Then, in October 1918, the influenza epidemic reached Rochester, ultimately killing more than a thousand in the local community. The hardest hit areas in the city were Joseph Avenue, North Street and the adjacent streets, an area with large immigrant populations who tended to live in crowded conditions.
We don’t know if Lenore Engel died quickly or more slowly, only that she died at home and was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery on October 10th, 1918 at the age of eleven. According to Daniel D. Cody, Rochester Coughed: The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Rochester, New York, it was not uncommon for children to go off to school in the morning, only to return home in the afternoon to find a parent dead from influenza. In this case, Charles and Agatha may have had to watch their daughter die, painfully, in less than a day.
If Lenore did not initially succumb to the virus and received what constituted proper medical treatment, she may have been kept in a well ventilated room, given a light diet and kept quiet and clean. To wash out as much of the infection as possible, Lenore might have been given warm saline or alkaline solutions; antiseptic medications might have been applied to the mucus lining of her mouth and nose. She may have drunk hot lemonade with one tablespoon of whiskey and then taken 15 drops of tincture of digitalis every four hours. Silver nitrate spray, menthol oil, ichloramine-T in chlorcosauc oil, acetanitid, caffeine, camphor, salley late of soda, phenacetine, salol and aspirin may have been administered.
If these treatments were administered — as for so many of Lenore’s fellow sufferers — they were to no avail.
Especially as Lenore was their only child, the loss must have been hard to bear for the Engels who did not have any more children. According to the city directory, in 1920 the Engels built a new home on their Wilkins Street property, too late for Lenore to enjoy.Lenore’s mother, Agatha, outlived her daughter by almost sixty years.¹
Although Acting Health Officer Dr. Joseph Roby could not save Lenore Engel, he was one of the primary heroes during the epidemic. Little is known of Roby. Marrying into the Nathaniel Rochester family, he was a member of Rochester’s upper class. In his comprehensive study, Rochester Coughed: The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Rochester, New York (History Master’s Theses, The College at Brockport, 2010) — to which this piece is entirely indebted — Daniel D. Cody compiles Roby’s commentary from local newspapers.
Initially, Roby may have been too sanguine about the progress of the disease. In late September and early October, Roby claimed the situation in Rochester was considered not serious, expressing hope that an epidemic could be avoided if people followed preventative instructions. To Roby, there was no cause for alarm. If the disease grew into epidemic proportions, Rochester had “ample hospital accommodations.” Although the number of cases in Rochester had grown to 300, in the October 7th Democrat and Chronicle, Dr. Roby continued to acknowledge influenza while still denying it was a serious problem. Roby told reporters that influenza in Rochester “is more of a scare than an epidemic.” In addition, Roby mistakenly thought that a serum for lobar pneumonia might be almost 100% effective in influenza treatment. (Perhaps displaying some snobbishness towards lay people, Roby took a dim view that not too much could be expected from efforts to teach the public about influenza. When the epidemic finally subsided, Roby concluded that educational efforts put forth into the community had actually played an important role.)
Nonetheless, when the fuller picture of the epidemic came into view, Roby leaped into action. Around October 11th, the public was informed that Roby and Commissioner of Public Safety R. Andrew Hamilton were in charge of the fight against the epidemic, and the response took on a more structured posture.
Roby advised that schools be closed and adamant that they stay closed. He strongly advocated that public gatherings cease: theaters, movie houses, skating rinks, bowling alleys (although that ban was rescinded), baseball games, soda fountains, ice cream parlors, saloons, hotel bars, lodge and civic association meetings and — despite resistance — churches and synagogues. Roby vigorously recruited nurses, mostly women but also men. When it became clear that home care was spreading the disease, Roby called upon patients to go to the hospital. Although Rochester was not hit as hard as other northeastern cities, Roby did not downplay the dangers, often warning that the worst was still to come.
Ultimately, due to the efforts of Roby and many others, Rochester was spared the worst.
As described in the INFLUENZA ENCYCLOPEDIA (influenzaarchive.org):
All told, Rochester experienced nearly 30,000 cases of influenza. Of these cases over 1,000 resulted in death. Yet despite these high numbers, Rochester’s epidemic was much less severe than that of many other American cities, including ones in New York. Albany, for example, had an excess death rate of 553 per 100,000. Buffalo’s was 530 and Syracuse’s 541. Rochester, by comparison, had an excess death rate of 360 per 100,000, nearly identical to that of St. Louis, touted as one of the best examples of epidemic handling in the nation. Like St. Louis, Rochester officials reacted quickly to the growing number of influenza cases in the city, enacting social distancing measures within a matter of days after realizing that the epidemic had begun.
