In August, 1918, Commonwealth Pier - today's World Trade Center - was a bustling place, with hundreds of sailors arriving there to await their permanent assignments for the "Great War" that the US had entered the year before.
Sometime on Aug. 27 or 28, two sailors reported, yes, flu-like symptoms. Within days, more and more sailors fell ill - 100 by the end of the week. Some wound up at the Chelsea Naval Hospital at death's door - their skin blue from lack of oxygen and covered in purple lesions - even as naval brass tried to downplay what was happening as just some routine grippe, not the far deadlier Spanish Influenza.
Within a couple of weeks, though, the disease had spread into Boston - aided, perhaps, by A Win the War for Freedom parade through the city that included 1,000 sailors from the pier.
By early September, city and state officials tried what turned out to be pretty ineffective steps to stop the spread. On Sept. 11, the Boston Post reported the city health commissioner ordered a roundup of people seen spitting on trolleys and sidewalks. His deputies urged local women to stop kissing their Navy sweethearts. Wellesley College banned its students from visiting Boston naval bases - and forbid its students from bringing any sailors onto campus.
Death notices began appearing in the local papers. The Globe reported on a Quincy teen who died just two days after falling ill:
QUINCY, Sept. 12 - The first death from "Spanish influenza" in this city was reported today. The victim was Daniel F. McDougall, 16-year-old son of Mrs. Bridget McDougall of 7 Bryant av., West Quincy. The boy was taken sick Tuesday and died this afternoon. The death was reported by Dr. T.J. Dion as due to "Spanish influenza." The McDougall boy had worked in a South Braintree shoe factory and was quite strong until taken ill.
On Sept. 17, the Globe reported:
With nearly 200 cases to handle, the City Hospital doctors yesterday resorted to masks to minimize the danger of falling victim themselves. Since early last week, a number of physicians are reported to have suffered more or less from the contagion and one of the best-known doctors in the city, Thomas F. Leen, died yesterday at Carney Hospital due to overwork in the treatment of grippe patients.
The Charles Street jail was shut to visitors as guards set up impromptu infirmaries for all the sick inmates.
On Sept. 25, Boston closed its public schools.
On Sept. 27, as an epidemic raged to the west at Fort Devens, the Post reported:
By the end of September, some 1,000 Bostonians had died - many of them, like Daniel McDougall, young and seemingly healthy, exactly the sort of people who would normally fend off the flu.
The folks at the Boston National Historic Park report the emergence of a child's skipping poem:
I had a little bird
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window, And in-flu-enza.
More on Boston and the 1918 flu epidemic.
A podcast on Boston and the pandemic.
More photos from the Commonwealth Pier naval facility (photo used under this Creative Commons license).
Newspaper accounts via the BPL Historical Newspapers links (requires a BPL card or Massachusetts residency to use).