In the Grip – the Flu Pandemic in Hopedale

Linda Hixon
Issue Date: 
November, 2018
Article Body: 

“No meetings held during Oct. 1918 on account of influenza.”
This ominous entry in the Hopedale Sewing Circle record was written in November, 1918. As the greatest battles of the Great War were being fought in France that fall, the home front was in terror as influenza raged. With a population of about 2,500, Hopedale actually fared well during the pandemic. A total of 13 people died of influenza that fall, along with three deaths from pneumonia – probably the end result of the flu – and two babies who were stillborn when their mothers became ill. Counting the four additional deaths to “La Grippe” in 1919, Hopedale lost about one percent of its population to influenza, below the national average at the time but much higher than a winter flu today.
The deaths started with workers at the Draper Corporation on September 27, 1918, and continued through March of the following year. Walter James Morton was the first Draper worker to die. Walter was a fireman for the company who lived on Prospect Street, and he died on September 27. John J. Grady of 6 Union Street, a plumber working for Drapers, died the next day. Both men, at ages 26 and 37, fell within that “prime of life” age group that this flu tended to strike, as did most of Hopedale’s victims. There were exceptions – Albion H. French, a fire truck driver working for the Town of Hopedale, was 43 when he succumbed in early 1919, followed only in age by George Washington Horton, whose death at age 64 was attributed to the flu. The remaining victims’ ages ranged from 19 to 37 and included housewives, a butcher, a spindle maker, and a governess. Three of the deaths occurred on Inman Street, including Mrs. Davenport and her stillborn son. Assunta Santilli of Home Park Ave also died of flu after miscarrying. And five month old boy from Bancroft Park succumbed.
Today, we think of flu as a few days of feeling terrible, followed by convalescence. The Spanish flu was not like that. It infected 1 in 3 people on earth, killing an estimated 50 to 100 million people – possibly the worst world-wide disaster ever. People died as their lungs filled with fluid, first turning blue then “reddish-plum” as their bodies were starved of oxygen. They spontaneously bled from the nose and mouth. Women miscarried “with shocking frequency.” Survivors suffered mental anguish for weeks, even complaining of a colorless world due to inflammation of the optic nerve. Katherine Anne Porter, a flu survivor, described a “sky drained of its blue” in her book Pale Horse, Pale Rider.
The Sewing Circle wasn’t the only group affected in town – the Bancroft Library was closed during the week of September 27, 1918 because of the flu, along with the local Red Cross chapter. The “no school signal was sounded” on Tuesday of that week when Dr. Knight closed the schools “on account of the prevailing grip epidemic.” Dr. Knight signed many of the death certificates in town.
“Fully 400 of the Draper plant employees are out on account of illness,” a local newspaper reported in September. By November, 1918, the pandemic was waning, but the deaths continued into the new year. One of the final victims, William McCaslin, held a fairly high position at the Draper Corporation as an Assistant Superintendent. William wasn’t just management at the plant, he was the inventor of several weaving implements, including a loom shuttle and a “Thread-parting mechanism for looms,” both patented in 1912. William’s obituary in America’s Textile Reporter noted he had been born in Ogdensburg, New York, and had lived in Hopedale 20 years. William died on February 25, 1919 and was survived by his widow and three children.