, George Rubin, thirty-two years old, died in the “Jackson Barracks neighborhood” of influenza. A member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, he was buried in their tumulus in Greenwood Cemetery. On the same day, the body of John Harrison, a twenty-one year old African American army recruit who had died at Camp Grant, Illinois, was interred at Chalmette National Cemetery.
On October 19, the Southern Yacht Club on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain was converted into a convalescent home for soldier recovering from illness. In the spirit of promoting morale, famed actress and “vampire of screenland” Theda Bara visited the home. Bara refused to wear a gauze face mask among the patients.
In the waning days of October, rapid mobilization of federal, local, and private organizations paired with restrictions on public gatherings appeared to be paying off. A vaccine was being offered through Tulane University and Charity Hospital, although its efficacy was unclear. The vaccine, developed in Boston, was a serum extracted from the blood of recovered influenza patients. Although used nationwide, the vaccine is not understood to have directly combated the H1N1 influenza virus.
Influenza cases began to decline. Three hundred eighty-five new cases were reported on October 31, compared to more than one thousand only days before. Discussion turned to raising the ban on public gatherings. On October 29, the City Board of Health declared that church assemblies would be permitted the following Sunday. This measure was crafted specifically to allow gatherings in churches and cemeteries in observance of All Saints’ Day, November 1.
As if to add insult to injury, 1918 also happened to be a bad year for chrysanthemums. The flowers, traditional for All Saints’ Day, were victim to a horticultural blight. Supplies had been further depleted by funeral orders taken during the epidemic, as well as “an almost total lack of flower shipments due to labor and epidemic conditions elsewhere.” Crowds in cemeteries were notably smaller than observed in years before. The next day, however, a special mass was held at St. Patrick’s Cemetery in recognition of those who died in the influenza epidemic.
Spirits would be raised ten days later, when World War I officially ended. But New Orleans was not entirely free of influenza’s grip.
During the fall and winter epidemics of 1918, fifty-four thousand people in New Orleans contracted influenza – fourteen percent of the entire city’s population. Three thousand four hundred and eighty-nine of these people died of their illness and were buried in family tombs, wall vaults, or in the vast unmarked space of Charity Hospital Cemetery on Canal Street. Any visitor through the aisles of a New Orleans cemetery will pass an epitaph that recalls the terrifying month that brought New Orleans to a halt a century ago. Today these epitaphs serve as memorials to both deep personal and communal grief.
 Barry, The Great Influenza, 169-172.
 Ibid., 178.
 Ibid., 178, 181, 184.
 Barry, The Great Influenza, 186.
 Alfred W. Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (Boston: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 63; “Movement of the Mexican Oil Fleet,” Oil Trade Journal, Vol. 13, No. 10 (October 1922), 127.
 “Mexican Steamer Comes into Port with Influenza: Fourteen Men of Crew Suspected of Being Victims of Spanish Influenza,” Times-Picayune, September 18, 1918, 13.
 “Fruit Steamer with Influenza Aboard Arrives: Eleven Cases of Disease are Found When Vessel Reaches Station,” Times-Picayune, September 21, 1918, 5.
 Health Officers Release 48 From Ships Sick List,” Times-Picayune, September 22, 1918, 13B.
 Urmi Engineer Willoughby, Yellow Fever, Race and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2017), 145.
 “Influenza Goes in New Orleans Home to Get Victim: First Resident of City to Succumb to Epidemic is Morris Maurer,” Times Picayune, September 29, 2018.
 “Steamer Brings 56 cases of Dread Malady,” Times-Picayune, October 2, 1918, 9.
 “Lieut. Bourdet Dies; Ill But Short Time,” Times-Picayune, October 9, 1918, 2.
 “Death Follows Brief Illness,” Times-Picayune, October 9, 1918, 5.
 “How To Win,” St. Martinsville Weekly Messenger, October 26, 1918, 2.
 “Chapter Workers are Busy Making Hospital Masks,” Times-Picayune, October 4, 1918, 12.
 “All Shows, Churches, are Ordered Closed to Fight Epidemic: Cases in the State Total 100,000,” Times-Picayune, October 10, 1918, 1, 10.
 “Carmen Stricken Thirty Each Day,” Times-Picayune, October 16, 1918, 14.
 “Influenza Causes Shortage in Milk,” Times-Picayune, October 14, 1918, 6.
 “Influenza Halts Italian Red Cross Benefit Schemes,” Times-Picayune, October 9, 1918, 5.
 “Sacrifice Costs Physician’s Life,” Times-Picayune, October 16, 1918, 15.
 “Theda Bara Visits Convalescent Camp: Goes Among Soldiers with No Apparent Thought of ‘Flu’ Danger,” Times-Picayune, October 22, 1918, 5.
 “Funds for Fight Against Epidemic Asked from State,” Times-Picayune, October 21, 1918, 1, 10; John Barry, The Great Influenza, 260.
 “Regular Services at All Churches to Begin Sunday,” Times-Picayune, October 30, 1918, 1.
 “Orleans Observes All Saints’ Day,” Times-Picayune, November 2, 1918, 6.
 “All Souls’ Day Observed,” Times-Picayune, November 3, 1918, 21.