October: The Month from Hell

page 1033 of Ontario Sessional Papers, 1919, No.26-41 Public Domain

If you lived in Toronto in the fall of 1918, you probably had a great sense of hope for a better future. The Great War to end all Wars seemed to be coming to an end. The Allied forces, including Canadian battalions, were sweeping back Germans along the Western Front.

Canadians returning victorious from The Battle of Courcelette, September 1916, Library and Archives Canada

Yet the men in the trenches were worn out. Casualties, both dead and wounded, were still high. The country was split over conscription and recruitment and training were ongoing. Men packed into military camps and aboard troop ships to Europe just as returning soldiers, mostly wounded, packed ships heading home.

First aid being rendered to wounded at Courcelette September 1916

Conditions for civilians “Over There” were horrendous as refugees tramped the roads, families cowered in basements and starvation stalked the towns and countryside.

The Survey April-September 1920, p 350 Public Domain

And rumours of a new mystery illness had been appearing in letters from overseas and in the newspapers since the previous winter. China was diving into an epidemic and sick soldiers were beginning to die — Americans, British, Canadians, Australians, Indians, Africans, Russians, Germans, Austrians, Italians. The new illness seemed to be a form of the flu that once it took hold often progressed to a deadly pneumonia in an age without antivirals or antibiotics.

Globe, Jan. 5, 1918
Globe, January 17, 1918

In Toronto, cases of pneumonia began to appear here and there in the papers. Often the victims were young and healthy with no preexisting conditions. These cases were not yet identified as influenza. But those who read the paper knew something dark was on the horizon. The military would be the vector, flu’s main line across the globe and to Toronto.

Flu kills Ulster team player Toronto Star May 13 1918
Riverdale Camp, 1915
Camp Kosciuszko, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Flu in Polish camp at Niagara Globe, Sept. 18, 1918

In mid September cases of influenza began to appear among the Polish soldiers at the Canadian Military training camp at Niagara-on-the-Lake. “Lieut.-Col. Le Pan does not anticipate any serious results from the epidemic.” Authorities seem to take the deaths of Josef Zabezyk and Kazinners Kolonaki, both Polish Americans, the first deaths, lightly. But were officials simply trying to reassure the public? This was wartime and the army authorities knew full well what was going on in Europe. Propaganda was “part and parcel” of war.

Some propaganda was worse than others,: a lot of it was sexist and much of it was racist, though Canadians of European ancestry wouldn’t have seen it that way at the time. Indigenous people maybe not so much. I wonder what the Cree syllabics say.

A week later the flu was in Toronto, but no deaths had yet been identified. Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Charles Hastings, offered guidelines to help prevent infection and spread of the new illness. Some are familiar to us 103 years later: avoid crowds, wash your hands, get outside (breathe pure air). Others seem downright weird: breath through your nose, chew your food well, “don’t let the waste products of digestion accumulate” (don’t be full of shit), avoid tight shoes. But the Pandemic of 2020-2022 offers advice just as useless and more dangerous: inject yourself with chlorine bleach, take pills vets prescribe for cows and horses, don’t get the COVID vaccine, diagnose and prescribe for yourself and your family, etc.

Toronto Star, Sept 23, 1918
Toronto Star, Sept 23, 1918

By September, Toronto had its first official flu death. Some schools were in quarantine as were some military centres in the city. Dr. George W. Ross was prescient.

Keep Away From Coughers Take No Chances, Cough Drop ad to prevent flu, Public Domain

People tried everything they could think of including cough drops to prevent getting the flu. They opened windows on streetcars and in homes, but dark jokes began to spread.

We opened the winda

And in flu Enza.

Masks were initially not recommended and then medical recommended them and soon political authorities mandated them. And some resisted.

Illustrated Current News, 1918, Collection National Library of Medicine Public Domain
Public Domain

Growth was exponential as Toronto entered the October from Hell.

