When death stalked Ottawa

The Span­ish flu ar­rived without no­tice in the fall of 1918. Be­fore leav­ing, it would kill at least 520 peo­ple. DOUG FIS­CHER re­traces its deadly path through a city un­pre­pared for the as­sault.

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE -

No­body re­ally knows who suc­cumbed first, or how or when the deadly vis­i­tor slipped into town.

When it was over five weeks later, af­ter more than 500 coffins hold­ing the re­mains of the dead had been solemnly car­ried through the streets of Ottawa and Hull, the ex­perts seemed to agree it was prob­a­bly Jules E. Lemieux who was stricken first.

His pass­ing on Sept. 24, 1918, didn’t make much of a splash. A short death no­tice on page four of the Ottawa Evening Ci­ti­zen a few days later ob­served that he lived at 18 Glouces­ter St., was 71 years old, worked for the Pub­lic Works Depart­ment and would be buried Sept. 29 at Notre Dame Ceme­tery af­ter a 3 p.m. fu­neral at the Basil­ica.

A small news item on the next page added some de­tails. Mar­ried with seven grown chil­dren, four daugh­ters and three sons, he was well liked by co-work­ers and friends. And al­though he’d been ill on and off for six months, Lemieux con­tin­ued to work un­til he was con­fined to his bed­room with a sud­den fever that within days would claim his life.

There was no men­tion of Span­ish in­fluenza, nor was there any rea­son to do so. Liv­ing to 71 ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions for men and women in 1918. And it seemed Jules Lemieux was in a weak­ened state when he took ill.

But even if no one sus­pected a link, Lemieux’ death sig­nalled the ar­rival of a killer in Ottawa. Even be­fore he was buried, it had be­gun to stalk the city. And in the com­ing days, de­tails started to emerge in the death no­tices of the Ci­ti­zen and Jour­nal, the city’s two main dailies:

Lily Keys, Macken­zie Apart­ments, 28 years old; James Nor­man Moore, 47 Pre­ston St., 22 years; Clarence Ge­orge, 251 Percy St., seven years; Françoise Moreau, 183 Caron St., Hull, four years; Fan­nie Brown, 37 MacLeod St., 22 years; Emily Gra­ham, Hunt­ley Town­ship, 33 years; Florence MacDon­ald, 240 Cooper St., 29 years …

It shouldn’t have come as a sur­prise. For weeks, the epi­demic that came to be known as the “dead­li­est dis­ease in recorded his­tory” had been march­ing west­ward across Canada.

It be­gan in China in early 1918 and by late spring made its way to west­ern Europe, where it raced through the en­trenched armies en­gaged in the slaugh­ter of the First World War. It came to North Amer­ica on ships car­ry­ing back wounded sol­diers, and it spread across the con­ti­nent on the trains that trans­ported them home.

Sto­ries on the flu had ap­peared from time to time in Ottawa news­pa­pers in the months be­fore Lemieux’s death. But it was rare for the Ci­ti­zen or Jour­nal to play the news on the front page. It was even more un­usual for them to carry items on the pos­si­bil­ity of the epi­demic reach­ing Ottawa. The news was dom­i­nated by the war, and the fi­nal push to de­feat the Ger­mans.

Even so, the city seemed strangely un­pre­pared for the as­sault. Un­like many other On­tario com­mu­ni­ties, in­clud­ing Toronto, Wind­sor and Kitch­ener, Ottawa’s health of­fi­cials were not out front warn­ing cit­i­zens what to ex­pect. News­pa­pers were not asked to carry ar­ti­cles ex­plain­ing how to min­i­mize the spread of the dis­ease: use dis­pos­able pa­per tis­sues in­stead of hand­ker­chiefs, avoid shak­ing hands and tow­els used by oth­ers. Nor was there any plan in case the flu ar­rived and got out of hand.

