Pandemic… Thanksgiving… 1918


Here is another excerpt from the first draft of Kitty’s People: Legend of an Irish Family in the American Heartland. The scene opens in the fall of 1918. With war still raging in Europe, 28-year-old Kitty Barrett and her husband Tom have a 4-year-old daughter and own three grocery stores. They live above the store on Cote Brilliant and Hamilton. Kitty’s father Moses Flanagan and his third wife May have suffered health problems. Among Kitty’s siblings, Nellie is dead, Joe has moved to Chicago, Modie has been sentenced to a year in the City Workhouse for attempted burglary, Ethel lives at the city sanitarium on Arsenal, and Julie and Tommy are living with Moses and May in an apartment on St. Ferdinand. Tom Barrett’s mother and sisters live together in a house on Lexington.

October, 1918, begins with a tide of gossip rising through the neighborhoods where the Barretts have their three stores. A flu epidemic that killed a few St. Louisans earlier in the year is predicted to flare up into a highly contagious second wave. Worried how it will affect their business, Kitty and Tom search the papers for news and share what they hear from their customers.

The newspapers are packed with stories of the war—details of the massive American assault on Germany along the western front and the swirl of speculation over how it will end. Over dinner on October 3, Tom finds news of the epidemic buried on page four of the Post-Dispatch and reads it aloud to her. One death has been reported in St. Louis, but eastern states are being ravaged—80,000 cases in Philadelphia alone.

The next day, Kitty talks to one of her customers, Mrs. Schultz, a physician’s wife, who is stocking up on canned goods and dried beans. “It’s going to be bad,” Mrs. Schultz says. “Starkloff, the health commissioner, he ordered all the docs report every case to him and of course all eyes are on Jefferson Barracks.” She lowers her voice. “It’s spreading by way of the military bases. No one’s keen to let that cat out of bag—because of the war effort, dontcha know. They don’t want us turning against our boys.”

“But how do people die from the flu?” Kitty asks.

“Oh, it’s the pneumonia, honey. This Spanish influenza thing settles right in the lungs and, boom, you’re dead.”

A chill ripples down Kitty’s arms, as she begins to enter Mrs. Schultz’s purchases on the adding machine. “So many cases in Philadelphia, so suddenly,” she says. “That’s terrifying.”

“Well, you know what happened there.” Mrs. Dubrowsky is standing in line with her five pounds of Quaker oats. “Big outbreak in the navy yard and the meshuggeneh town fathers go right ahead with their giant patriotic Liberty Loan parade. People dropping like flies. What a shame.”

That evening, while Kitty is heating up her stew pot, Tom points out a letter in the Post-Dispatch from Dr. Starkloff, urging people to prevent the flu by avoiding fatigue, alcohol, and crowds. He also cautions St. Louisans to get plenty of fresh air and stay away from anyone who is sick.

“I wonder if you should take a break from working downstairs for a while,” Tom suggests. “I think we can afford to hire a clerk.”

“Are you kidding?” she says. They are settled into the apartment over the new store on Cote Brilliante. To their delight, the store is busy, but needs constant attention to make sure the shelves are stocked with brands their customers prefer and to get any complaints taken care of immediately. Their competitive edge is selling both fresh meat and dry goods, so they have the additional worries of a competent butcher, health department inspections, refrigeration, and rigorous hygiene.

“But your delicate condition,” he says.

She puts the lid back on her stew and turns to see the worry in his blue eyes. As she puts a hand on her belly, she leans over to kiss his head. “We have a long way to go till April. How about if I just follow the advice to get more sleep. I’ll wear a mask if I have to, but it’ll take a while to find somebody I trust to man the cash register.”

Kitty continues to quiz customers who have political or medical connections. Several mention an outbreak at Jefferson Barracks. All the soldiers there are now confined to quarters. After the noon Mass on Sunday, October 6, Mrs. McMurphy, whose son works for the city, tells her that yesterday a family with seven cases was reported to Dr. Starkloff’s office and that this morning, there were fifty more.

