Brow Beat

Here’s Some Upbeat Coverage of the Philadelphia Parade That Became a Super-Spreader Event During the 1918 Flu Pandemic

A 15th century woodcut of the Danse Macabre, showing three skeletons dancing wildly while a fourth plays a pipe.
The Philadelphia Liberty Loans Parade, Sept. 28, 1918 (Artist’s Conception). Michael Wolgemut

On Sept. 19, 1918, the first cases of Spanish Flu appeared in the city of Philadelphia. On Sept. 28, 1918, despite warnings from one public health expert that they were creating “a ready-made inflammable mass for a conflagration,” the city held a giant parade to raise money for the war effort, packing thousands into the streets. In the days that followed, the conflagration arrived: Within three days, every hospital bed in the city was full; by the end, more than 13,000 Philadelphians had died from the flu. Here’s a cheery contemporary account of a super-spreader event that ultimately killed thousands of Americans, as seen in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sept. 29, 1918.


Builders of Ships, Forgers of Cannon, Fighters, Victims and Consolers of War Boom 4th Loan

Speakers Call Upon Mourners for Hero Dead Among Spectators to Spur Sale of Victory Bonds

“The Yanks are coming! The Yanks are coming!” One band, then another band, a third, a twentieth, pounded out the refrain to the steady and terrible tread of twenty thousand feet.

“The Yanks are coming! The Yanks are coming!” The waiting crowds in the street took up the song. It swelled into a choral; it rang along the great lines of buildings as a breaking sea rolls along the sand. It broke in thunder, as a great wave bursts, to echo and re-echo and still re-echo in the cars of the city, long after the great victory pageant which yesterday opened Philadelphia’s drive for the Fourth Liberty Loan had passed.

The lean and fierce-eyed Marines, in the van of the procession, sang it like some giant hymn of retribution. The builders of the ships, the forgers of the cannon, the redemptionaries of the idle sole, the consolers of the dying and the mourners for the dead, took it up. The men who had fought until nature could fight no longer, the denizens of justice who “had been through hell and back,” too ill, too lame to march the streets, but borne in triumphs that a Roman conqueror might have envied, croaked it back with their feeble and their broken voices.

“The Yanks are coming! The Yanks are coming!” The deep bass of the newer fighting men, ready at a word to go speeding overseas, the tender and sweet soprano of the women who toiled and hoped and waited: the high, shrill super-treble of the children whom, and for whom alone, the great work of the world must continue—these united in the slogan.

America’s Voice Awakened

Awakened, perhaps slowly, from its slumbers of a generation, the voice of the American people was heard. Liberty, Liberty, Liberty—the word was limned into the ears of the thousands who stood watching and applauding. Liberty, not only for themselves, but for the world, liberty, sweet and thrilling, liberty, impulse, the freedom to live and to drink to its utmost the joy of life—this was what the multitudes heard as an undertone to the mighty strains.

Liberty—at whatever cost! The blood and the dreams of youth, the labors of middle life, the thought and the philosophy of closing years. Liberty, Liberty, Liberty! is it not worth all?

Crashing in upon the selfish consciousness of the world, this is what every American within hearing heard yesterday, to the repeated and the again-repeated strains:

“The Yanks are coming! The Yanks are coming!” and the city might have added a new line for itself:

“Two living million strong!”

The mightiest and the most beautiful, the most solemn and the most compelling, of the pageants Philadelphia yet has had, to give new mobility to the self-denial and the sacrifice of its people was that which yesterday saw, to open formally, the Fourth Liberty Loan.

The pageant was scheduled to bring out, at most, ten or eleven thousand persons, to show the home keeping and the uninformed, what the city was doing, so far, for the country and the world. The city did it honor by bringing twenty times that number into the streets to see, to wonder and once more to arise in the spirit.

Honor Place to Fighters

The first, the second, and the third lines of defense each had place. But the highest honor of all was given, perhaps, to the men who had fulfilled, in turn, the function of each of these lines, and who was entitled to an honorable place in the world, behind all, protected by all, in the newer arts of peace.

The pageant was, in the commonplace phrase, an “object lesson.” But it was an object lesson of a type not seen by the city, at least, during the present world-conflict.

