Fear Turns to Panic Amid Epidemic
For many people the terror of the summer of 1916 involved shark attacks along the Jersey Shore, but there was a far more insidious killer striking fear into the population: infantile paralysis, today called polio. It had started in Brooklyn in June, but despite efforts to contain the disease, it had spread rapidly. Since it mainly affected the young, parents fled cities and did whatever they could to protect their children. The Asbury Park Press of July 24 shows just how desperate some were.
“News of the infantile paralysis epidemic reached the American liner St. Paul by wireless in mid-Atlantic. Harold B. White, European representative of Henry Ford, … was on his way to Detroit. … He went at once to Captain Arthur Mills and wanted to know if the St. Paul was to be docked in New York City.
“Captain Mills answered in the affirmative. ‘I have a wife and two children on board,’ said Mr. White, ‘and in my party are the Dickman family, including two children. I urge that you communicate with New York by wireless and find out if we are to be landed in Manhattan.’
“Captain Mills complied with the request, and the reply came back that there was no danger of infection on the pier. … This did not please Mr. White. He was greatly agitated as the vessel steamed up the bay yesterday, and insisted that the destination of the vessel be changed.
“‘I am an American citizen,’ he said to R.R. Mathews, the purser, ‘and insist that means be taken to land us in a place where we will not be exposed to this disease. If the line won’t dock this ship in Hoboken or some other place that is free of this disease, I shall stay aboard until it is done.’
“Mr. White regained his composure later and went on the pier.
“‘I got two certificates from the ships surgeon,’ he said, ‘and shall send the family direct to Asbury Park. I myself am going direct to Detroit.’”
On Aug. 7, the Associated Press reported, “New York, Aug. 7. Today marked the beginning of the sixth week of the epidemic of infantile paralysis and the daily bulletin issued by the Health Department showed that the plague continues unabated.
“Three new cases were reported in Jersey City today.
“An appeal was issued today to persons who had suffered from infantile paralysis and who have recovered to give small quantities of their blood so that a serum could be obtained and administered to those now victims of similar attack. It was stated that this appeal was made at the request of the Department of Health and several physicians who are foremost in the fight against the plague.
“Physicians said that owing to a lack of serum with which to make numerous conclusive tests, its value has not yet been fully proved. … There has been much discussion of this claim and it has been questioned by other physicians.”
As attempts to either contain or cure the epidemic continued, some of the suggestions made seem strange. On the 8th, T.C. Stearns, a Jersey City doctor, wrote the New York Sun saying Socialism was the answer.
“The epidemic of infantile paralysis is due to the clouds of dust which are allowed to permeate every dwelling; again due to incompetence on the part of officials who pose as expert sanitarians. … The only relief possible will come by the assumption of medical control over the individual from the cradle to the grave, which will also imply absolute control of medical practice and the placing of responsibility for medical incompetence where it belongs, instead of burying it with the victims, as at present obtains. It is a pity so many millions will have to die unnecessarily before this will be accomplished.”
Meanwhile, the capitalists on the Jersey Shore had a shortened tourist season to deal with; sharks in July and disease in August weren’t filling the hotels. The Philadelphia Ledger of Aug. 10 carried a story from Atlantic City.
“Rumors which gained wide circulation in this city, to the effect that there were many cases of infantile paralysis in Atlantic City and that the health authorities there had suppressed the news, have been set at rest by a statement issued by a committee of prominent physicians, judges and business men. Only four cases have developed there this summer, the statement declares.
“‘We are, and for the last two months we have been, sparing no expense to protect our visitors and ourselves. The only thing we have not been doing is talking, and we are only talking now in order that people may know that we are and have been acting.’
“Only one of the four cases described as infantile paralysis was definitely diagnosed. Poliomyelitis was suspected, however, in the other three other cases.
“‘We have absolute confidence that there are and have been no other cases in Atlantic City,’ the statement reads.”
Hopes of a quick end to the epidemic in New Jersey were shattered when papers across the country carried, “New Jersey’s quarantine against infantile paralysis will be in effect tomorrow. State health authorities late today conferred with special inspectors as to their duties when stationed at the various terminal points to exclude children under 16 years of age without certificates from entering the state.
“Discretion in dealing with persons who resist the orders of the state authorities was urged, although the state department promises to prosecute violations of its orders.”
