On the afternoon of Sept. 28, 1918, about 200,000 people crammed onto the sidewalks in Philadelphia to watch a two-mile parade snake through downtown in the midst of World War I. Billed as the city’s largest parade ever, it featured military planes and aggressive war-bond salesmen working the crowds, in scenes that graced the front pages of the evening papers.

Spanish flu quaratine

Hospitals could not handle the number of people who were infected.

But readers who flipped toward the back of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin might have stumbled on an unsettling headline: In the last 24 hours, 118 people in Philadelphia had come down with a mysterious, deadly influenza, which was quickly spreading from military camps to civilians amid a worldwide pandemic.

“If the people are careless, thousands of cases may develop and the epidemic may get beyond control,” the city’s health commissioner, Wilmer Krusen, said at the time.

He was the same person who, just a day earlier, allowed to go forward what is now known as the deadliest parade in American history. In doing so, he ignored the advice of medical professionals who urged him to cancel the parade or risk an epidemic.

Within three days, every bed in the city’s 31 hospitals was filled. There were thousands of influenza patients.

A century later, as the novel coronavirus grips Canada and the United States with anxiety and disrupts everyday life, Philadelphia’s 1918 Liberty Loan parade “is a perfect historic example of how the misplaced priorities can become so dangerous,” historian Kenneth C. Davis told The Washington Post on Wednesday.

This week, major cities including Philadelphia, New York and Chicago decided to cancel their St. Patrick’s Day parades amid fears of accelerating the spread of coronavirus.

Davis said he was “astonished” it took New York until Wednesday night to make that call, given the cautionary tale of Philadelphia’s deadly Liberty Loan parade.

“It seemed to me to be a perfect parallel to the story of what happened in Philadelphia in 1918, where the health authorities were clearly aware that this was a growing problem, and the health commissioner was absolutely told to stop the parade.

“But he chose not to.”

Spanish flu nurses

Nurses drove ambulances around the clock recovering bodies from homes.

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, including about 675,000 in the United States. But no American city was hit harder than Philadelphia.

In retrospect, historians and the federal government have blamed the city’s explosion of influenza infections in 1918 on city officials’ failure to quickly shut down mass gatherings — namely the parade.

Health officials were aware of the risks. The signs were there in the days before the big event.

Ontario made the right decision when it declared a State of Emergency earlier today.
spanish flu mass grave

Mass graves were prepared for the thousands who died.

“With the flu pandemic at its peak, St. Louis decided to cancel its parade, while Philadelphia chose to continue. The next month, more than 10,000 people in Philadelphia died from pandemic flu, while the death toll in Saint Louis did not rise above 700,” the CDC noted.

“This deadly example shows the benefit of canceling mass gatherings and employing social distancing measures during pandemics.”

In announcing the first death believed to be the result of a COVID-19 infection the Medical Officer of Health for Ontario said: “This death is further evidence of the increasingly seriousness of the situation we are in, which is why the province has been taking decisive steps to manage the spread of COVID-19 in Ontario.”