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‘Spit Spreads Death’: A mournful march commemorates 1918 flu that killed 20,000 in Philly

Karen Zeitz came to memorialize her grandmother, Clara Rosenfeld, who was 31 when she died of the flu and left three children under age 10

People gather near Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia on Saturday for the Spit Spreads Death parade, which honored and remembered those who died in the city's killing 1918 flu epidemic. They carried placards bearing the names of some of those who died.
People gather near Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia on Saturday for the Spit Spreads Death parade, which honored and remembered those who died in the city's killing 1918 flu epidemic. They carried placards bearing the names of some of those who died.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

On that late September day in 1918, with the city in the grip of a powerful flu, thousands of Philadelphians jammed the sidewalks along Broad Street to cheer a World War I parade.

Those patriots unknowingly helped spread the sickness that would kill 20,000 in six months.

So many died so quickly that it was hard even to fully recognize their deaths.

Until now.

Saturday evening, 101 years to the day after the Fourth Liberty Loan parade, a somber crowd of 200 marched the same route, from Marconi Plaza to City Hall, commemorating the disaster, remembering those who died, and honoring public-health workers who then and now put themselves in harm’s way.

» READ MORE: Mutter Museum marks great flu pandemic with exhibit

Most paraders marched in honor of a particular flu victim, found on an event database, and carried a copy of that person’s death certificate. The names of the dead were sung out.

Karen Zeitz of South Philadelphia memorialized her grandmother, Clara Rosenfeld, who died at 31, leaving three children under age 10. One of them became Zeitz’s mother.

“I think my mother was always in mourning for her,” Zeitz said. “The trauma reverberated through the family. … It’s really emotional to be here.”

The parade, produced by Blast Theory artist group, was part of an ambitious new exhibition by the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which aims to tell the full story of the calamity in “Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic in Philadelphia,” which opens Oct. 17.

A short Blast Theory film of the parade will serve as a centerpiece.

The exhibit, like the parade, takes its name from the street-side warning signs posted by the local government, and explores not just what happened here a century ago but what could occur in future pandemics.

The flu of 1918-19 killed 50 million to 100 million people worldwide and 700,000 in the United States.

Philadelphia suffered the highest mortality rate of any major American city, the epicenter of a disease that arrived in summer 1918 and stayed until March 1919.

At one point, a Philadelphian died of the flu every five minutes. In a single day, the disease killed 800.

» READ MORE: Mu aunt was among the thousands of Philadelphians who died in the 1918 flu pandemic

“It’s kind of mind-blowing,” said Kellie Flanagan, 43, of the Fairmount section, who was among the marchers Saturday. “It’s important to remember people who perished in this horrible flu.”

Flanagan walked in memory of someone from her neighborhood — a 7-month-old baby, Francis X. Plumley.

How could it have happened? And could such a catastrophe have slipped from common memory today?

The war, said museum director Robert Hicks. At that moment, World War I overshadowed everything.

The epidemic was killing thousands across the country — yet President Woodrow Wilson never uttered a public word about it, not daring to divert attention from the last great push toward victory.

On Sept. 28, 1918, when the fourth Liberty Loan parade drew 200,000 to Broad Street, doctors already knew the dangers that lurked in large crowds. But the city government stayed quiet, perhaps because the federal government wanted nothing to hinder fund-raising efforts.

Physicians tried to publish warnings about the parade. No newspaper would print them. The parade went forward, and flu deaths spiked.

Babies died, and the elderly, and all ages in between. Few were wealthy or famous. Many were immigrants or the children of immigrants.

The flu overwhelmed hospitals, filled morgues, and cloaked the city in an air of death and bereavement. It also sent some medical researchers on a pursuit for the origins and treatment of what’s often called the “Spanish Flu.”

The dead included a 22-year-old machinist from Strawberry Mansion. And a 36-year-old laborer from Queen Village. A 7-year-old schoolboy in Germantown. A 20-year-old domestic worker in Roxborough.

After it ended, the city raced to join a changing, postwar economy. Then came the crash of 1929, and the Great Depression, and World War again.

“Philadelphia has no monuments, except for the gravestones,” Hicks said Saturday evening. “What do you say about a disease that comes and kills and leaves? There are no generals, no battlefields. …”

Hicks — an original, red, white, and blue Fourth Liberty Loan pin stuck in his collar — said the museum now is hearing flu stories that have never been told, kept within families for decades.

» READ MORE: How the 1918 flu pandemic changed nursing

Parents and children paraded on Saturday. As did senior citizens, a nurse, and a nurse practitioner, all slowly, quietly moving north on Broad Street.

The chance to have people traverse the same route, on the same date, attracted the U.K.-based Blast Theory, which creates interactive works that explore social and political questions.

“That felt such a strong way to communicate what happened,” said Blast Theory cofounder Matt Adams. “It’s such a symbolic moment in the development of the disease.”

The parade featured a musical score by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang and by the Grammy-winning choral group The Crossing.

Jeff Albert, 73, of Dresher, marched carrying a picture of his grandfather, Joseph Albert, a merchant who was struck down at 25, leaving a wife and two children.

“My father never really talked about it growing up,” Albert said. “This is a chance for him to be honored in a way he never was in his lifetime.”

» READ MORE: The Philly vaccine pioneer who saved thousands from flu, and predicted the next pandemic