In Jim Memmott’s recent Democrat and Chronicle column, “How did Rochester handle the 1918 flu epidemic?”, the online headline tells the story: “A century ago, Rochester got better by social distancing”²Roby’s tactics were notably effective in immigrant neighborhoods where he showed cultural sensitivity. In immigrant enclaves, multiple generations often lived in a crowded, single family dwelling, creating the perfect conditions for the spread of influenza: one cough or sneeze of an infected person could spread the disease to all. Furthermore, immigrant funerals were usually held in private homes, themselves spawning grounds for the virus.
Roby realized the inability to speak English kept some infected immigrants from seeking medical attention, especially going to the hospital. Roby instructed health officials to distribute posters throughout the city printed in Polish, Hebrew, German, and Italian offering guidance and medical advice.
Later, Red Cross officials suggested to Roby that placards reading “Contagious Disease. Keep Out” be placed on the front doors of influenza patients staying at home. However, Roby was hesitant in using placards, especially in ethnic neighborhoods. He understood that immigrants who already faced discrimination would be leery of the placards connoting stigmatization.
According to Cody, “Roby believed that accepting the fact that some immigrant and ethnic communities were very hesitant to go to a hospital, the fear of having their home branded with a contagious disease placard forbidding entrance would cause such people to refrain from requesting any type of assistance or help. The disease would then run rampant and unchecked through the entire family. Roby pointed out that casual exposure to the disease seldom resulted in life threatening sickness. Roby was trying to promote interaction within these communities to advance the fight against influenza”(141). Roby said he would only use his authority to install placards in homes that had too much visiting or mingling.
Roby’s cultural sensitivity — posters in foreign languages and very limited use of “Keep Out” placards — certainly saved lives.
Roby also became involved in a small mini-controversy he might not have anticipated. Cody writes; “the Chamber of Commerce, in co-operation with the retail merchants of the city was starting an educational campaign to help stem the spread of influenza. The focus of this campaign was the returning of clothing. The Chamber and the merchants were in favor of implementing a policy of no returns allowed for clothing. The thought was that if an influenza patient tried on clothing and then returned it to the retailer, the clothing would be contaminated with influenza and be able to spread the disease”(115). Whether the merchants were entirely ingenuous or wanted to reduce the hassle of merchandise returns is unknown. Ever politic, Roby said he would not officially endorse this new policy, but did urge the public to carefully buy the correct size the first time.
Throughout the epidemic, Roby public persona was composed and not given to extreme reactions. One exception may have been on October 27th when he stated in no uncertain terms that the Health Bureau had “declared war on the spitter and sprayer.” Roby disdained “the cougher, the sneezer or spitter who does not use a handkerchief,” explaining that “the germs do not fly, but may be carried on the breath or sputum when a person with influenza coughs or sneezes.” Roby called the spitter, the sprayer, the cougher and the sneezer, “human atomizers.” Roby went as far as to authorize Health Bureau workers to arrest violators on the spot, emphasizing his point: “The filth and dirt must be cleaned up.”
Finally, on Saturday night November the 9th, 1918, Dr. Roby released a statement:
I feel sure that influenza has almost entirely burned itself out in this city. While there is a chance that it might light up again, that chance is remote, in my opinion. Improvement has been shown almost steadily, and we have nothing more to fear.
Two days later the armistice was proclaimed in Europe.
Rochestarians could celebrate two world disasters coming to an end. For the moment.
¹ Reader Dana Michael writes:
I actually lived on Wilkins Street when I was little so I was very familiar with where little Lenore lived and played during her short life. Just her story alone breaks my heart. Thinking of how she could have been gone in a day and her parents helpless to do anything to stop the influenza. It makes you appreciate how far things have advanced in the medical field but also makes you realize that there are some things that we are still helpless against.
² For more on graves of local pandemic victims, see Jim Memmott’s “1918 grave hints at worldwide woe” (July 15, 2015, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)
Also, on The Rochester Public Library’s new audio/video/image site, Central Casting at RPL, author Patti Giglio reads: “The Main Street Armory and the Spanish flu of 1918; and Rochester`s Fata Morgana”(4/27/20)
On Thursday, May 7th, The Messenger Post, published, “Virus prompts look back to 1918 flu epidemic”, in which Jim Memmott looks back at a Rochester parish house that became a hospital during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.