There were no pandemic press conferences in Trenton in 1918.
Gov. Walter Evans Edge made newspaper headlines that fall, but not for briefings on the Spanish flu outbreak sweeping through the state.
Edge said in mid-October that fighting the pandemic was at the forefront of his activities. But meanwhile, he made news primarily for promoting war bonds, opening a naval rifle range in Caldwell and running for the U.S. Senate.
When directly asked of his priorities, Edge said he “would let the voters of New Jersey use their own judgement, which they will do anyway,” newspapers reported on Oct. 18, a month into the state’s Spanish flu outbreak.
By then, a statewide shutdown of common gathering places had been in effect for more than a week.
Though a similar edict came in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic took hold here, the 1918 decision wasn’t made through executive order. It didn’t even come from the governor’s office.
The edict closing movie theaters, saloons and churches came in a notification from the state Board of Health, specifically its director, Dr. Jacob Price.
The move to shut entertainment spots and other gathering places allowed Edge to avoid controversy amid his Senate campaign. It also exposed a key weakness in the board’s powers, when Price’s mandate found resistance in the state’s largest city.
Newark Mayor Charles Gillen was of the mind that the sick should just stay home and did little to prepare or combat the outbreak, said Jennifer Harmsen, an educator, author and historian who led an Oct. 2019 lecture at NJPAC in Newark History Society’s panel series. The city’s first actions were nonetheless pertinent by modern standards, she said.
“When you look at Gillen’s initial response to influenza, they seem OK… and they actually are,” she said. “But I caution that they are his only responses to influenza.”
Looking back at 1918 pandemic from our vantage point in 2020 affirms the benefits of early action to impose quarantines and shut down schools and mass gatherings, said Olga Jonas, senior fellow at the Harvard Global Health Institute. The comparison also shows the value of listening to experts, investing in prevention and disseminating accurate information, she recently told The Harvard Gazette.
“A lesson we should remember is that governments have the responsibility to prepare for a pandemic; they have the obligation to invest in public health systems to protect their citizens from both the threat and the reality of the next pandemic,” Jonas said. “As we now know, a pandemic is not just a health issue; it has serious economic impacts.”
In Newark, Gillen’s administration created a commission of physicians, launched a public information campaign and made influenza a reportable illness before the state did, Stuart Galishoff wrote in his 1969 essay for the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Public transportation cabins were disinfected daily. Masks were distributed, he wrote.
Still, when the state edict went into effect on Monday, Oct. 7, Gillen wasn’t willing to fully comply. On Oct. 10, he issued an order allowing the city’s more than 1,000 saloons to keep side doors open for wine and hard-liquor buyers with doctor’s prescriptions, Harmsen said.
The easily exploited prescription loophole was dangerous to public health but there was some logic to it, she said. Prohibition was looming.
“He’s thinking ‘OK, if we close the saloons now, they may never reopen.’ And he’s not about to stand for that,” Harmsen said.
‘He wanted the limelight’
As Price called the outbreak the greatest emergency the state had ever confronted, Gillen countered. Shutting down the saloons was bad for public health, he argued. He then took over the dissemination of the influenza numbers, effectively commandeering the city’s health office.
“It is Gillen who wanted to show that he had Newark’s influenza situation under control, and it is because Gillen wanted the limelight, Harmsen said.
Keeping the virus under control, however, had already proved difficult for even the most disciplined.
The virus in New Jersey spread from the state’s military camps. The most notable in New Jersey was Camp Dix, though Bergen County’s Camp Merritt had its own outbreak that caused hundreds of deaths.
Camp Dix, now a full-fledged fort, saw its first cases on Sept. 15, military records show. The outbreak would peak with 4,025 in the base hospital on Sept. 26. The next day, Major Gen. Hugh Lenox Scott restricted runs outside the camp, ordered all utensils boiled and mandated masks in the barracks for all soldiers with coughs or colds.
The uptick in cases forced Price to announce that the disease had become “unusually prevalent.” Measures had been taken at Camp Dix over the prior 10 days to reduce the spread, records show. But they proved questionable. Scott ordered overcoats issued, fires built in all barracks and soldiers to rinse their mouths each day with an iodine or salt solution.
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Fearing a spread, communities throughout New Jersey began cooperative efforts to convert buildings into hospitals prior to the state shutdown. Some even ordered their own closures.
By Oct. 5, when the state Board of Health mandated that influenza cases be reported to track the spread, Paterson, New Brunswick and Camden had already ordered closures of select public places.
“Unfortunately, not in Newark,” Harmsen said.
Although more than 500 cases were reported on Oct. 21, Gillen revoked the quarantine without state approval. There were 18,000 reported cases and more than 800 deaths in the city by then.
The pandemic would ultimately play its part in the death of nearly 1,400 in Newark, according to the February 1919 edition of Health Bulletin. The total represented nearly a tenth of the statewide count.
“Gillen was playing politics of disease,” Harmsen said. “The story shows how the actions of one individual could have determined the fate of many.”
State officials cited a 1902 act when defending the Board of Health’s ability to compel local boards to help restrict the spread of disease. However, by the end of October, the state Attorney General’s Office released guidance saying the state Board of Health could not order municipalities to comply with a quarantine shutdown. Gillen subsequently called for Price’s dismissal.
Despite the legal issues, board members felt the shutdowns were justified, and the public was behind their decision, the Asbury Park Press reported. The board ended New Brunswick’s quarantine on Oct. 24, but kept cities such as Camden under extended quarantines through early November.
Before the end of October, the board would nonetheless call for legislation to shore up its powers.
A bill was introduced late that fall that would have allowed the state’s Health Department to compel municipal governments to abide by quarantine regulations. However, the bill failed due to opposition from representatives of Hudson and Essex, where Jersey City and Newark lie, area newspapers reported.
Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, the iconic political boss, also questioned Price’s ability to shut down his city.
Hague’s son contracted the disease in September, and the mayor demanded outbreak precautions in early October. Still, churches were reported to have stayed open during the pandemic and many of the city’s gathering spaces reopened prior to receiving Board of Health approval.
Despite the pandemic’s prevalence through early November, state records and newspapers feature no mentions of postponing the mid-term election.
Voters were pictured lined up in masks. Still, the midterm election saw roughly 40% of eligible voters cast ballots compared to more than 50% in 1914 and 1910.
How much of that could be chalked up to the pandemic remains a question due to the concurrence of America’s military involvement in World War I.
David Zimmer is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.