Triaging in Toronto, Vancouver Daily World, Oct. 7, 1918
Flu makes orphan Ivy Avenue, Toronto Star, Oct. 11, 1918

October 12, 1918 Toronto’s Day from Hell

By October 12, the hospitals were triaging, turning away patients they thought might have a chance of survival or just accepting patients on a first-come-first-served basis. Doctors and nurses were not seeing those we would think would be least likely to survive: elderly, frail people and young children and infants. Those who were dying were, overwhelmingly, young and healthy men and women, in all neighbourhoods including older areas in the East End such as Riverside, Leslieville and Todmorden and new neighbourhoods spreading across the farm fields of the Ashbridges, Charles Coxwell Small, the Sammons, Cosburns and others. Even the new cottage communities along the Beach were not spared.

October 12, 1918, Toronto’s Day from Hell, began.

Influenza spreads across Toronto, Influenza deaths Toronto Star, Oct. 12, 1918
Some of the many deaths from influenza at the Niagara Military Camp and the Toronto General Hospital on College Street.

Like now, there simply were not enough trained and qualified doctors, nurses and other staff to care for the seriously ill. Voluntary in this case did not mean unpaid. Those doing the hands-on work of cleaning, feeding, and caring were then and now paid low wages and themselves falling prey to the Pandemic of their time.

Appeal for Volunteers Flu Toronto Star Oct 12 1918
The Gazette, Oct. 12, 1918

A temporary lockdown began.

Lockdown begins, Dr. Hastings, Toronto’s Chief Medial Officer, The Gazette, Oct. 12, 1918
Deaths rise Toronto, The Gazette, Oct. 12, 1918

Dr. Hastings arranged for supplies and beds for overflow facilities. Big business began to move to combat the Pandemic.

No more movies, The Gazette, Oct. 12, 1918
Calgary Herald, Oct. 12, 1918

Even the deeply religious no longer relied on prayer alone.

Baptist Convention cancelled The Gazette, Oct. 12, 1918 1
Record of influenza death at the Niagara Military Camp, October 13, 1918, Burial at St. John of Norway Cemetery

This man kept Thanksgiving by travelling to Toronto and playing billiards on arrival. He read the newspapers…and caught a chill.

Diary entries of Edward G.R. Ardagh, October 14-17, 1918, Archives of Ontario Public Domain
Globe, October 15, 1918

More emergency measures put in places and more volunteers called for.

Toronto Star, October 16, 1918
Ontario Emergency Volunteer Health Auxiliary, October 16, 1918 Archives of Ontario Public Domain

People began confronting those who refused to wear masks in public.

The Evening Star, October 16, 1918 Public Domain

A vaccine was available at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Dr. Mayo wasn’t sure if his jab would work for everyone and seemed unaware of side effects when he said, “We are not absolutely sure, except that we know the inoculation can do no harm.” Facilities couldn’t make it fast enough to give everyone the vaccine, but Dr. William James Mayo downplayed the flu, reassuring those who couldn’t get it or couldn’t afford it. Dr. Michael Mayo treats COVID patients today.

Influenza vaccine, Mayo Clinic, Toronto Star, October 16, 1918

You could buy insurance against influenza, but how high were the premiums?

Toronto Star, October 16, 1918
Globe, October 18, 1918

People quickly came up with new and supposedly improved masks.

Flu mask, Globe, October 18, 1918 Montreal inventor
Toronto Daily Star, 23 Oct 1918 chart

And the numbers continued to rise, but, like now, statistics were hard to gather. But arrangements could be made for free delivery of free sup0plies to the home.

Toronto Daily Star, 23 Oct 1918

Quack cures and fake news abounded, mostly by word-of-mouth. Although the main stream media accepted ads like this, reporters were careful to adhere to the journalistic standards of the day. By and large, their stories were accurate.

Toronto Daily Star, 23 Oct 1918 false news remedy

A lot of people repurposed their Ultra-Violet home machines in 2020-2021. They bought them to disinfect the tubing, parts and masks of their CPAP machines safely and quickly. But many CPAP machines were also repurposed to become ventilators with new computer chips and the addition of oxygen.

Ultra violet machine, Globe, October 28, 1918

They believed the First Wave had crested and November would be better.

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Published by Leslieville Historical Society

Welcome to the Leslieville Historical Society's website. Please feel free to join us, to ask questions, to attend walking tours and other events, and to celebrate Leslieville's past while creating our future. Guy Anderson, President, Leslieville Historical Society and Joanne Doucette, local historian and webmaster.

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