A memorial in St. Stanislaus Cemetery in Shaler commemorates the victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic. (Emily Matthews/Post-Gazette)
It was not uncommon for both parents in a family to die from the deadly flu, leaving orphans. The state government tried to tally and take care of the children. On Dec. 18, Pennsylvania officials said the virus had orphaned at least 45,000 children in the state and left thousands more with only one parent.
Flu decimates a North Side family, as reported in The Pittsburgh Press, Oct. 31, 1918, page 18. (Post-Gazette archives)
In Pittsburgh, a North Side millworker, 43, his wife, 42, and 3-year-old daughter died in less than a week, leaving two sons, 6 and 12, in the hospital and three other children in the care of an aunt.
The Rosalia Foundling Asylum at Cliff and Manilla streets in the Hill District appealed to the public to adopt Babette Mignon, whose mother had died of the flu when the baby was 6 months old and whose father couldn’t be found. “She has been pronounced by the custodians of the home as one of the most beautiful children ever sheltered there,” according to a page 2 story in Pittsburgh’s Gazette-Times, a forerunner to the Post-Gazette.
In Altoona, a man, his wife and her brother comprising the whole family died within a week. In Juniata, now part of Altoona, a husband died on a Friday, his wife the following Sunday, and their 6-year-old daughter was still sick. Also in Altoona, a man and two of his sons died within three days while his wife, a daughter and another son lay ill.
A 12-year-old seriously ill with the disease wandered in a daze from his Hill District home to 17th Street and Penn Avenue in the Strip District, where a patrolman found him and sent him to St. Francis Hospital in Lawrenceville, where UPMC Children’s Hospital is now.
The Rosalia Foundling Asylum in the Hill District tries to find a guardian for a baby orphaned by the flu, as reported in the Gazette Times, Nov. 15, 1918, page 2. (Post-Gazette archives)
A Dec. 18, 1918, article in The Pittsburgh Press, Dec. 18, 1918, page 18, cites the number of Pennsylvania children orphaned by the flu. (Post-Gazette archives)
The divorce of a McKean couple was not granted because the husband had to prove his wife had deserted him, but all the witnesses were unavailable: One died in World War I, one was serving in the army, and the two others had died of the flu. At the time, Pennsylvania only allowed divorce in cases where one person was at fault, which required witness statements and other proof.
A police officer found a 12-year-old wandering around Downtown in a daze from illness, according to this page 6 item of the Oct. 27, 1918, Pittsburgh Post. (Post-Gazette archives)
The (Harrisburg) Evening News reported a shortage of coffins on Oct. 23, 1918, page 1. (Newspapers.com)
A Homestead man believed to be mentally damaged by the flu shot and killed himself.
In Harrisburg, a railroad conductor, 34, died while his wife was giving birth to twins. The babies died less than two hours later. The mother lay in critical condition, knowing that the infants were dead but asking for her husband, whose death doctors were trying to keep from her. The couple had three other children, ages 6, 8 and 10.
A man and his newborn twins die within moments of each other, according to this page 1 article in the Oct. 17, 1918, (Harrisburg) Evening News.
Deaths came so quickly that communities ran out of coffins. A hundred had to be rushed to Wheeling, W.Va. Harrisburg undertakers said they were holding bodies for up to eight days waiting for coffins and that they might have to start using wooden boxes or sheets.
There was such a shortage of gravediggers that one man in Harrisburg had to dig his own wife’s grave so the funeral could take place at the scheduled time. In Tioga County, 11 baby flu victims were buried in a mass grave.
The virus spared no one, especially people between the ages of 20 and 40. This pattern is not well understood. Usually, flu viruses tend to kill the very young and the very old.
The Allegheny County jail warden fell critically ill. Eight Pittsburgh public school teachers died. On one newspaper page, more than two columns of small type listed all the professional athletes the epidemic had killed. In one instance, about 20 firefighters from three companies in the same building on Eighth Street were out with the virus, leaving just one captain to handle the day shift.
Western Pennsylvania doctors and nurses left the region to tend the afflicted in Boston and Philadelphia or wherever they were needed. These front-line workers suffered with their patients. Two young nurses from Mount Oliver and Johnstown fell ill while working at the former Columbia Hospital in Wilkinsburg and later died. The hospital, at Penn Avenue between West Street and South Tremont Avenue, is now the Pennwood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.