NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – In the months before Mayor Edgar Farrington’s death in a Newark hospital following surgery to remove gall stones, he had waged a valiant fight against the ravages of disease for the better part of a year.
Farrington, the first New Brunswick mayor elected under the commission form of government, was dead at 32 and a city mourned a man that The Daily Home News said “had won the respect and confidence of the people of New Brunswick, regardless of politics.”
He was stricken with what the newspaper characterized as a severe case of influenza that fall, and exactly how much of a factor it was on his condition when he passed away on Dec. 17, 1918, at five minutes before 1 o’clock may never be known.
But what old newspaper clippings and historians alike can say with certainty is that New Brunswick was battered the last time it found itself in the grips of a widespread health crisis.
Almost 100 years before COVID-19 filled hundreds of New Brunswick’s hospital beds, the Influenza Pandemic of 1918, claimed untold lives in a city filled with workers forced into close quarters.
“When you stuff people into a factory and have them work side by side on long hours, you’re almost for sure going to have significant numbers of infections, so there must have been some sort of spread of infections rather rapidly in New Brunswick,” said Rutgers history professor Paul Clemens, who took part in a program last week called New Brunswick and Rutgers in the Era of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918.
Social distancing – much like rock ‘n’ roll, space travel and the internet – had not been invented in 1918, said New Brunswick Library Director and President of the New Brunswick Historical Society, Robert Belvin.
“Although they encouraged people to be careful, they encouraged people to put on masks, we were in a war and that came first,” he said. “You didn’t have the same amount of social distancing or restrictions on movement.”
The fact that the United States was sending hundreds of thousands of young men to fight in Europe in what would become known as World War I served to exacerbate the situation in the city and elsewhere, Belvin said. He said it seems as though the public’s attention was divided between building supplies and morale for the war effort and trying to contain the virus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the conditions of World War I (overcrowding and global troop movement) helped the 1918 flu spread. When you add a lack of vaccines, treatments and understanding of how viruses spread, and its now wonder that least 50 million died worldwide, including about 675,000 in the United States.
Some 517,000 have died during the COVID-19 outbreak, according to Johns Hopkins University. As of Thursday, the Middlesex County death toll stood at 1,117, according to county officials. That includes 71 New Brunswick residents.
The yellowed pages of the Daily Home News give a surprisingly detailed snapshot of the drudgery of daily life in virus-ravaged New Brunswick.
On Church Street, George Segwick, 27, a worker at the Wright-Martin factory, died of the Spanish Flu.
On Powers Street, Anna Macaro, 26, passed away, leaving behind a husband and three children who were “confined to a bed” in a fight for their own lives.
On Guilden Street, Agnes Craven Donohue, 67, died after a being sick for a few days. The story mentions that she was a "very popular young woman and an active worker in St. Peter's Parish.” She left behind a husband and two young children.
Saloons, soda fountains, billiard halls and pool parlors were ordered closed by the city's health department, John Phillip Sousa's Band canceled a scheduled performance in New Brunswick because of the epidemic and New York Telephone Co. took out an ad to urge residents to only make urgent calls because the epidemic "has caused a serious shortage in our operating force."
The final nail in many residents' coffins, said Belvin, was their reluctance to go to a hospital, even with Saint Peter’s University Hospital and Middlesex General Hospital, a precursor to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, serving the city.
“They would say, ‘If you go to the doctor, you get sicker. If you go to the hospital, you’re going to die,’” Belvin said. “We don’t think that way now, but medical care has improved enormously.”