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.
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.