These regulations included “No child under 16 years of age shall enter the State of New Jersey from any other State, Territory, or country unless such child is accompanied by a certificate issued by a competent health authority, stating that said child has not resided in a dwelling or other building in which a case of infantile paralysis is known to have existed within a period of two weeks preceding the date of such certificate, and stating that said child is not known to have been exposed to infections; or that such child has recovered from infantile paralysis and has been regularly discharged by the health authorities of the district in which it was under quarantine; or that said child, having been exposed to infantile paralysis, has been kept under observation by the health authorities of the municipality in which it resides for at least two weeks after exposure, and has been regularly discharged by said health authorities.”
Checkpoints would be set up to enforce the rules.
“No common carrier shall bring into the State of New Jersey, except for continuous transportation through the State, any child under 16 years of age unless said child shall be accompanied by a certificate as provided for in regulation. … In case such a child coming from any point without the State of New Jersey shall be found upon a train … it shall be the duty of the common carrier by whom such child is being transported to send a telegram to the State department of health within three hours from the time such child leaves the train in this State, stating the name, age, sex, color and the name of the parent or guardian of such.”
The New Jersey Courier of Toms River commented, “It is now forbidden, for instance, for a child living on South Main Street, Berkeley, to cross the bridge to come to the post office after its father’s mail, or for a Toms River boy to go to Beachwood for a bath. Trains and boats are forbidden to carry children under the age limit of 16 years.”
Things seemed to be spiraling out of control. The same day New Jersey started its quarantine, the Philadelphia Ledger reported, “Philadelphia is going to have an epidemic of sick parents as a result of the infantile paralysis ‘scare’ if the parents are not careful, according to Dr. Wilmer Krusen, Director of Public Health and Charities, who says that the fathers and mothers have become panicky and hysterical as a result of the infantile paralysis situation.
“‘Parents have become much frightened by the situation,’ said Doctor Krusen, ‘and the first thing that we know there is going to be an epidemic of nervous parents, which will be as bad as the infantile paralysis situation itself. People have actually become panicky.’”
The parents didn’t get any relief. The Asbury Park Press of Aug. 19 stated, “DISEASE NOW IN 38 STATES. Number of Cases in Country 11,117, Health Officers Report, but New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania Are the Worst Infected. Plans for a nation wide fight on infantile paralysis are being considered at a conference called by the public health service and health officials from almost every state in the Union. … Secretary of the Treasury McAdoo expressed hope for federal and state co-ordination of preventive measures and regulations. ‘Local regulations are of great variety and, while entirely commendatory, co-ordination of regulations is needed to avoid unnecessary inconveniences and still give adequate protection to the public,’ he said.”
Even government officials were starting to show signs of stress, and the Ledger reported the next day, “The body of a child who died of infantile paralysis in New York was barred today from this state by Dr. Samuel G. Dixon, Health Commissioner of Pennsylvania.
“In spite of remonstrances of the persons who wished to ship the body to Philadelphia for burial, Doctor Dixon was firm in his refusal, saying in no circumstances would he allow such a body to be brought into Pennsylvania until cold weather sets in.
“The body is that of James Steele, 10 years old, only son of Mrs. James D. Steele. … (T)he boy, who was a student at St. Luke’s School, Wayne, died shortly before midnight, after having been ill three days. His father, who died eight years ago, was a widely known physician, attached to the staffs of the University, Presbyterian and other hospitals in this city.
“Charles Seuart, an Ardmore undertaker, commissioned by relatives here to bring the body home, was refused permission to have the body shipped from New York.”
Pennsylvania officials seemed to have found a way to stop the spread of infantile paralysis. According to the Ledger of the 21st, “Cats as probable carriers of infantile … Scientific warfare against cats, which he suspects of spreading the plague, was advocated by James F. McCrudden, chief of the division of housing and sanitation. His stand was commended by Dr. Samuel G. Dixon, State Health Commissioner, who declared that cats spread infantile paralysis for it is known they have communicated diphtheria and scarlet fever.”
He continued, “On one occasion in an infected district I saw a house being fumigated, with a policeman at the front door and another at the backdoor, to prevent any one leaving. … Then out walked two big dirty, black cats, and ran into the house next door. Now, who knows how many germs those cats carried with them?”
There’s a fine line between fear, terror and panic, and as the summer of 1916 was drawing to a close, it appeared parents and the government were moving past terror toward panic.
Next Week: Cool weather at last.