A pandemic of panic seems to have swept the nation. Ebola fear has gone viral, spreading faster than the virus itself.
Fear-mongering in the face of an unknown epidemic is nothing new.
The panic and the rampant distrust, the half-truths and demonizing, the calls for travel restriction and locked down borders, resemble another epidemic that occurred nearly a century ago – the Polio epidemic of 1916, the worst polio epidemic ever.
Though too young to remember that scourge, the memories was passed on to me from one who had experienced it firsthand.
Scarier by far than any Grimm’s Brothers fairy tale, or even an episode of the Twilight Zone, were the stories my grandmother would tell me of about the summer of 1916 when a virulent polio epidemic swept through NYC and the mid Atlantic States.
Held Hostage to Terror
Two years before the deadly flu epidemic of 1918, the worst and deadliest polio epidemic in history struck NYC at a time when the disease was unknown to most people.
The outbreak was unexpected.
Health officials were in the dark about how to control it.
It brought panic, sudden death and medical bafflement, causing suburbs to create roadblocks against city children.
The effects on the people were calamitous. To them this killer was not only a scourge but a new mysterious and frightening one.
Public health authorities could not agree on the right approach and the public knew it. Tempers flared and contradictory recommendations fed a growing hysteria about the epidemic.
Though polio no longer plagues America its legacy shadows us still.
I grew up in an age of optimism about the conquest of disease.
As child I was constantly reminded that mine was a charmed existence, protected from deadly contagious diseases that had previously wiped out families and communities forever. And not just in the Dark Ages but in my own mothers and grandmothers lifetime.
As a proud and healthy member of the Penicillin generation I was fortunate to be born after the great antibiotic revolution, endowing me with an immunity to those perils that had plagued other generations. In addition, inoculations would keep me safe from the dreaded diseases like whooping-cough, diphtheria, and polio that had ravaged other childhoods.
In fact I would take for granted one of the most remarkable developments in modern history. The polio vaccine, approved in April 1955, only a mere two weeks after I was born, was nothing short of a modern miracle.
No disease struck the same terror as polio. And for good reason- polio hit without warning.
It didn’t matter how good you were, how clean or how rich or poor, polio was the great American equalizer.
Luckily in America that land of opportunity, opportunistic bugs didn’t stand a chance.
Immunity From Disease
The wonders of modern science and medicine had allowed me to be growing up in the safest, cleanest and healthiest time man had ever known.
It seemed impossible that in this antibacterial, spic n’ span country where confident Americans were not just clean but Clorox clean, where physicians worked twice as fast for faster relief and creative chemistry worked wonders killing germs on contact by the millions, that any new scary virus could ever appear to contaminate my antiseptic American dream.
The first cracks appeared with AIDS. Waiting in the wings was Ebola.
Spurred by the current wave of scare-mongering, terrifying tales my grandmother would retell of the polio epidemic and the ensuing panic that occurred the summer she was sweet sixteen have come back to haunt me.
Polio Epidemic 1916, N.Y.C.
While the battle of the Somme raged on in Europe all summer and fall, Americans fought a battle of another sort, with the outcome almost as grim.
All but forgotten, the summer of 1916 was the first and worse polio epidemic nationwide and the worst happened in N.Y.C., with my Nana Sadies’s beloved Brooklyn as ground zero.
“The yellow forsythia bloomed particularly early that spring,” Nana would remember wistfully, “and spring fever was in the air.”
Conjuring up an image as wholesome and upbeat as any MGM opening credits she would continue, “Were the streets ever bustling in Brooklyn that year!” Clang, clang, clang went the trolley and everyone it seemed was out and about- ladies in large hats trimmed with roses and ribbons, men in fine bowlers, little boys in knickerbockers and caps and little girls with fat curls, all whistling the latest tune from Irving Berlin.
The last week in May had rolled in with an unexpected wave of heat. Swarms of flies appeared everywhere, zooming in through windows and buzzing around the rooms.
The city was like a giant oven, the air was close and heavy. In those days before window air conditioners, Nana would remind me, even an apartment with cross ventilation wouldn’t erase the stifling heat, so to escape the oppressive humidity, everybody sat on their front stoop.
“When the stoops weren’t filled by grownups surveying the street life or by men playing dominoes, you’d see groups of little girls playing jacks, or potsy,” she’d explain smiling.
Before the Parade Passes By
“There were so many parades that spring,” Nana would recall, “especially for the youngsters, that you couldn’t keep up with them.”
Besides the cheering crowds at the annual May Day Parade, there was their boroughs very own holiday, Brooklyn Day, the first Thursday in June.
All the public school pupils got an extra day off to march in the annual parade.
But the biggest parade that year, she always maintained, was the huge Preparedness Day Parade “to show the Kaiser we were ready for anything!”
