Brian Sullivan: Pittsfield barely survived 1918 flu outbreak



As the state battles through its toughest influenza season in 10 years, it's well worth remembering the influenza pandemic that struck locally and worldwide during the fall of 1918. The fatality count would eventually be about three times as many deaths as the Great War itself, although it can be stated that because of the large masses of soldiers that were coalesced in battlegrounds around the globe that one had a lot to do with the other.

Pittsfield sent a total of 2,782 of its loyal sons and daughters into battle, including 32 women. Historical records show that 86 died. That included 36 who died during live fighting. But the biggest number was the 42 locals who were felled due to influenza.

Locally, it was a lot worse.

The outbreak had initially been traced back to an armed services outpost in Kansas. The second serious wave of the disease, however, originated in Boston. It moved west about as fast as transportation did at the time. The soldiers and sailors at Commonwealth Pier were stricken in multitudes and sent to Chelsea Naval Hospital. Ships that were already en route to destinations such as Philadelphia and New Orleans helped spread the disease.


Pittsfield, meanwhile, got sucker-punched. The first reported influenza-related fatality in Boston had been on Sept. 18. Within a week's time, Pittsfield had listed 45 deaths and more than 600 reported cases. It's believed there were about 2,000 unreported cases.

Desperate times required desperate measures and Pittsfield did all it could to hold firm on the medical battle line. But it was like eating soup with a fork. Still, measures needed and were put into place. The city basically locked itself down. Schools, churches, courts, clubs, movie houses and any place that hosted public gatherings shut their doors.

The economics of the city came grinding to a halt. The medical people in the city, however, worked 24/7 in an attempt to stem the tide and control the outbreak. Volunteers risked putting themselves in harm's way in order to be part of the health community. Some of those lost their lives by taking on those roles. And despite that concentrated effort, the death rate soared. In some cases, entire families were wiped out.

When the first week of November had passed, the outbreak had pretty much run its course in Pittsfield. The final tally? About 400 dead and nearly 10,000 seriously sickened (that was about 1 in every 4 citizens).

Mayor William C. Moulton (1917-1919) addressed the city through the printed word and reflected on the tragedy.

Said Moulton: "These past weeks have been sad ones for many of the people of our city. Coming almost without warning and sweeping rapidly onward, the epidemic of influenza and pneumonia has left us a community stricken as never before. The traces of it will be seen and felt for years.

"The response to the calls for assistance has been wonderful. The wonderful nurses, doctors, the women of the city who made possible the diet kitchens and the children's home, the Red Cross, the citizens who consented to act on the Advisory Committee, the police and firemen, the government assistance, and the many others who assisted all have our sincere thanks.

"What has been done is just another exhibition of the Pittsfield community spirit which I believe is not surpassed anywhere."


Some historical footnotes to the fall of 1918. The Boston Red Sox defeated the Chicago Cubs in the World Series 4 games to 2. It was the fifth Series crown for Boston in as many tries going back to the initial Fall Classic in 1903. The Great War meant a truncated 1918 season for baseball, which ended the regular season on Sept. 1. The subsequent Series became the only one to be played within the confines of September.

If the season had been allowed to reach the usual 154 games, the added games of the World Series might have sent the baseball campaign headlong into a collision with the flu outbreak. What no one needed in Boston was thousands of fans gathered together at Fenway Park.

What if Babe Ruth had become ill, or worse? What if he was never traded to the New York Yankees after the 1919 season? History, for sure, would have been rewritten much differently than how we recognize it now. Thankfully for Yankee fans, the Babe remained healthy as a horse.

Brian Sullivan's column, "The City I Love," appears each week in The Eagle. Sully can be reached at


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