Women who had lost their husbands, their sons, their brothers, their betrothed, were brought out from their places among the crowd, the most of them in the habiliments of mourning. And the selfish, the oblivious, the curiosity-seeking, were asked to look at them.

“This woman,” said one speaker after another—there was a speaker to every block of the twenty-three blocks in the parade—“has given her all. What will you give?”

The query was made without offense. To the eternal gratitude of the city, to the eternal gratitude of the bereaved, the faces and the greetings of the women were met without curiosity. Most of those who saw, turned down their eyes. But thousands went home with the quiet determination to match, in courage and selflessness, these women who had left their homes of sorrow and let themselves for a moment be seen and be known, for what they were, within the sight of men.

Premonition of Victory

The pageant itself was something not to be forgotten. The energies of the city—its wealth, its brawn, its intellect, its patience, its skill in the work of brain or of hand—these were seen, as they had never been seen before in such a time and under such stress. Yet in every stride and in every voice there was to be seen and heard the first premonition of—victory.

The city saw the spectacle of an entire city, or as much of it as might be crowded into one thoroughfare, singing at one time. Two hundred thousand throats made a chorus, of which the echoes might well have been heard by the men in the trenches, and by the flying Germans over the devastated farms and the broken roadways. At every hundred feet there was a singing-conductor, and at every hundred feet a speaker when the parade halted.

The parade carried everything before it. The spectacle of a great fleet of airplanes, heading over the city, hundreds of feet in the air, was at moments forgotten in the fascination of seeing the pageantry change with every moment. At that, the city learned, with a new vision, what the old phrase, “bombs bursting in air,” might have conveyed to an earlier mind.

The bombs burst. They were fired by anti-aircraft guns, concealed about the city, at the battle planes as they came serenely over, too high for the whir of their wings to be heard except in silent places, or by the instrumentality of a delicate and specially devised apparatus.

Meanwhile the parade went on.

In Three Divisions

There were three divisions. They were reviewed at a special stand at Broad and Pine streets, by Governor Brumbaugh, who acted as “cheer leader” when the Marines and others went past by Mayor Smith and by military and naval officers.

The divisions included first, the military and naval forces, secondly the industrial workers, and thirdly the women—as women—in workers of charity, works of relief, and in the heavy labors of farm employment. The city saw its society leaders, attired in uniform, or, blackened by the sun and the wind, until their friends hardly knew them, in the coarse breeches and the big hats of farm employees.

Joseph E. Widener was the mili-marshal of the parade. His own individual contribution to the pageant, it leaked out, was to obtain a camouflaged “tank,” manned by girls of Scout Troop 43, of Chestnut Hill, who scattered not shrapnel, but toy rubber balls, among the children of the crowd. Miss E. Gwen Martin of the Motor Service, was the actual pilot of this arrangement, concealed from public view, perspiring like a navvy, but steering the tank as a veteran of the Cambrai avernus might have steered it.

The van of the parade was given over to the police escort, mounted, with Lieutenant Beuhler in command. After this followed the big band of the Lu Lu Temple, Dr. Thomas conducting from an automobile. The tall figure of Mr. Widener was followed by the members of the Liberty Loan Committee, and then the first applause went through the crowd as the Marine Band from League Island, made up of Kansas University men, came gloriously down the street, their big drum major, a superb figure, setting every foot going with his movements of his baton.

The applause lengthened. Governor Brumbaugh, in the reviewing stand, rose to his feet, and yelled, “three cheers for the Marines.” Three were given, four, five—they lasted while the Marines passed and they were taken up when the bluejackets, chanting, “Where Do We Go From Here, Boys?” followed them.

The advent of these four gentlemen, quietly walking in procession, could be heard all along Broad street. Wherever the crowd was thickest, the applause rose into a howl which might have scared the wits from anyone who did not know its meaning.

“Hooray for Schwab!” yelled a casual along the line. Mr. Schwab was game and removed his hat. “Holy Smoke!” said the fuddled one; “he spoke to me—to me!” He apparently took the idea home with him, seeing, apparently, little else of the parade.