Bessie Rus­sell, Carp, five years old; Effie John­son, 562 McLaren St., 21 years; Pri­vate Charles Schut, 152 Spad­ina Ave., 20 years; cadet Ge­of­frey Scott, 35 Bayswa­ter Ave., 19 years; Mau­rice Ke­neally, 18 Maria St., 45 years …

Ev­ery day through­out the first week of Oc­to­ber, the lists of news­pa­per death no­tices got longer. But they were only telling a frac­tion of the story.

While the flu hit ev­ery part of Ottawa and the sur­round­ing coun­try­side, it struck hard­est in the city’s poor and work­ing-class ar­eas, es­pe­cially the densely packed slums in Low­er­town where no thought was given to buy­ing a news­pa­per ad to in­form neigh­bours of a death in the fam­ily.

But if the news of the cri­sis didn’t make the pa­pers, it was ev­i­dent by week’s end at the city’s hos­pi­tals and health agen­cies that some­thing ex­traor­di­nary was hap­pen­ing. Al­ready short of nurses and doc­tors be­cause of the war, they were be­ing over­run by peo­ple des­per­ate for help.

At first, doc­tors thought they were treat­ing a par­tic­u­larly tough form of the com­mon flu. But it soon be­came clear they were deal­ing with a dis­ease that could kill quickly and with fury, some­times within hours of the on­set of chills and sneez­ing. In the worst cases, vic­tims spit blood and turned blue from lack of oxy­gen in the blood­stream.

Rather than at­tack­ing the old and the very young, the usual tar­gets for dis­ease, the Span­ish flu was mainly killing peo­ple — men and women in equal num­bers — be­tween 20 and 45 years of age.

On Oct. 4, 10 days af­ter Lemieux’s fever had car­ried him away, the city’s board of health fi­nally acted. Meet­ing late into the night with mayor Harold Fisher, the board or­dered the clo­sure of schools, the­atres, con­cert halls and “other places of pub­lic gath­er­ing.”

Churches were asked to can­cel ser­vices and the Ottawa Elec­tric Rail­way was or­dered to dis­in­fect its street­cars with formalde­hyde once a day. Mrs. A.J. Freiman, wife of the owner of the city’s largest depart­ment store, was put in charge of find­ing build­ings to han­dle the hospi­tal over­flow. She was also asked to mo­bi­lize a vol­un­teer army of women to help al­le­vi­ate the city’s nurs­ing short­age.

The next day’s Ci­ti­zen car­ried news of the flu out­break on its front page for the first time, call­ing the health board’s action “a pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sure against the in­fluenza be­com­ing an epi­demic.”

But it was too late. The dis­ease was sweep­ing through the gloomy ten­e­ments of Low­er­town, hav­ing its way with the mostly un­e­d­u­cated and un­der­nour­ished French and Ir­ish pop­u­la­tion. In many homes, tired moth­ers tried to cope with large broods of sick chil­dren alone, their husbands away at war.

The Jour­nal told the grip­ping story of a healthy in­fant who died of star­va­tion on the kitchen ta­ble while the rest of the fam­ily — the mother, two broth­ers and a sis­ter — lay sick in other rooms, un­able to get up.

Lily Payn­ter, 665 Echo Dr., 37 years old; Audry Craw­ley, 173 Beech St., four years; Charles Walsh, 73 Cham­ber­lain Ave., 30 years; Alphonse Lanoue, 72 Broad St., 20 years; Ellen Sten­house, Steele Line, Quyon, 29 years; Florence McMil­lan, Wrightvill­e, Hull, 19 years …

By Mon­day, Oct. 7, the list of death no­tices in the Ci­ti­zen had jumped to 24 names, the long­est yet. The next day, it rose to 31. And then 37. And 40. And 45.