Mrs. Hogan tells her that the Board of Alderman held an emergency meeting to officially label Spanish flu a communicable disease. The declaration gives the mayor authority to call a public health emergency.

It is no surprise, then, when the morning paper on October 8 says that, after a big powwow of city officials, hospital administrators, and business leaders, the city is closing down. Theaters, movie houses, pool halls—all entertainment venues shuttered, all public gatherings cancelled, immediately. The mayor gives the school district one day to get the wheels in motion to suspend classes as of Friday.

The Barretts are startled to read that city physicians have already reported a hundred cases to Starkloff’s office and that Jefferson Barracks has called in nine hundred cases.

It also shocked them to hear that private hospitals are turning flu patients away from their emergency rooms, claiming they can’t risk contagion to patients with other acute ailments. By October 11, the City Hospital is full and sending the overflow to the Arsenal sanitarium. The Red Cross jumps in with a plan to deploy nurses with volunteer drivers to care for quarantined patients at home. When there aren’t enough volunteer vehicles, police cars double as ambulances.

Within a week’s time, St. Louis has transformed, from a community excited about the end of war, homecomings, and holidays to a town in crisis, out of work, hoarding food, fearing for their lives.

Tom takes Mary over to Lexington where she can stay safely with his mother and sisters for a few days.

The grocery business goes nuts.

Shelves are emptied as soon as the Barretts can stock them. Kitty is forced to hire extra help for the cash register so she can spend her days on the phone with wholesalers, bargaining for extra deliveries and searching for new vendors where there are shortages. And in the evenings, she sits at her sewing machine making masks from old sheeting. Or she goes down to the basement to scour and bleach the endless mountain of aprons, shirts, skirts, and trousers that have been exposed to flu-polluted air. Tom tries to help but is often falling asleep in his chair before they are done with their late suppers.

The epidemic gets worse. The Barretts become frightened that their crowded stores are contributing to the spread. They ask customers to line up outside and wear masks. If customers admits to having coughs or chills, they are asked to sit on a bench outdoors while employees fetch what they need. The Barretts encourage call-in orders and home deliveries. They hire another couple boys with bikes and rent an additional truck to get the work done.

The customers are their friends and neighbors and everyone cooperates.

Kitty and Tom keep their stores open for as long as there are customers in line outside. Then their employees wipe down counters and doors with disinfectant. Tom wipes down the cash registers after he puts the day’s receipts in pouches. Then they have to disinfect the kitchen table and scrub their hands after the day’s tally. As much as they miss her, they are grateful Mary is staying with her aunts and grandmother, an adventure full of books and games.

By Monday, October 21, the mayor has shut most of the retail businesses downtown. In the rest of the city, only grocers and pharmacies can remain open beyond a short window that lets them take care of urgent business.

That afternoon, Kitty is upstairs, working the phone, talking to their suppliers. About three, she answers a call and is surprised to hear her brother Tommy.

His voice is thick and slow. “We’ve been sick here, Catherine. Papa and May, Julie and me. We’re quarantined.”

“Mother of God,” Kitty says, suddenly wishing Mary was in her arms. “I had no idea. Tell me, what can I do?”

“A nurse from the Red Cross comes by every day and someone—a volunteer—drops off food.” He pauses to cough and now Kitty hears the wheeze from his lungs. “We’ve been doing good, getting by, but today Julie took a turn. Hard time breathing. Began looking a little blue. And you know, her sugar is bad because she hasn’t been eating. The nurse came in and said she needed to go to the hospital. A Red Cross volunteer took her down to City. I hope we did the right thing.”

“When was this?” Kitty feels that familiar wave of guilt that she’s been paying attention to all the wrong things.

“Just now. I wanted to go with her but they said no. Said the hospital will call us after she’s admitted or if she’s in good enough shape to be sent over to the sanitarium on Arsenal. I feel terrible. She looked so scared. The volunteer was a big guy wearing a white gown and a mask. Just picked her up and carried her away.”

