ST. LOUIS • On Oct. 5, 1918, the city health department issued this warning: “Avoid persons with colds.”
Dr. Max C. Starkloff, health commissioner, knew that wasn’t nearly enough. Two days later, with Mayor Henry Kiel’s strong backing, he issued an emergency order closing schools, theaters, pool halls, playgrounds and other public places. Starkloff quickly added churches and taverns, and restricted attendance at funerals. Streetcars were limited to seated passengers.
The strategy was known as “social distancing,” and the motive was to fight the Spanish flu that was sweeping the world. The misnamed influenza would kill many more people than the ghastly meat-grinder known as the Great War.
The order was extreme, but it worked — St. Louis’ death rate was the lowest among major American cities.
On the day Starkloff and Kiel announced the order, two soldiers died of the virus at Jefferson Barracks, the likely origin of the local outbreak. Six more died there the next day, and eight civilians died at St. Louis City Hospital. In two days, the number of local cases doubled to 1,150 patients.
Most survived, but some died within a day of infection. It was especially hard on young adults, whose robust immune systems could go into deadly overdrive.
Among the victims was U.S. Rep. Jacob Meeker, who married his secretary, Alice Redmon, in Jewish Hospital, seven hours before he died Oct. 16. Meeker had toured Jefferson Barracks six days before.
The disease got its name because of high death rates in Spain, but it probably originated at Fort Riley, Kan., and hitched to Europe with the doughboys to the Western Front. It ravaged its way through the trenches. With all the killing already underway, the epidemic wasn’t noticed soon enough.
Kiel and Starkloff enforced their quarantine with vigor. Police arrested defiant barkeeps. Colleges and high schools canceled football games. Judges told officers not to arrest people on “trivial” matters, lest sick people infect others in holdover cells.
Business owners howled to City Hall, but city welfare director John Schmoll said, “It is a case of get the dollars and lose lives or save the lives and lose the dollars.” Kiel said he backed Starkloff because, “I do not want a single soul to die.”
In Europe, the war was surging to an exhausted conclusion. On Nov. 9, Starkloff expanded the list of closings. But two days later — Armistice Day — people poured into the streets in jubilation.
The city allowed schools to reopen a few days later and lifted the quarantine Nov. 18. But cases rebounded, and Starkloff again closed schools and banned gatherings such as dances and banquets. The epidemic peaked here Dec. 10, with 60 deaths from flu, then began losing its fury. In the first week of January 1919, the death total was 16.
In the last three months of 1918, flu and flu-related pneumonia killed almost 3,000 St. Louisans. The city’s death rate was the lowest among the nation’s 10 largest cities. It was less than half the rates in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
East St. Louis, which followed St. Louis’ example, recorded 342 deaths. Belleville, which didn’t, had one of the highest rates in Illinois.
The pandemic probably killed about 670,000 people in the United States. Worldwide, estimates have ranged from 20 million to 40 million. The butcher’s bill for World War I was 8.5 million.
Editor’s note: Corrects the number of St. Louisans killed by the flu in 1918.
Tim O'Neil is a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact him at 314-340-8132 or firstname.lastname@example.org