The board of health, mean­time, was try­ing to make up for lost time. On poles and fences all over the city, it plas­tered up no­tices with ways to con­tain the flu. “Do not spit on the floor or side­walk,” read one piece of ad­vice. “Keep your fin­gers out of your mouth, wash your hands,” said an­other. “Keep fit. Eat well. Sleep well and ex­er­cise in the open air.” Help­fully, the Ci­ti­zen and Jour­nal pub­lished the lists promi­nently.

The pa­pers also noted that apart from the Catholics, the city’s churches had obeyed the or­der to can­cel Sun­day ser­vices. And, they re­ported, the board of health planned to fur­ther flex its mus­cles and de­mand the clo­sure of pool halls, bowl­ing al­leys, the YMCA, fra­ter­ni­ties and lodges.

Even so, the Château Lau­rier would be al­lowed to serve Thanks­giv­ing din­ner in its din- ing room the fol­low­ing Mon­day. The menu, printed in the Ci­ti­zen, was to fea­ture Cape Cod cock­tail, po­tato Parisi­enne par­sillees, supreme of striped bass pres­i­dente, roast spring turkey with dress­ing and cran­berry sauce, chif­fon­ade salad, Coupe Nelusko and fresh pump­kin pie. The cost was $2.75 per per­son.

On Oct. 10, an­other grim trend emerged when Dr. Osler M. Graves, coroner for Car­leton County and the med­i­cal of­fi­cer of health for three town­ships west of Ottawa, died of flu he con­tracted mak­ing house calls in Carp. Dur­ing the next month, at least five other doc­tors yielded to the flu.

The same day, mayor Fisher ac­knowl­edged “quite a num­ber of se­ri­ous cases of pneu­mo­nia and in­fluenza” through­out the city, but stopped short of pro­vid­ing ac­tual fig­ures. Of­fi­cials in many other On­tario cities is­sued daily lists of flu cases and deaths, but Ottawa re­frained from re­leas­ing of­fi­cial fig­ures for fear of hurt­ing morale.

The news­pa­pers ap­peared happy to play along, mostly tuck­ing news of the flu away on in­side pages and shy­ing away from editorials crit­i­cal of the way the epi­demic was be­ing han­dled.

Dr. Gas­ton Morin, 194 Wil­brod St., 34 years; Mrs. V.G. Younghus­band, March Town­ship, 36 years; John Wale, 64 Olm­stead St., 30 years; Ernest Dur­den, 187 Cum­ber­land St., 33 years; Bertha Doody, 81 Bal­sam St., 32 years …

By Oct. 15, the cri­sis ap­peared to reach a peak. Dr. Camp­bell Laid­law, chair­man of the board of health, told the Ci­ti­zen “the process of abate­ment seems to be un­der way,” but mayor Fisher and front­line work­ers were telling an­other story.

The hos­pi­tals were crammed in a bid to iso­late vic­tims, their cor­ri­dors clut­tered with pa­tients ly­ing on makeshift planks raised off the floor on cin­der blocks. “Their moans and des­per­ate cries echoed in the sur­round­ing streets like the ghostly wails from a Dick­ens tale,” said a story pub­lished in the Ci­ti­zen on 50th an­niver­sary of the epi­demic in 1968.

Soon even makeshift hos­pi­tals set up at Lans­downe Park and sev­eral schools around the city had filled. Over­worked doc­tors and nurses, many of them ill them­selves, con­ceded they were un­able to keep up.

Al­though 200 women from var­i­ous clubs, re­spond­ing to Mrs. Freiman’s pleas, knit­ted socks, sewed bedding and cloth­ing and staffed soup kitchens, there re­mained a need for vol­un­teers to go into the crowded slums to care for the sick.

Ottawa was still deeply split by class in 1918. And while many well-to-do women were happy to make broth for the poor — and get their names in the pa­per for do­ing so — they were not will­ing to ac­tu­ally feed the soup to Low­er­town’s sick chil­dren, fear­ing in­fec­tion.

