One hundred and one years ago from Saturday, a war-bond parade brought 200,000 happy people to Philadelphia.

In the weeks after, Philadelphians were dying at an alarmingly high rate.

The 1918-19 influenza pandemic swept through the city, killing over 20,000 Philadelphians in total. Those victims are finally being honored in an interactive parade on Saturday, Sept. 28, as part of the Mutter Museum’s examination the pandemic.

The “Spit Spreads Death” parade is an interactive parade that anyone can participate in. Start with the parade at Marconi Plaza or join in at any place along the route. The parade itself kicks off the events surrounding the Mutter’s exhibit of the same name, which opens Oct. 17.

Here’s what you should know ahead of the parade.

Flu 101

How did this flu even begin?

The deaths began in August of 1918, but weren’t really noticeable statistically for a couple of weeks. By September, there was an uptick in fatalities, and savvy doctors knew that the city had been infected by a deadly influenza virus.

By October the devastation was palpable. On one day, Oct. 12, 800 citizens died of the flu, the most fatalities in a single day of the epidemic, and for the next six weeks, one Philadelphian died of the flu every five minutes. By the time the contagion evaporated in March (no one knows why), it had claimed 20,000 lives.

Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas, probably early 1918 (NCP 1603)
OHA 250: New Contributed Photographs Collection, Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine
Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas, probably early 1918 (NCP 1603)

The disease probably entered the city with already-infected sailors at the Navy Yard, and it has long been thought that it received a major boost from a massive war-bond parade on Sept. 28, 1918. While there is a noticeable spike in the number of flu deaths after that date, it is difficult to attribute them directly to the massive turnout.

How to join

Parade-goers are actively encouraged participate in the parade. Those who wish to participate can sign up at SpitSpreadsDeath.com. While there, select a victim that died as a result of the influenza pandemic to represent in the parade (registration will also be available onsite).

If you stumble upon the parade as you’re passing by or can’t march for the whole route, that’s OK, too. Hop in whenever and wherever you can. Any participation is encouraged, even if you can only march for 10 or 15 minutes.

How to prepare

Charge up your phone before you arrive. Phones are a crucial part of the parade. If you have one, bring a portable charger with you as well.

Anti-spitting sign posted on top of Fourth Liberty Loan sign, probably on Market Street, with Philadelphia City Hall in background, October 1918
From “What the Health Department Has Done to Curb the Epidemic of Influenza,” Monthly Bulletin of the Department of Public Health and Charities of the City of Philadelphia, vol. 3, nos. 10–11 (October–November 1918). Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Anti-spitting sign posted on top of Fourth Liberty Loan sign, probably on Market Street, with Philadelphia City Hall in background, October 1918

What to wear

Participants and parade-watchers can dress in their regular clothes. Any nurses, doctors, or other health-care professionals are encouraged to participate in their uniforms.

What to expect

As participants march up Broad Street, they will carry their cellphones while playing an original score composed by Oscar-nominated David Lang and sung by the Philadelphia choir the Crossing. The score includes a list of names of victims who died on Oct. 12, 1918, the deadliest day of the pandemic.

Marchers who are representing a victim will play the song from their cellphones. As the name of a victim is called, the participant will pause and raise the victim’s name in the air, as two illuminated floats pass by.

The parade will be filmed by Blast Theory to create a short film that will be shown at the exhibit.

Five hundred people are estimated to march including relatives of the flu victims, health-care workers, and members of the general public.

The parade is a rain-or-shine event on Saturday. The event will begin at dusk, so dress appropriately for the weather and keep an eye on the skies.

Parade route

The event will begin at the east side of Marconi Plaza at Broad and Oregon, which can easily be reached via the Oregon Station off SEPTA’s Broad Street Line. Registration, if you didn’t sign up online ahead of time, begins at 5 p.m. Here, you will collect a commemorative object to represent the flu victim you represent.

The parade begins at 6 p.m. Participants will head north on Broad Street. Organizers suggest you arrive early because the route will become darker as night approaches.

The parade will then travel up Broad Street, ending at Dilwork Park in front of City Hall around 8 p.m. with a festivals that includes food, drinks, and health resources from community groups.

Free flu shots will also be available.

Hygiene

We don’t want to have a repeat of the aftermath of the 1918 Liberty Loans Parade. Although modern medicine has advanced since then, you’re still encouraged to practice proper hygiene in public.

If you’re feeling under the weather the day of the parade, it’s best if you stay home and get some rest instead.