by: Maureen Wlodarczyk
When I was five years old, we moved from Jersey City to Union Beach, a place where my parents could afford to purchase a small ranch house with carport. For many years after, I spent two to three weeks each summer back in Jersey City, visiting my maternal grandparents at their apartment on Rose Avenue in Greenville. I loved staying with them and being the center of my grandmother’s attention. My grandparents never owned a car so my grandmother and I would take the bus to Journal Square to shop or see a movie. One summer I unexpectedly came down sick, very sick. My grandmother tucked me in up to my chin in her own bed and called for the family’s faithful physician, Dr. Front. He was what used to be called a (very) “tall drink of water,” and had to duck his head when coming through the doorways of the apartment. When he appeared at my bedside, I am told that my eyes opened wide like saucers. No doubt. Looking up from my sickbed to take in the whole of him was quite an experience. His diagnosis: the grippe.
Today, the word grippe, coming from a French word meaning “seize suddenly,” has been replaced by the modern term “influenza,” the two words being essentially synonymous. For decades before that summer I took sick in Jersey City, Hudson County residents had been stricken by periodic grippe outbreaks including in 1889 and 1892. The most serious of those was the 1918 “Spanish” influenza pandemic that first broke out in Europe and killed thousands of soldiers on the battlefields of World War I before making its way to the United States.
The first reports of suspected Spanish flu cases in Hudson County occurred in September, 1918. Over the next month, newspapers carried daily counts of new cases, those numbers sometimes reaching 200 or more in a single day in Jersey City alone. In early October, a local newspaper reported the tragic story of the Kelly family who lived on Grove Street in downtown Jersey City. Mr. Kelly, an inspector with an express company and the brother of two soldiers serving in France, died after contracting the flu. As Kelly’s mortal remains awaited religious services at St. Mary’s R.C. Church and burial at Holy Name Cemetery, his pregnant wife, also infected and near death, gave birth to a baby that died shortly thereafter. There was an outpouring of grief in Jersey City and Mayor Frank Hague and other community officials attended Tom Kelly’s funeral.
The same week that Tom Kelly died, an urgent call was made for “patriotic” women to volunteer to make gauze masks under the auspices of the Greenville Red Cross on Linden Avenue. As the new cases mounted, flu deaths were listed in local newspapers and in Bayonne and Jersey City, hard-hit by the outbreak, the Boards of Health mandated that schools, saloons, ice cream parlors, churches, pool rooms and other public gathering places close until further notice. Hospitals and doctors were overwhelmed by the sick and dying. Local undertakers were unable to obtain sufficient numbers of coffins for the dead and there were fears about possible contamination as the result of delayed burials. The New York Bay Cemetery stopped interring the dead due to not having enough gravediggers to open the graves and bodies were temporarily stored in vaults where possible. In the middle of this crisis, local liquor dealers organized an angry demonstration in Jersey City and, in response, Mayor Hague agreed to reopen saloons, a decision that was roundly criticized by health officials.
The Spanish flu struck millions of people around the world and at every level of society, from European royalty to the very poor, young and old alike. In Hudson County, one of those who lost his life during the outbreak in October 1918 was a popular local lightweight wrestler known as Young Bon Ton. “Bon Ton,” then 29 years old, had been wrestling locally and around the U.S. for several years and had claimed the title “lightweight champion of the world” for himself after he defeated a Canadian wrestler in 1914. When he succumbed to the flu, one of his friends was quoted as saying that Bon Ton had “tried hard to put the full Nelson on the influenza, but failed.”
Maureen Wlodarczyk is a fourth-generation-born Jersey City girl and the author of three books about life in Jersey City in the 1800s and early 1900s: Past-Forward: A Three-Decade and Three-Thousand-Mile Journey Home, Young & Wicked: The Death of a Wayward Girl and Canary in a Cage: The Smith-Bennett Murder Case. For info: www.past-forward.com.