The Spanish Flu of 1918: Part 1

The small boy pulled his woolen hat tightly onto his head and down over his ears in a futile attempt to escape the damp, bitter November chill as it rushed in off the Atlantic and wrapped itself around the rugged shores of Little Anse and Samsons’ Cove.

Alexander Samson struggled with the top button of his rough, oversized jacket in another futile attempt to insulate himself from the cold. He was on a mission of mercy to the homes of two of his relatives. Willie Samson and Jimmy Joe Samson had fallen deathly ill with high fevers, severe pain, and excruciating headaches. Little Theophile along with Arthur and Ernest Landry had been chosen to carry food to the homes of the afflicted.

Corpses were being buried in mass graves in the cemetery next to the church. And, as if the fatalities from the epidemic were not enough, fear caused people to resort to desperate measures, measures which were either ineffective such as herbal concoctions and Robert Martell’s special wines or tragic like Nedie a Calis’ wife’s attempt to rid her house of germs by boiling creoline on the stove; she might have succeeded in killing the infection, but the fumes also succeeded in killing everyone in the home.

As the world struggles with the consequences of the Corona virus, we are reminded of how vulnerable we still are in the comfortable, technologically advanced twenty-first century. We are also reminded that it is not the first time the world has faced the onslaught of a virulent, incurable virus.

Influenza is caused by a virus which is transmitted from person to person by airborne respiratory secretions. An outbreak can occur if a new strain develops against which the population has no immunity. Such was the case in 1918, and because this particular germ affected peoples throughout the world, it is more accurately referred to as a pandemic. The Spanish Flu was swift and devastating and arguably the most destructive in human history. The cause of its virulence has never been determined.

In September 1918 a ship sailed quietly and ominously into the sheltered, unsuspecting harbour of Petit de Grat. This vessel, The Italy, registered in Rockland, Maine was sailing from the Canary Islands with a cargo of salt for the Comeau Brothers Fish Plant when one of the crew, Frank Poole, 21, fell ill and died. This was September 29. In port, James Benoit Sr. removed the corpse and buried it while all his belongings were incinerated indicating that there was a fear that this death was no ordinary one. On October 5, aged 40, James Benoit died.

The port physician, Dr. B.A. LeBlanc, was called in to investigate, but it took some time for a diagnosis to determine that what was being dealt with was the Spanish Influenza. In the meantime several of the fish plant workers who had unloaded the shipment of salt became ill and died. Dr. B.A. himself fell victim; he was quickly followed by Dr. Honore Cyr and Dr. G.R. Deveau.

It was deemed advisable to request the intervention of the provincial medical officer, Dr. Morton of Halifax. He immediately realized the critical nature of the situation and put into effect what measures were at his disposal such as closing all public places and imposing an informal quarantine.