“Oh my Jesus.” Her poor baby sister, a skin-and-bones seventeen-year-old, alone in an overcrowded public hospital with hundreds of other flu victims. “And Papa? The nurse thinks Papa is okay to stay home?”

“Yeah. He was up all night by Julie’s side talking to her, singing his songs. A little delirious maybe, talking to Mama, praying to her to get her baby through this. But his breathing is okay and now he can sleep.”

“You’ll call me when you hear from the hospital, okay?”

“Sure thing.”

When Kitty hangs up, she calls her mother-in-law’s house, praying they aren’t in the same boat. Mamie answers and reassures her that they are all fine. She and Katie are staying home while their jobs are suspended and Mother is healthy. Francis is delivering groceries to them every couple of days. Little Mary is having the time of her life as the center of their world.

Next, Kitty tries City Hospital but, as expected, their switchboard is jammed. She also tries the sanitarium, to see if Ethel is all right. With that facility retooling for flu patients, she isn’t surprised when no one answers there either.

While she has family on her mind, she might as well call the Workhouse and check on Modie. The man who answers is curt: “Moses R. Flanagan is present,” he says. “Any of ‘em get sick, we transport ‘em up to City. Then we notify next of kin.”

Kitty hangs up and goes back to worrying about her father and Julie. She has a meatloaf in the icebox and could grab a bag of potatoes from downstairs and run them over to Papa’s place. But, damn, there’s a knot in her stomach. If she doesn’t get the poultry order in this afternoon, they’ll be short come the weekend. And she still needs to find someone with toilet paper. She wipes the tears from her eyes, blows her nose, and picks up the phone. “Let’s get this done.”

When Kitty hears the door slam, she realizes she’s been stretched over the kitchen table, sound asleep. It is Tom, coming in after closing up each of the three stores.

She sits back and starts straightening the piles of paper, trying to remember what was on her mind before she conked out.

“What time is it?” she croaks.

Tom removes his mask and lays the three money pouches on the table. “After ten,” he says, as he leans over the sink to scrub his hands. Then he lays his hands on her shoulders, and bends over to kiss her neck.

“I stopped at Mother’s for a minute to check on Mary. She was already asleep. Katie says she’s learning how to read. Our little girl is something else, isn’t she?”

“I miss her so much,” Kitty says, then yawns.

 “Why don’t you head on to bed. I’ll do the receipts. Anything I need to know?”

“Oh.” She rubs her eyes and consults her list. “Catanzaro says plenty of apples. He can deliver tomorrow. Jones says he doesn’t think there will be any turkeys for Thanksgiving. If there are, they’ll be small and expensive.” Then she remembers Tommy’s phone call. “Oh, Jesus, yes. The Flanagans are all down with the flu. Julie got taken to City Hospital this afternoon.” She pushes away from the table and stands. “I’ll make you a sandwich.”

Tom catches her in his arms and pulls her close. “That’s awful to hear. Terrible. She’s such a frail girl. I hope—” He lets the thought dangle but Kitty can finish it. He hopes Julie lives. Or he hopes she dies easy.

Kitty is grateful for her healthy little girl, so curious and high-spirited, capable of entertaining herself for hours on end and equally capable of holding her own with older girls in the neighborhood. While she grills Tom a cheese and tomato sandwich, she prays to the Blessed Mother to get her sister home soon and to keep Papa, May, and Tommy on the road to recovery.

As the days go by, the reported cases of Spanish influenza begin to subside and the mayor lifts some restrictions. Kitty is glad to hear that Papa, May, and Tommy are up and about, even if still dragging. Tommy goes back to work at Schaffer’s but the company is only open a couple hours each day for emergency work. Papa and May keep their shops closed. The bad news is that Julie is not responding to treatment.

