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The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 Hit Groton Hard

by Deborah E. Johnson
For Americans, involvement in World War I was very brief, lasting only from 1917 to Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. But just before the Armistice in September 1918, another kind of war was fought on the home front as Groton, and then Massachusetts, the nation, and the world, came to grips wIth a pandemic of influenza.
     Some historians now believe that the first cases of influenza entered the country with sailors returning from Europe and landing in Boston. It was the European connection that gave the virus the name Spanish influenza. However, there is little evidence that it actually started in Spain.
     By mid-September the newly built Camp Devens, established to train soldiers from the northeast for combat in Europe, was hit by the fast-moving and deadly virus. Eventually more than 10,000 soldiers and personnel at the camp would be infected and more than 900 would die. While there is no reference to the epidemic in any official town records, there are several entries in the newly created Town Diary, preserved in the Historical Room at the Public Library, that describe the effects of the disease on the townspeople.
     Librarian Emma Blood wrote the following account in longhand: “September 26. 1918. In compliance with the proclamation of the Lieutenant Governor Calvin Coolidge, acting Governor, we are requesting that all public gatherings, parades, etc., now in the process of being carried out-or contemplated, be called off, on account of the influenza conditions throughout the Commonwealth, that theatres, moving picture shows and other places of amusement be closed temporarily and that insofar as the proper authorities consider it advisable that all schools, public, parochial, private, etc. be closed.
     “In a word, it is requested that no gathering of any name or nature that can be possibly avoided during the period of the epidemic, which the medical authorities are doing everything possible to control, shall be held in any sector of the Commonwealth.
     “September 28. 1918. In compliance with an order from the local Board of Health, the halls, library, and churches are closed until further notice. The Kilbourn hospital ... [has] all rooms occupied. Some from the first aid class are assisting. An automobile has been placed at the disposal of the district nurse.
Frank A. Torrey [President of the Groton Woman's Club] received the following telegram from the State House: In accordance with the Governor's request, use every influence possible among your women to have his orders carried out to the strictest degree; namely the closing of pool rooms, bar rooms, auction rooms, churches, schools, soda fountains, halls, and all public meeting places.
     “Columbus Day, 1918. There were no demonstrations to arouse patriotic fervor because of the prevalence of the Spanish influenza.
     “October 21, 1918. Closing ban lifted on halls, churches, schools, and library.
     “November 12, 1918. To celebrate the victory of the Allies. [This was the day after the Armistice was signed; however, it is unclear from the diarist's notes whether any special events were held in Groton.]
     “Thanksgiving. November 28. 1918. In response to the call for a great national liberty sing, the citizens assembled at 4 o'clock at the Odd Fellows Hall .. .. Union Thanksgiving service held at the First Parish Church in the evening of November 24.
     “December 13, 1918. West Groton schools were closed on account of influenza conditions in that section of town.
     “December 18. 1918. Schools closed in Groton.
     “December 19. 1918. Halls, library, and churches closed until further notice from the Board of Health.
     “Christmas. 1918. A tree has been placed near the bandstand [on Gordon Common]. No public Christmas gathering of any kind. Public buildings and churches closed on account of the influenza epidemic.”
     Then as quickly as it had arrived the epidemic was over in Groton. According to Town Diary entries, the Board of Health had permitted public places to open again on January 2, 1919, but on January 13 ordered the schools, churches, the library, and Town Hall to close again briefly.
     The closing ban on public places was finally lifted on February 3, in time for the annual town meeting which "was attended by a large number of the voters [and] the largest budget in the town's history was passed."
     Influenza continued to devastate other parts of the world-by some estimates 20 million in India alone died with 120 million deaths worldwide-but Groton returned to normalcy by spring of 1919.
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