Southampton and the Devastating Influenza Epidemic of 1918
We have been here before.
Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward at Camp Funston, 1918
Southampton Hospital, founded in 1909 to serve the communities on the South Fork, moved into its then state-of-the-art building in 1913 and faced its first serious epidemic three years later. In 1916, a polio epidemic had the region in anxiety’s grip, especially after a local fatality was reported on July 31st. The purchase of a house in North Sea “provided by the town for contagious cases” was alarming but, as it turned out, the 1916 epidemic, which killed 6,000 nationally and paralyzed thousands more, was relatively mild in Southampton. What was to come in 1918 was much worse.
First spotted in the spring, the flu’s initial manifestations were relatively tame. It became more deadly, in part, because many communities preferred to reassure the public rather than to institute isolation and quarantine measures (still a problem today). With little understanding of the mode of transmission, they also failed to make proper use of face masks, and since doctors and nurses had no knowledge at all of how to deliver therapeutic oxygen to patients whose lungs were filled with fluid, the death rate soared.
Emma Bellows, a newly minted doctor at the time who would later practice in Southampton, described in her memoir the progression of the disease: “A patient would have a cold, a cough and, by the second or third day, would become cyanic (blue lips and face), and would die by the fourth or fifth day.” The situation worsened over the summer and on October 17, 1918, The Southampton Press reported that while only one death had occurred in Southampton thus far, many serious cases had developed. Acknowledging the gravity of the crisis, the authorities were taking “all possible precautions.” By order of the Village Board of Health, under the village’s popular president, C. Elmer Smith, the public was forbidden from assembling “in the churches, schools and other public places until the epidemic abates.”
Excerpt from the Southampton Press, October 17, 1918
The article also noted that three local doctors had been taken ill--Hugh Halsey, John H. Nugent and George H. Schenck, whose case was said to be “among the most serious.” (In time he made a complete recovery.) The John H. Nugent referred to here was the son of John Nugent who owned the Rogers Mansion, the main office of the Southampton History Museum, prior to Sam Parrish from 1889 to 1899. John H, Nugent, or John Jr. was born in 1888 and grew up in the Rogers Mansion with his two brothers who all followed in their father's footsteps and became Doctors. They all ended up practicing medicine locally between Southampton and East Hampton and were jokingly referred to as "Father, Son and Holy Ghost."
Working with the infected carried great risk and the hospital’s annual report for 1918 opened with “grateful recognition” of the nurses’ devotion. Eighteen cases of influenza were reported for the year, along with 12 cases of pneumonia, a common after-effect.
Sadly, what had been mistaken for abatement of the epidemic in November, prompting a lifting of the ban on gatherings, turned out to be only a lull. On December 12th, beneath the headline “INFLUENZA BREAKS OUT ANEW IN SOUTHAMPTON” the Press reported that the epidemic had “taken a fresh hold in this locality and there are probably over 200 cases in the village, a few of them very serious, having developed into pneumonia.”
Excerpt from the Southampton Press, December 12, 1918
Then, the Press delivered a heartbreaking blow: “After a brave fight for over a week against the ravages of influenza and pneumonia, Village President Charles Elmer Smith died at 2:30 this morning at his home in Hampton Road.”
Board of Health Notice from Oct. 24, 1918 and Pic of C. Elmer Smith,
former President of Southampton Village
Smith, just 39, robust and handsome before being afflicted, left a wife, four children and a community in mourning. Records indicate that influenza victims were mostly young men, though an account in the Press on December 19th, headlined FOUR MORE DEATHS IN SOUTHAMPTON is a touching tribute to four female victims. One. perhaps the most heart-wrenching of all, was a child. The Press reported: “Mr. and Mrs. J. Sidney Allen’s only daughter, Sarah Louise, aged 12 years, died Friday morning. She had been ill for a few days of grippe or influenza, but her condition was not thought to be serious, and Thursday night she seemed to be improving nicely. The following morning she suddenly became worse and soon passed away...The child was of an exceptionally bright and happy disposition, and a favorite with everyone who knew her. Her death is one of the saddest of the year.”
Before it ended, Southampton lost approximately 30 residents to the epidemic. The hospital’s annual report mentions 20 cases “received in a hopeless condition” and asserts that in view of that fact, the hospital’s “death rate was very low.”