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 about the time a virulent polio epidemic swept through NYC in 1916. While war raged over in Europe, the worst and deadliest polio epidemic in history struck NYC at a time when the disease was unknown to most people.
Like today’s pandemic of panic over the Ebola Virus, the unexpected, unfamiliar outbreak created mass hysteria while mind-boggling misinformation stoked fears and conspiracy theories. The sources were unknown, its symptoms terrible making it ripe for conspiracy theories. A public was paralyzed with fear
Just like today, blame had to be place somewhere.
With the same force as the Germans attacking the British at Somme that year, the disease plowed through neighborhoods, wiping out everyone in its path.
The city was being besieged by an enemy who refused to leave unless he was paid his ransom of thousands of children’s lives.
Polio just swept through the neighborhoods with a breezy self-assurance, since no one knew how to stop it.
A platoon of scientists and big shot doctors were helpless in offering treatment or prevention.
Just like General Pershing’s failure to find Pancho Villa in Mexico, so the polio virus eluded the scientific community. Like that elusive Mexican outlaw, many said the virus combined “the deadly cunning of the rattlesnake with the oily craftiness of the Mexican.”
Scapegoats were needed.
The fault needed to be found.
“Only weeks earlier, winter weary windows had been flung opened to let in the gentle spring breezes,” Nana Sadie explained, and with it the bucolic, early morning crowing of the roosters coming from the yards of the Italians on the North side of Brooklyn who kept chickens in their yards.
The familiar cries of the neighborhood street vendors and rag-pickers, would waft from the sidewalk and mix with the melodic voice of Enrico Caruso singing Ol Sole Mio being played on nearly every gramophone on the block.
“Sure there were no radios then…but, there was always music and dancing on the streets,…” Nana recalled her voice drifting off. “Now these same windows were shut tight, the cracks stuffed with rags so the disease wouldn’t come in, and the familiar street vendors shunned.”
Even though like the beloved Caruso the vendors were Italian, most folks of Italian descent were perceived to be careless and ignorant. Dirty and poor, immigrants in general and Italians in particular, were the scapegoat du jour.
Because the outbreak of polio first appeared in a heavily Italian section of Brooklyn, it was assumed they were carriers of polio.
So it was no surprise that Italians were blamed for importing – along with olive oil, broccoli and garlic – deadly germs from Naples.
No Mixing the Melting Pot
The good ol’ American melting pot was seen more as a cauldron of germs, of filthy foreigners mixing with “native” others in parks, streetcars and subways.
A classic American recipe for disaster that has been handed down through the generations.
Who Can You Trust?
Great Grandma cast a suspicious eye on everyone – dirty, unsanitary immigrants delivered a variety of services to middle class neighborhoods – Giuseppe the fruit peddler, Luigi the junk man, Mr Fiorelli the knife sharpener, would all come rolling in their horse-drawn wagons into her clean, sanitary neighborhood.
Folks were alerted that for health insurance, to be wary of buying fresh fruit. Government-issued pamphlets warned an already panicked public: “an infected fruit peddler ( no doubt an immigrant of Italian extraction) may use saliva to polish the fruit, and the germs might grow well on the fruit just polished!”
“Every once and awhile,” Nana remembered smiling, “the organ grinder would come around with his monkey, so cute dressed in a little red jacket, but who, my mother said, had fleas so I should stay away from him; whether she meant the monkey or the organ grinder, who knew?”
Fear and Loathing
Only later when a xenophobic finger began pointing to the Eastern European Jews as contributing to the epidemic, were my great-grandparents outraged.
“Oh boy was my father hot and bothered about that.” Imitating her father, her voice would take on a Russian accent:
“The highest court in the land finally has a Jew, a schtarker like Louis Brandeis on the Supreme Court,” your Great Grandpa would bellow in disbelief,” yet they still put the blame on the Jews!”
