Pandemics have stirred the imaginations of storytellers forever.
Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, and Albert Camus’ The Plague were all inspired by these deadly outbreaks. So when my sheltered-in-place, 11-year-old grandchildren recently sent me a video they’d created during this coronavirus outbreak, it was, unsurprisingly, spooky.
In it, my grandson plays a zombie, a courier of death lurking in the shadows, concocting ways to terrorize his twin sister.
Mesmerizing as the production was, this homemade horror’s real attraction was that it resurrected a memory of a similarly macabre story from an earlier pandemic, a family tale also passed between grandparent and grandchild.
My great-grandfather, James Wilford Houseman, was for a time a Center City mortician. He operated out of his home, a narrow rowhouse at 311 S. Camac St.
When I was about the age my grandchildren are now, my grandmother recounted a story about her father’s business that took place during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19. That virulent outbreak killed 16,000 Philadelphians in its first six weeks.
A century ago, the deaths came so fast that morgues, cemeteries, and funeral homes like my great-grandfather’s couldn’t keep pace. In some Philadelphia neighborhoods, flu deaths became so commonplace that survivors sometimes wrapped the contagious corpses of recently deceased relatives in sheets and set them out on their front porches, as if disposing of litter. Then city work crews, utilizing converted garbage trucks, collected the bodies.
According to my grandmother, her father typically dressed the corpses in the front room of their little house. But during that pandemic, bodies were arriving so quickly that he ran out of room there. And as the dead overflowed the parlor, he started to utilize the dining room.
Because the 1918-19 flu literally drowned its victims, some of the ailing spent their final hours seated upright in chairs, hoping in vain that it would make breathing easier than if they were prone in their beds. Some died that way, and before their bodies were discovered and moved, rigor mortis took hold.
In order to straighten those rigid corpses for proper viewings, my grandmother said, her father frequently had to tie them down on his dining-room table.
Somehow, my skittish teenage grandmother and her siblings learned to live with the deceased intruders, maneuvering deftly around the bodies that shared their home as if skiing through a dangerous slalom course.
One night, she and her youngest sister arrived home late. The rest of the family was in bed and the corpse-littered downstairs was dark and foreboding. Tiptoeing, holding their breath, reciting silent prayers, the girls made their way through the ghoulish minefield en route to the steps.
Suddenly, just as my grandmother sidled alongside the table, the ropes binding one corpse gave way. The upper portion of a dead body sprang up to greet her like one of those ogres that pop up unexpectedly in amusement-park haunted houses.
“I screamed so loud,” she remembered, “they could hear me in West Philadelphia.”
Her father awoke and was more than a little amused by what had happened. I don’t know if that night was the impetus, but he eventually got out of the mortuary racket and found a job as a clerk in a no less frightening environment, Municipal Court.
For the rest of her long life, my grandmother was jumpy and easily frightened. If one of her descendants, for example, had to drive in the rain, she fretted as if they were bound for war.
A few years ago, my wife and I were on Camac Street and we stopped outside 311. The current owner saw us, struck up a conversation, and invited us inside.
He gave us a quick tour of the cozy residence once occupied by my great-grandparents, their seven children and countless corpses. I don’t remember much about it, except that as we passed through the dining room, I shut my eyes.