The Hog Island yard did itself proud. Every industry brought a representative. Many a representative was in oily, coarse, and dirty attire. But he wore it like a uniform. A dozen riveters and heater boys were at work upon a keel which passed on its float. Two welders, their eyes protected from the blinding actinic rays of a powerful arc by brown glasses, worked behind them.

A wooden keel was shown with men of the adze and the plane. After these were chippers and caulkers, the fitters and the followers of a hundred crafts. Some of them, whose tools were too heavy to carry in line, bore wooden reproductions. Even the women of the office forces were given a place, riding in a big motor truck with the inscription, “some of Uncle Sam’s Best Girls.”

Boy Scouts Came Next

Next came the Boy Scouts, with their own band, a tiny drum major in front. The faces of the youngsters were, to the studious, something of a study. Long months of work, of prompt and swift obedience to strange orders, of swift acceptance of strange and not always agreeable tasks had left their impress on the faces of the boys, and the impress spelt one word—Character. Some of the little fellows, on bicycles, bore the proud motto: “Dispatch Bearers.”

As the big band of the Great Lakes Training Station, moving like one gigantic machine of a hundred feet and a hundred brazen throats, hove into sight, a stir went through the crowd—an icy chill, a premonition that something was “in the air.”

Then appeared, in autos, the Pershing veterans. Many were too ill, too broken, to talk. It was not asked of them. They were ridden in autos—the gold chevrons of their service and their sacrifice gleaming in the sun. The faces of the men had lost nothing of their old eagerness, but they bore written upon them another word—Experience. Many of them sang, many of them tried to salute when passersby removed their hats—and not a covered head could be seen on Broad street while they rolled by. One or two bore scars, one or two wore dark glasses. All were subtly marked out, by something in their faces which no word could name, from the generality of men.

Behind them a Liberty Motor on a big truck, a beautiful Goddess of Liberty poised high above it.

As the band of Midvale Steel and Ordnance Company hove into sight, the first airplanes were seen overhead. The firing began from below just as the four eight-inch howitzers, the biggest thing the city had yet seen, came heavily trundling down the street, each drawn by eight powerful horses. Behind the howitzers were floats with young women workers, with faces streaked with oil, which could not, at its worst, conceal the pink cheeks underneath.

The Frankford Arsenal workers had an extraordinary turnout. Their own civilian band headed them, in plain working clothes—white duck hats, and blue dungaree blouses. A little dog mascot drew an ammunition box on wheels. Tool and gauge makers, pipe fitters with wooden wrenches, plumbers, laborers—each came in his turn, bearing proudly the tools of his craft. In the chemical laboratory detachment a young woman bore a glass retort and receiver, and there was a float with Erlenmeyer flasks and laboratory apparatus.

Both of these commands showed the strength of the American race—the combined blood of its tributaries. Few marks of race could be seen upon any of the men; here might be a Latin face, here a Gaelic, here a Scandinavian, here a Teutonic, here an African, here a Malay, here a Tartar, but no one looked at any man in the corps which passed but would have said, on asking: “That fellow’s an American.”

It was in the swing of the men, it was in their faces. The crews of the camouflaged landing guns borne with the bluejackets, were in very truth polyglot crews; but their speed, when they paused for a moment’s rest and were allowed to converse, was good “United States;” and idiomatic United States at that.

The yeomen of the Navy Yard were seen for the first time in line, and many expressions of envy came from the male spectators when they saw them in uniform, each platoon under the command of a sergeant.

Behind them came the first surprise of the parade; a huge flying boat, of a type which few Americans knew was in existence; a big realization of Rudyard Kipling’s vision of the “bat-boat.” Each mounted several guns—how many, of course, was nobody’s business. Everybody tried to count, but nobody got the count just right. The exact armament is the business of Uncle Sam and the men entrusted with Uncle Sam’s confidence. But the boat made even wise spectators gasp. Armored motor cars and a big new torpedo—worth $7000, if hardly bigger than a porpoise—were next shown. The Y.M.C.A. had a big float behind them.

Schwab and Big Shipbuilders

Dr. Charles D. Hart, another tall figure, led the second division. Behind him was the military-looking band of the American International Shipbuilding Corporation—and a good band at that.