The government itself took lots of heat. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle placed much of the blame on the steps of City Hall. In a front page editorial it said:
“When infantile paralysis knocked at the door of the city and a great emergency came to the Health Department, it found that most important arm of the city government unprepared to handle the situation as it should be handled – chiefly because of lack of funds.”
Flies Carry Filth
Everything came under suspicion. – paper money, ice cream candy wet laundry.
But the favorite source of blame continued to be –the most dangerous animal in the world- the fly.
If the FBI had existed when Nana was a little girl, there is no doubt in her mind its number one most wanted, most dangerous enemy of all would the American house fly, more dangerous in the public’s mind than the German or even the Bolshevik.
San Francisco may have had its anarchist bombings that summer, but to nerve jangled New Yorker’s, uncovered garbage cans were a ticking time bomb of their own- breeding grounds for thousands of flies that could then crawl all over babies bottles and lips
Nana honed her considerable fly swatting skills at the numerous city sponsored fly swatting contests held that summer.
The anti-fly campaign was the cornerstone of the health campaign against polio. “Grown men and women,” Nana recalled, “like meshugennehs walked the streets swatting flies enthusiastically
The fly swatter – was summers must-have accessory.
The Perils of Panic
In July as the front pages of daily newspapers displaying the growing number of cases and deaths in bold black type, the public panicked and became hysterical.
Suddenly, the way Nana explained it, day-to-day life sounded like an episode straight out of the movie serial “The Perils of Pauline.”
No one was safe from the villainous brute polio.
Danger, scowling and sneering could be lurking right around the corner – yesterday a suspiciously shared sarsaparilla in a sordid soda fountain, today, a sneeze on a shared seat in a sullied streetcar, tomorrow-who-knows- the blunder of a borrowed book from the public library.
At the Moving Picture Show, that popular heroine of perilous plots, Pauline, could fight off savage Indians and escape mad pirates, but would Harry, her handsome hero be able to save her from the perils of polio in the nick of time?
Nana would never find out because in July, besides closing the library, the city closed the movies to children too!
Boys of Summer
Even as one by one playgrounds barred children and eventually closed, empty lots were still filled with “the boys of summer.” Nothing it seemed would stop them from their dreams of playing baseball for “them bums.”
However, as summer progressed the sight of those eager boys in their knickerbockers and caps, running bases and hitting home runs in their field of dreams, became fewer and fewer.
“So many of those little boys would never throw a ball again,” Nana said sadly, and worse still, even more would never live through the summer to see their beloved Dodgers play in the World Series that fall.
“The series opened with so many vacant seats in Ebbitts Field, it was heartbreaking.”
“But, to tell the truth,” Nana would point out, “maybe, bite-my-tongue- it wasn’t such a bad thing after all, since those stinkers, the Red Sox, with their big shot player Babe Ruth, beat ‘them Bums.”
Fear and Flight
The city became a ghost town, not unlike the poor, deserted towns in war-torn France that they would read about in the papers every day.
Towns where frightened citizens fled after a German shell was dropped, running scared out of their wits thinking the Krauts were about to enter.
So panicky New Yorker’s began fleeing in fear of the polio virus.
Sounds of Silence
Normally congested neighborhoods that during the hot weather spilled out into the streets remained empty. The once familiar sight, suddenly gone, of little girls playing double dutch or Ring around the Rosie, their fat curls bouncing in the sun and their hands joined walking in a circle.
Even to sit on their own stoop made people jittery.
Streets once teeming with the sounds of children was muffled, then silent and gloomy, like a transistor radio battery slowly going dead.
Mothers were so afraid they would not even let the children enter the streets, locking them in their rooms, their clothes hidden, to prevent them from infected children and breathing infected air that carried the disease, as if polio were like the poisonous gas used by the Germans at Verdun.
That summer it was as if Houdini had waved his magic wand, uttered the words Abracadabra and made them all disappear.
Next: Travel Restricted, Borders Close as Panic and Prejudice Go Viral
© 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.
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