“I’m telling you, the streets turned into a sea of red, white and blue- for miles all you could see were the waving of thousands of American flags of all sizes,” Nana remembered. “It was really something!”
Though America had yet to enter the Great War that had been dragging on for two years, we would be prepared for any war “Over There.”
“It was Over Here that would catch us by surprise!” she would sigh forlornly.
There were still flags and banners and streamers left hanging from the big parades when suddenly one June day, to their astonishment, a totally different kind of fever hit a very unprepared NYC “with a sledge-hammer blow like you wouldn’t believe.”
It began in the crowded immigrant section of Brooklyn and stayed for five months.
“There was no warning, no drills, no nothing,” she recounted. “One day bands had played for the children as they marched the streets, the next the streets were bare.”
Out of no where, Nana would explain, a wave of polio, “like the plague,” came to terrorize N.Y.C. in 1916 and it raged all summer and fall.
Until then, “What did we know from polio?” she would shrug.
Infantile paralysis was almost unknown by most Americans and even doctors thought of it as a rare disease.
Everywhere, people, their faces gray with worry and fright, whispered in fear of this unknown, unseen villain that was crippling and destroying little children.
Gloomily she spelled it out: “Nobody had any idea of the cause and how to treat it was anyone’s guess.”
Day after day, as she described it, frightened mothers with suffering furrowed in their faces appeared carrying infants who were suddenly deathly sick, complaining that a daughter could no longer use an arm or a leg, a son could suddenly no longer hold his bottle.
“It broke your heart, it was so sad; who knew how contagious it was…..?”
At Baby Health stations mothers and children mingled together, the sick and the well and the sly virus spread even deeper into the community.
Soon, an all too familiar sight was the glow from a kerosene-lit kitchen window in the middle of the night where a worried mother was up with a sick child, a harried doctor, kit in hand, rubbing his sleepy eyes as he hurried to answer yet another night call.
Good Health…Knock on Wood
Health Inspectors were dispatched to smoke out the enemy.
“They schlepped door to door but the disease was a regular speed demon and had beaten them by several days,” she would remember.
All over Brooklyn, the persistent pounding of doors by the city health inspectors became as dreaded and feared as that of the Big Bad Wolf, bearing words that choked the throat and chilled the heart.
Without so much as a warrant, health inspectors had the power to arrest families suspected of hiding an infected child.
To the poor families in crowded tenements it was the health inspector himself who became the villain, the Snidley Whiplash of his day.
Frantic fathers tried to barricade their door to keep out the authorities, until finally, as Nana described it, “like the Russian Cossacks,” the police would arrive to tear the sick child away from a screaming mother, taking the child to a hospital where “these poor children were in enforced isolation for 2 whole months, with not even a visit from the parents allowed.”
The Big Bad Wolf
Desperate, Mothers tried scaring their children likening this unseen enemy to the crafty wolf in the story books, warning them not to leave the house “for if this wolf gets in, he’ll gobble you up, bones and all.”
“Worried parents, frightened their child would be taken away to a city hospital, where-everyone-knew-you-died, locked their terrified children in the house, in the dark, with the windows shut, making the rooms as hot as ovens, shvitzing like a Turkish bath” explained my grandmother.
The same refrain, in a variety of tongues and accents, could be heard all over: “A free country?” they bitterly asked. “What’s so free about it when the law grabs a child from its own mother and forces you to endanger their lives to go to a hospital?”
All day, all night the air was pierced by the shrill clang of the ambulances, co-mingling with the plaintiff wails of heartbroken mothers keening loudly as if wailing for the dead…which often they were.
Soon there were empty seats in the classrooms.
Fears of the epidemic would fill the rooms with the strong penetrating, aroma of garlic or camphor balls in hopes of warding off the disease.
“Rumors, mostly bubemeisers, of remedies and cures spread from building to building as quickly as the disease itself. Suddenly everyone was a maven when it came to a cure,” she said.
Like so many thousands of frightened mothers as steeped in superstition as they were skilled at sewing, my Great-Grandmother carefully stitched up little cloth bags and filled them with 5 cent cakes of gum camphor to tie around the necks of her children, since the rumor was this would prevent polio.
Forget Coppertone, to Nana Sadie the peculiar odor of camphor would always conjure up summer for her.
“Each night my mother said a prayer for all the little ones that had been taken away,” she remembered. Her mother kept refilling the camphor bags to ward off the disease even though she began to have little faith in them, but, as Nana recalled, “she would always say, ‘My children. In perfect health, kayn aynhoreh’”.
“So day in and day out,” Nana recalled, “even if we were unhappy about it, we wore these stinky little bags next to our skins, dangling from a string around our necks that bounced up and down whenever we moved.”
Weeks passed as the plague and panic continued to mount.
Tomorrow : Blame needed to be placed somewhere. Scapegoats would be found. PT II
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.