1918 Armistice meant nothing on Flu Hill

JACQUES KELLY

November 11, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Freshly turned earth on new graves marked an otherwise pretty knoll overlooking Baltimore on Nov. 11, 1918, the day that World War I ended.

That rise of ground in New Cathedral Cemetery is known 75 years later as Flu Hill, the final resting place of hundreds of Baltimoreans who died in the Spanish Influenza Epidemic in October and November 1918.

Military men and nurses at Camp Meade, Edgewood Arsenal, the old Marine Hospital at Wyman Park and another hospital at Fort McHenry were among the first to succumb.

Flu Hill rises just off Old Frederick Road at Augusta Avenue on Irvington's northern edge.

It is topped by a pair of cedar trees that cast a shadow over hundreds of limestone and granite tombstones that recall familiar Baltimore names -- Abell, Ahern, Counselman, Dorsey, Edelen, Elliott, Shipley, Giardino, Goldsborough, Gorsuch, Helfrich, Klitch, Leach, Muth and Schanberger.

Every area cemetery saw an increase in burials during the final days of the First World War.

But the circle of elevated ground known as Section MM at the city's largest Catholic cemetery somehow came to be known as Flu Hill.

Ironically, the location is beautiful. The easterly view from the hill's top is calm and serene. In the distance are the harbor, Patapsco River and downtown skyline. City College's stone tower is visible. St. Joseph's Monastery church pops out of a grove of oaks and beech trees.

The flu hit Maryland about Sept. 20. October was the deadliest month. Victims were dying as the Armistice was being celebrated.

New Cathedral's ledgers tell the story of the plague. The first victims are listed as having died from "La Grippe." That term was soon supplanted by "influenza epidemic."

Among U.S. cities, Baltimore's death rate was second only to Philadelphia's. City Health Department chief Dr. John D. Blake ordered all schools, churches, synagogues and theaters closed. Baseball games were banned. Racing at Laurel stopped. Saloons and department stores had to cut their hours. Halloween events were prohibited.

Cardinal Gibbons of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese disagreed with this policy. He argued that people needed the consolation of religious ceremonies. Nevertheless, he had all churches locked.

The flu soon took one of his most popular clerics, the Rev. Thomas J. Kenny, pastor of St. Peter the Apostle Church, who died Oct. 23 in his Hollins Street rectory. A much beloved figure in West and Southwest Baltimore, who built a large parochial school on Poppleton Street, he died without a public funeral.

The flu cut down its victims with merciless speed. Dr. John F. Hogan, chief of the city Health Department's Bureau of Communicable Diseases, became ill one night and was dead the next day.

Nachman Goldberg was a popular newspaper and magazine vendor who had a stand on Eutaw Street near Fayette Street. Known as Shorty, he sold the afternoon newspapers -- The Evening Sun, the Baltimore News and the Baltimore Star. He, too, died shortly after catching the flu.

The flu swept through entire families. Joseph Wallace and his wife died at St. Joseph Hospital. The couple's three children were sick at home in the 1000 block of Patapsco St. in South Baltimore. Neighbors helped nurse the children.

An eerie pall fell over the city as gas-fired street lights grew dim because so many utility workers were sick that the flow of fuel slumped. Some 626 streetcar men were out one day. People were asked to stop making phone calls because many telephone operators were home in sickbeds. This was an era when each call was connected by hand.

Soldiers were ordered to dig graves in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Westport. No gravediggers were available by October's end and 175 caskets awaited interment.

"During its six-week reign as the king of all diseases, Spanish influenza struck down 50,000 persons in the city and state and killed 5,160 . . ." The Evening Sun reported in November 1918.

The remedy? People wore white gauze face masks and drank whiskey for its medicinal value. The Health Department suggested stay- ing away from soda fountains be- cause an improperly washed glass might spread the germ. There was really no cure. In time, the epidemic ended.

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