1918 Influenza Pandemic in Cleveland

Police officer in New York City, 1918
Photo from the National Archives

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 hit Cleveland in early October. Warned of the disease by US Army Surgeon General William Gorgas in late September, Cleveland officials didn’t start tracking flu cases until October 4. Led by Cleveland City Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Rockwood, those officials found over 500 cases by October 7. Like today, isolation and the prevention of spreading germs was seen as the best preventative actions to take against the spread of the flu.

Public Health Commissioner Rockwood created an advisory board of physicians and others to address the growing problem. They developed a “campaign of education, coupled with a system of tracing cases of influenza through pupils in public schools.” Sanitary policeman and local nurses were enlisted to visit absent pupils and assess their health.

Like police departments across the country, The Cleveland Police worked on the front lines of the flu pandemic in Cleveland to keep the community safe.  One of the first actions was to outlaw public spitting, a common practice at the time that officials saw as a “chief means of spreading flu contagion.” Chief of Police Frank Smith ordered that “every member of the police department must understand that it is just as important to arrest and prosecute people who spit on streets, sidewalks and street cars, as it is to apprehend burglars and thieves. Violators must be immediately arrested and brought into court for prosecution.” In addition, conductors of the Cleveland Railway Company were enlisted to work with Cleveland police to arrest spitters on streetcars.

Plain Dealer, October 6, 1918

After voluntary closures and suggested social isolation proved unsuccessful in keeping the case numbers down, the city and county mandated closures and quarantines.  Calling the pandemic “the most serious menace that has confronted Cleveland in years,” Health Commissioner Rockwood stated, “It has been hoped that effective work in coping with he disease might be done by voluntary action of those holding public gatherings, in refusing admittance to persons with symptoms of influenza. Developments have convinced me, however, that more radical steps are needed.”

The Cleveland Police were charged with enforcing the new rules, which:

  • Prohibited public assemblies without approval
  • Closed public funerals
  • Closed public, private and parochial schools
  • Required proper ventilation in public and private spaces like street cars, buses, shops, factories, restaurants and stores
  • Avoided crowded elevators
  • Closed all non-essential businesses, including movie houses, theaters, dance halls, churches, Sunday schools, night schools, meetings of lodges and organizations in general.
City of Cleveland flu regulations,
October 15, 1918

A team of female ambulance drivers already working for the Red Cross Motor Corps of Cleveland.  With many men serving in the armed forces during World War I, the need for ambulance drivers was filled by women. Almost fifty women served in this capacity by the middle of November, with the goal of increasing to a “war strength of 150.” The Red Cross Motor Corps of Cleveland served as an “efficient courier in touring car, or truck or ambulance” that drove doctors and nurses to flu patients and health inspectors to “the numberless quarantined homes of flu victims.”

Plain Dealer, November 10, 1918

“With the butchers, and bakers and candlestick makers, to say nothing of the doctors and nurses and motor mechanics all mobilized on the west front, there are countless demands made on these motorists of mercy who seek to combat the havoc wrought by casualties, cold weather, epidemics and what not.”

Three images from Plain Dealer,
November 10, 1918

Police officers also served as ambulancemen.  The Red Cross of Cleveland made “two splendidly equipped ambulances…at the disposal of the city police department during the influenza epidemic.”  By the end of October, the men were going out on forty calls per day.  Ambulancemen included Patrolmen Phillip Held #533, George Huberty #265, Henry Horn #347, John Ward #782 and George Spaller #416.

Cleveland police ambulance drivers, October 31, 1918
Red Cross ambulance, 1918

Houses of worship throughout Cleveland continued services despite the quarantine. On October 21st, patrolmen Edward Popowski #469 and John Kever #722 arrested nine men worshiping at a synagogue for “violating the quarantine.”Cleveland police ensured a safe election season as well.  “City and sanitary police will have charge of the polls…No congestion will be allowed.”

The flu affected police departments and facilities across Northeast Ohio.  A scare shut down the prosecutor’s offices inside Central Station on October 16 when an arrested woman admitted to being sick with influenza. According to the Plain Dealer, “Detective Fred Butcher ran for a can of formaldehyde” and the nearby offices and courtrooms were fumigated. An outbreak “crippled” the Sandusky Police Department.

Luckily, the flu subsided in early November, 1918.  The closure orders were lifted on November 10 and schools reopened on November 13.  However, “careful watch was maintained all day by the sanitary police for violations of the after-epidemic health regulations.” A smaller wave of cases came in the early months of 1919.  By the end of the pandemic, Cleveland businesses lost $1.25 million ($21 million in today’s money). But more tragically, at least 4,400 Clevelanders lost their lives, including a number of police officers.

Armistice Day in Cleveland’s Public Square, November 11, 1918

In addition to doctors and nurses, police officers served on the front lines during Cleveland’s flu outbreak. Unfortunately, several Cleveland officers died of the flu in 1918.

Patrolman Francis J. Chambers #359 “died of typhoid fever in Charity Hospital” on July 19, 1918. Appointed in 1903, Patrolman Chambers “served the last few summers on duty at Edgewater Park.”  He was survived by his wife Catherine and brother William.

Patrolman Frederick Henry Liebler #563 died on October 30, 1918, after being sick for five days.  “Patrolman Liebler had been assigned to the police emergency auto service and is believed to have contracted the disease while taking flu victims to the hospital. He was 35.” He was survived by his wife Emily.

Plain Dealer, July 20, 1918
Plain Dealer, October 31, 1918

Sergeant Henry Loescher died of “pneumonia” on October 14, 1918 at the age of 35. He was survived by his wife Emily and daughter Luella.

Patrolman Frank A. Ondrak #691 died of “Influenzal Broncho Pneumonia” on December 12, 1918 at the age of 28.  Patrolman Ondrak worked in the traffic unit after his appointment in 1915.  He was survived by his wife Marie.

Detective Frank H. Renfert #352 “succumbed to influenza in Charity Hospital” on October 15, 1918 at age 29.  He had been sick for just three days. Renfert had recently been promoted to detective “for bravery in capturing a desperate bandit who shot him.”   He was survived by his mother Agnes and sister Clara.

Patrolman Frank O. Stastny #402 died of influenza on November 28, 1918. Appointed in 1910, Stastny worked in traffic, plain clothes and was detailed to detective. He was survived by his wife Amelia and son Albert.

Plain Dealer, October 16, 1918

Patrolman John Tomasch #37 “was among the victims of influenza” on October 19, 1918 at the age of 33. He was survived by his wife Ann and children Elsie, Florence, Evelyn and Mildred.

Plain Dealer, October 21, 1918
Plain Dealer, November 4, 1918

The cause of death of several others is uncertain, but was likely due to the flu.  Sergeant William J. Walsh died at home on April 11, 1918.  Appointed in 1899, Walsh was survived by his wife Jennie and children Barbara, Lillian and William.  Patrolman John T. Haley #445 died on March 18, 1918 at the age of 24. He was survived by his wife Margery Haley. Patrolman Harry L. Laudes #79 was appointed on April 1, 1914 and died on October 18, 1918. Patrolman Edward L. Raquett #367 died on March 21, 1918, after thirteen years with the Cleveland Police. He was survived by his wife Clara.

Written by Cleveland Police Historical Society and Museum Executive Director Mazie M. Adams

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