Then came the leaders of the country’s big emergency shipbuilding industries—Charles M. Schwab, Rear Admiral Francis T. Bowles, Edward J. Piez, Howard Coonley—four in a row, each with the Stars and Stripes.

The Tacony Ordnance Works and the A.H. Fox Gun Company had big contingents, one of them declaring, in unison, from the red lips of young girls—that it would like to “knock the devil out of the squareheads.”

Farmerettes Look Fit

Then came the farmerettes—the erstwhile hard-riding, golf-playing, tennis championship, tea-fight heroines of the Main Line and the Reading. Debutantes who three years ago would almost have quarreled for the front row places in somebody’s private box at the opera were revealed as splendid-looking, pink and brown creatures more graceful and more “fit” in their hedge-like habiliments than they could possibly have been in Watteau-panniered skirts and the like.

One sun-burnt, competent-looking young woman, driving a farm cultivator and a very plain looking team of horses, was recognized with difficulty as Miss Frances Griscom. Another confessed that she was Miss Dorothy Shoemaker. Rough straw hats concealed a good deal—but hats off, and the marks of blood and breeding were to be seen in the faces of hundreds.

One unit bore the banner: “Eighteen thousand five hundred working hours in this unit.”

Huntington Valley, Chester Valley, every big farm tract sent its quota—beautiful sunburnt women, the rich blood flushing beneath their brown tan—superb wives and mothers-to-be, many of them, for a new and yet more superb generation of Americans.

The DuPont Powder Company sent some more women of the type who play with death for eight, ten, eleven hours, if need be, a day. The Carney’s Point powder girls gave their yell:

“Who are we? Who are we?
We are the girls of the E.I.D.;
We wear bloomers, and not pants.
We’ll kill the Kaiser if we ever get the chance!”

These women called themselves “Powder Puffs.” In this piece of feminine irony, could be summed up the whole spirit of the parade.

There was a “Spirit of ’76”—three men with fife and drum. Then came the fuse-makers and the high explosives and ammunition division.

These were mostly women, and they were cheered to the echo. Many of them pink-faced young girls, or women with gray hair and motherly looks, were creatures who stood day after day, week after week, an inch from death as sudden and terrible as ever confronted a man in actual battle. Many had seen their comrades killed beside them, through explosions or the like. They marched, they sang, they chattered, and to all seeming had the hour of their lives.

Another detachment had a Joan of Arc, a Scotch Lassie, an Uncle Sam and other national personages. Every detachment had a distinctive sign or a distinctive headgear. In the artillery department were women in the seventies, not permitted to walk, but borne in automobiles. Cartridge makers wore cartridge belts of service pattern.

The E.G. Budd Manufacturing Company had an interesting turnout, chiefly of women. The gas welders wore baldrics of rubber gas pipe—and mighty becoming they were, too. The women were attired, most of them, in blue uniforms of the “Tommy-Waac” type. Helmet stampers wore trench helmets, which they had made and which would some day, perhaps, protect the lives of their own well-beloved.

Many Units of Women

Mrs. Barclay Warburton headed the third division. First came the Women’s Liberty Loan Committee, then the committee headed by E.T. Stotesbury. Motor messengers with their ambulances, and members of the Red Cross Volunteer Service followed. Mrs. E.T. Stotesbury led a big contingent from the Naval Red Cross, and Mrs. Alexander Van Rensselaer a big division from the Navy League.

The Lit, the Snellenburg, the Gimbel, and other Red Cross contingents were large in number. The Knights of Columbus, the National League for Women’s Service and other organizations, either in full service uniform or in the Red Cross relief garb, came next. The Emergency Aid aides marched like soldiers.

The Emergency Aid Committee, its women hardly differentiated, if at all, by their uniforms from other commands, received a special tribute of applause. Mrs. John C. Groome headed them and behind marched a corps of women who three years ago were chiefly known as the leaders of Philadelphia’s social life.

Here and there among the poorly-clad, some one of them was bashfully pointed out, as a rule by a woman with a baby in her arms, as “Mrs. So-and-so, the swell woman that seen me through the winter three years ago.” A detachment of colored women, led by their own band, and their own woman drum major, received wild applause as it came in the wake of the Emergency Aid—which had, by the way, its own colored section.