An ex­as­per­ated mayor Fisher called in the press to say he per­son­ally re­ceived 50 ap­peals in one day from fam­i­lies re­quir­ing help. “Peo­ple died in Ottawa last night be­cause they had no­body to look af­ter them last week when they had noth­ing, but a mild at­tack of flu,” he said. “Peo­ple will die next week un­less they have some­one to take care of them tonight. Ev­ery strong able-bod­ied woman is needed.”

When he didn’t get the re­sponse he hoped for, the mayor asked the city’s un­der­manned po­lice force to do what it could to help.

Ac­cord­ing to the Ci­ti­zen, “Con­sta­bles Glee­son, Downey and Coombes acted as nurses last night in the homes of the sick ... and their good work is highly rec­om­mended.” Other po­lice of­fi­cers hauled and chopped wood to keep fires burn­ing in the draughty slum dwellings.

Miss Sarah (Nel­lie) Car­roll, 11 Pap­ineau St., 34 years; Sa­muel Korn, 65 Third Ave., 28 years; Pa­trick Con­nolly, 29 Au­gusta St., 19 years; Mary Agnes McClen­nan, Wil­son’s Cor­ners, 31 years; Alexan­der Tilley, med­i­cal doc­tor, 33 years …

Three weeks into the epi­demic, the board of health or­dered stores to close at 4 p.m. and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment agreed to al­low work­ers to go home at 3 p.m. un­til things got bet­ter. Mer­chants pe­ti­tioned to re­main open un­til 5 p.m., but au­thor­i­ties held firm. “The two hours be­tween 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. are the time hu­man vi­tal­ity is at its low­est ebb,” Dr. Laid­law told the Ci­ti­zen, “and when the sun­light and fresh air would prove most ben­e­fi­cial to re­stored health.”

Sports events were can­celled, in­clud­ing a much-an­tic­i­pated Cana­dian Pa­tri­otic Foot­ball League match be­tween a team from McGill Uni­ver­sity and the Ottawa Foot­ball Club. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment called off the In­ter­na­tional Plow­ing Match, which had been ex­pected to at­tract 20,000 vis­i­tors over three days to the Cen­tral Ex­per­i­men­tal Farm.

Al­though the flu took the lives of dozens of well-known Ottawa res­i­dents, per­haps no sin­gle death struck harder in the city than Hamil­ton (Hamby) Shore’s. The pop­u­lar 32-year-old Ottawa Se­na­tors hockey star died af­ter nurs­ing his wife back to health. News­pa­pers were filled with tributes to the ver­sa­tile wingerde­fence­man, a na­tive of Ottawa, and his fu­neral was crowded to over­flow­ing de­spite the board of health’s warn­ings against large gath­er­ings.

The city largely re­mained or­derly dur­ing the epi­demic, but there were ex­cep­tions. Mrs. Freiman was given ad­di­tional au­thor­ity over the dis­pens­ing of free drugs to the poor when peo­ple pos­ing as flu vic­tims tricked phar­ma­cists into giv­ing them medicine they then sold for profit.

Sev­eral mer­chants, in­clud­ing a Sparks Street to­bac­conist noted for hold­ing il­le­gal card games in the back of his store, de­fied the clo­sure or­der and served cus­tomers af­ter 4 p.m.

And the board of health re­ported Ottawa doc­tor Ernest Brunet to the On­tario med­i­cal board af­ter a pa­tient, Ed­ward Dore, said his preg­nant wife died be­cause he would not treat her without be­ing paid $15 in ad­vance. The doc­tor de­nied the story, say­ing that Dore “in his be­wil­der­ment has for­got­ten the truth.”

On Oct. 24, pre­cisely a month af­ter Lemieux be­came the flu’s first vic­tim, mayor Fisher was able to an­nounce the tide had turned. He had re­ceived 11 calls for help the pre­vi­ous day, but the num­ber was de­clin­ing daily. The makeshift hos­pi­tals were no longer over-filled, he said. And for the first time in weeks, there was leftover sewing at the end of the day.

