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“Please, Let Me Put Him in a Macaroni Box” The Spanish Influenza of 1918 in Philadelphia

In 1918 and 1919 the Spanish influenza killed more humans than any other disease in a similar period in the history of the world. In the United States a quarter of the population (25 million people or more) contracted the flu; 550,000 died. In the early 1980s, when historian Charles Hardy did interviews for the Philadelphia radio program “The Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” he was struck by the painful memories as many older Philadelphians recalled the inability of the city to care for the dead and dying. In these excerpts from Hardy’s radio program, Clifford Adams, an African American from the South; Anna Lavin, a Jewish immigrant; Anne Van Dyke and Elizabeth Struchesky; and Louise Abruchezze, an Italian immigrant, discussed their shared experience in Philadelphia—shocked by the scale of the influenza outbreak, none could fathom the lack of respect shown for those who had died.

Listen to Audio:

Clifford Adams: They were stacked up in the cemetery and they couldn’t bury them. I was living on 31st St. then. And that was a two-way street then, you know, and it’s one-way now. But people that died over this way had to be buried over this way and they used to have a funeral procession coming this way. And they used to be crossing. You had, they had to come to this bridge, coming one way or the other. And people would be there. And I would be layin' in there and I says, I looked out the window and says, “There are two funeral processions. One going one way and one going the other way meeting like that.” And that’s the way it was. There wasn’t a lot of comforts in those days. But it didn’t worry me. I was taking care of myself. What I mean, I wasn’t thinking about it. I wasn’t knowing whether I was going to die or what. I was just figuring it’s got me, and eveything else is going on.

Anna Lavin: The undertaker just ran, I don’t know how many, into their wagon and took them to the cemetery and that was it and had to dig your own grave. I mean, the families had to dig their own graves. Grave diggers were sick and that was the terrible thing.

Anne Van Dyke: They didn’t even bury the people. They found them stuck in garages and everything.

Elizabeth: Yes, oh, it was terrible, the flu.

Van Dyke: You had to go, my mother went and shaved the men and laid them out, thinking that they were going to be buried, you know. They wouldn’t bury 'em. They had so many died that they keep putting them in garages. That garage on Richmond Street. Oh, my gosh, he had a couple of garages full of caskets.

Charlie Hardy: Full of bodies?

Elizabeth: Bodies! On Thompson and Allegheny, Schedpa. He used to get the people and take them out and pile them in the garage. And people smelled something and they notified him. There he’d take the people out of the coffin and put them in the garage and give the coffin to somebody else and got paid for it. He lost his license and all. The smell would knock you, it would run down through the alley, so they caught up with him. People used to die. Oh, they used to die. It was an awful disease.

Louise Apuchase: We were the only family saved from the influenza. The rest of the neighbors all were sick. Now I remember so well, very well, directly across the street from us, a boy about 7, 8 years old died and they used to just pick you up and wrap you up in a sheet and put you in a patrol wagon. So the mother and father screaming. “Let me get a macaroni box.” Before, macaroni, any kind of pasta used to come in these wooden boxes about this long and that high, that 20 lbs. of macaroni fitted in the box. “Please, please, let me put him in the macaroni box. Let me put him in the box. Don’t take him away like that.” And that was it. My mother had given birth to my youngest sister at the time and then, thank God, you know, we survived. But they were taking people out left and right. And the undertaker would pile them up and put them in the patrol wagons and take them away.

Source: Interview done by Charles Hardy for WHYY-FM radio programThe Influenza Pandemic of 1918, Philadelphia, 1984. Courtesy of Charles Hardy, West Chester University.

See Also:"He'll Come Home in a Box": The Spanish Influenza of 1918 Comes to Montana
"There Wasn't a Mine Runnin' a Lump O' Coal": A Kentucky Coal Miner Remembers the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919