Papa has cajoled a nurse at City Hospital into calling him every evening when her shift ends. Then he calls Kitty to report. Between the diabetes and the flu, Julie drifts along in semi-consciousness. He has begged to visit, to sit with her, to read to her, to sing her songs, but no visitors are allowed while the pandemic rages on.

In international news, it appears that the war in Europe is coming to a rapid end as American troops swarm into Germany, declaring victory as they go. It is only a matter of time before the Kaiser abdicates and the Germans surrender. Tom gets his final draft classification on a postcard—a permanent deferment. At least that worry is off their plates.

St. Louis businesses are agitating to fully re-open, looking forward to a big celebration when armistice comes. But according to Dr. Starkloff, the stats project a spike in the infection rate, so the mayor orders an increase in restrictions. In fact, when armistice is declared on Monday, November 11, and people take their joy to the streets, all non-essential businesses are closed and no official parade is held. Police patrols walk the streets in commercial districts to keep people moving and to ensure businesses stay shut.

But the good news is that schools will finally reopen on November 14. On Sunday, the tenth, Kitty and Tom visit Mother’s for a small celebration of Mary’s fifth birthday, then take her home with them. Kitty beams at her little girl, all the more beautiful for the month she has been away from them. Mary arranges all her new books on a shelf, except for The Secret Garden, which she hands to Tom.

“I can read you a story now,” she says. “Aunt Mamie taught me to read.”

And Kitty’s heart sings as she sees the adoration in Tom’s eyes for his brilliant girl.

Their plan for Thanksgiving is to enjoy a break from the madness at a feast on Lexington Avenue. Mother, Mamie, and Katie promise a relaxing afternoon and a traditional dinner with all the trimmings, substituting chicken for turkey.

But on the twenty-seventh, the day before Thanksgiving, the newspaper announces that the projected spike in flu has materialized, spreading especially fast among children. Kitty and Mamie consult by phone and rejigger the plan. Mamie already intended to pack a food basket for the convalescing Flanagans, so she extends the project to food baskets for all.

Thanksgiving is a bone-chilling, rainy day and the Barretts are thankful for the chance to sleep late, eat pancakes and sausages, and play the Scott Joplin records Moses gave them. Kitty putters in the kitchen while Tom teaches Mary to play parcheesi. The afternoon Post-Dispatch reports that the flu infections continue to soar. More cancellations and closures are ordered. The Red Cross nurses are brought back on duty and an army of volunteers is requested to help sanitize the streetcars and enforce their proper ventilation. Schools are closed indefinitely.

At three, Kitty announces she’s going to pick up the baskets from Lexington and deliver one to the Flanagans.

“Absolutely not,” says Tom. “It’s going to be dark soon and the roads will be slick.”

“I want to go,” Mary say. “I miss grandmother and my aunties. If school is cancelled, can I go live with them again? They’re way more fun than you two.”

“Mary Margaret!” Kitty says, suppressing a laugh. “It’s Thanksgiving. You should be grateful for what your parents can provide for you, a lovely home above our very own store.”

Mary frowns. “They buy me stuff. They make me cookies every day.”

“You’re staying here with your father and I need to check in on my father. They’ve been sick and I haven’t seen them in weeks. And we’re all worried about your Aunt Julie, who’s been in the hospital all alone for over a month now.”

Tom says, “You know I’m going to worry about you till you get home.”

“I know,” she says. “I’ll be fine.”

Kitty gets to the Lexington Avenue house at four. Of course, the Barrett women have been isolated and are eager for a conversation about the outside world. The house is redolent with the aroma of roasted chicken, sage, and rosemary. The fireplace crackles with hospitality. Kitty can’t resist their offer of brandy. The conversation drifts from war shortages and pandemic layoffs to their precious Mary. Mother and the aunties love having her stay with them and can’t wait for the next little Barrett they can spoil.