But point­ing to the case of a “most re­spectable res­i­dent of cen­tre­town” who was un­able to look af­ter his wife and four small chil­dren be­cause he had not re­ceived a salary in four weeks, the mayor an­nounced the cre­ation of a re­lief or­ga­ni­za­tion to help those in “des­ti­tute cir­cum­stances” make it through the win­ter ahead.

Maisie Cul­ley, 406 Clarence St., 44 years; Joe Lo Balbo, 286 Hawthorne Ave., 36 years; Alice Free­man, 208 Mur­ray St., 48 years; Mary Ellen Mars­den, Fitzroy Town­ship, 21 years …

By the first week of Novem­ber, the worst was over in Ottawa. Be­cause record-keep­ing was im­pre­cise and doc­tors did not al­ways file re­ports, it is hard to say with ac­cu­racy how many peo­ple were killed by the flu.

By some es­ti­mates, as many as one in four Ottawa area res­i­dents — 25,000 peo­ple — con­tracted the dis­ease. Oth­ers put the num­ber closer to 10,000.

What­ever the case, at least 520 died. That placed Ottawa in the mid­dle of the pack among Cana­dian cities, close to the mor­tal­ity rates of Montreal and Toronto, but con­sid­er­ably lower than those in Win­nipeg and Kingston. In all, it’s be­lieved 50,000 Cana­di­ans died in the epi­demic, 10,000 fewer than were killed in the war.

Some ac­cu­rate fig­ures were avail­able, though. Ac­cord­ing to Mrs. T.W. Crowthers, who was in charge of women’s sewing room set up at city hall dur­ing the epi­demic, 1,539 ar­ti­cles of bedding, 2,861 night­gowns and items of chil­dren’s cloth­ing and 931 tow­els were sent to Ottawa hos­pi­tals be­tween Oct. 10 and Oct. 31.

The ef­fects of the epi­demic were felt for a gen­er­a­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the Jour­nal, nearly 200 chil­dren and teenagers were or­phaned by the dis­ease in Ottawa. Many of the chil­dren were taken in by rel­a­tives, and a re­lief fund op­er­ated by Mrs. Freiman was able to help oth­ers. But dozens ended up in or­phan­ages, the sto­ries of their lives lost to time.

The im­pact on Canada’s abo­rig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion was even more dev­as­tat­ing than it was on the rest of the coun­try. One Ottawa Val­ley com­mu­nity, the Al­go­nquins of Lac Du­moine, 100 kilo­me­tres north of Pem­broke, was wiped out. As many as 120 peo­ple are be­lieved to have been killed.

Some good came from the epi­demic, in­clud­ing the cre­ation of a na­tional health depart­ment, a con­cept that had been bogged down for years by squab­bling over fed­er­al­provin­cial ju­ris­dic­tion.

The On­tario gov­ern­ment, which had been as­sailed from all sides — in­clud­ing some stiff words from mayor Fisher — for fail­ing to co-or­di­nate the fight to con­trol the dis­ease, even­tu­ally de­vised the first provincewi­de emer­gency re­sponse plan.

The epi­demic also in­creased church at­ten­dance, at least in the

At the time of the great flu out­break at the end of the First World War, peo­ple of­ten wore sur­gi­cal masks to avoid be­com­ing in­fected with the virus.

A con­duc­tor turns away a man from the trol­ley be­cause he wasn’t wear­ing a mask.

A 1918 pub­lic no­tice ad­vises peo­ple to take pre­cau­tions against catch­ing the flu, in­clud­ing telling peo­ple not to spit on the floor.


High River tele­phone op­er­a­tors in Al­berta wore com­pul­sory masks dur­ing the 1918 flu epi­demic. It’s be­lieved 50,000 Cana­di­ans died in the epi­demic, 10,000 fewer than were killed in the war.

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