When Kitty leaves Lexington Avenue with her food baskets, it is dark. The rain is mixed with pellets of sleet. Kitty secures the two baskets on the Ford’s floorboards, then pulls her fur coat snug around her disappearing waistline and repins her hat against the wind. She takes brightly lit Vandeventer for the mile drive to St. Ferdinand and arrives at the Flanagan apartment feeling a rare glow of relaxation.

Papa opens the door. He is pale and his cheeks sunken behind his waxed walrus mustache, but his smile is broad.

“Oh my darling Catherine. How wonderful to see your face!”

“You too, Papa.”

She waves to May seated in an easy chair across the room and Tommy comes forward to kiss her cheek and take the heavy basket of food.

“Everything’s cold. Needs reheating.” As Tommy disappears into the kitchen, she wraps her arms around her papa, just thrilled to see him. “Tell me how you all are. Have you heard anything about Julie? Did I tell you I was able to talk to Ethel the other day? She seems all right, says she’s working in the laundry operation there on Arsenal, keeping sheets and gowns sanitized.”

As Kitty babbles to her papa, she catches the rich fragrance of cigars and a tall, dark figure emerges from the shadows. Her jaw drops.

It is her brother Modie.

He gives her a shy smile. He is bundled in a dark overcoat, unshaven, but more handsome than ever.

“Oh my heart!,” she cries and throws her arms around him.

He hugs her back. “I’m so glad I got to see you,” he says.

Still hanging on to his arms, she pulls back to look into his beautiful brown eyes. “So what is it? Did they commute your sentence? Did they give you leave for the holiday?” She senses the sudden stiffening of her father and May. “What is it?”

“I escaped,” Modie says. “You heard me right. I had enough of pounding rocks into gravel. I’m headed for Chicago and came here to see Papa and to say goodbye for awhile. I’m really sad not to see Julie. I can’t stand it she’s so sick.”

“Escaped?” is all Kitty can manage to say.

He winks at her. “Pays to have friends. I’m plenty strong now and climbed up a quarry wall to the street outside the workhouse. We had it all planned out. My buddies picked me up there right on Broadway and Meramec. They’re waiting for me now, in that Packard you probably parked next to.”

“But the police—” Kitty starts to say.

Modie shakes his head. “Cops are too busy with flu patrol to bother with an escaped con.”

He peels away from her and digs something out of his coat pocket. It’s a thick stack of currency. He stuffs it into Moses’ jacket. “Don’t worry. It’s all mine. Fair and square. Didn’t rob any banks, didn’t blow any safes on the way here.” He chuckles. “I want you to have it, Papa, for all the hell I put you through last coupla years.”

Papa tears up as Modie gives him a big kiss on his cheek and a hug. “Oh me boy-o, can’t you stay here? Can’t you hide with us… for a while… till it’s safe?”

“Gotta work, Papa. Earn my keep. This town doesn’t love me anymore. But I’ll be back. Don’t you worry.”

Modie takes a step and pecks May on the forehead, then gives Tommy a bear hug. “Take care of Papa, Tommy boy. I’ll give Joe a punch for you when I see him in Chi-town.”

Tommy bites his lip and gives his brother a jab on the shoulder.

Modie turns to Kitty, who is still gaping at him. With a hug and a kiss, he says, “I miss you, sis. Miss you bossing me around, telling me to do what’s right. I’m going to do okay from here on in, you’ll see.” He heads for the door. “And that’s a swell coat you got there. I knew you’d be successful!”

With that, he’s through the door and disappearing into the night.

She hears her papa sigh and turns back to him. He is mopping his face with his handkerchief. Their eyes meet. “It’s been a helluva year, Catherine,” he says. “Helluva year.”

From STL Star & Times, 15 May 1919, page 3, about Moses R. Flanagan

One comment

  1. With amazing clarity, your words bring the fear of what it was like to live and work during a pandemic and a global war. Fear for your wife and child; fear for 2 sets of parents and siblings; fear to being able to stock groceries for your neighbors. You made it come alive including the actions of government, hospitals, and home nurses and care, as well as the family.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s