Bedford Explained: The 1918 Influenza Epidemic

May 1, 2020

It is thought that when the influenza epidemic arrived in Massachusetts in late August of 1918, it was brought by Navy men returning from World War I. The disease felled sailors on a receiving ship docked at Commonwealth Wharf in Boston and spread to the dockyards and naval station. It began to sicken Camp Devens, in Ayer, where there were thousands of soldiers waiting to be posted to France. Inevitably, it leaped to the civilian population.

Did a Bedford townsperson become infected on an errand into Boston? Totally possible. But it was quite common for Bedford men stationed at Camp Devens to come out to visit parents and friends in their hometown, and I think it just as likely that one of them brought the virus with him on a weekend pass.

The 1918 Flu Pandemic Memorial near Devens

The deadly fever and cough spread throughout Bedford. Yet, very little is known about those horrible days. No Bedford diaries or letters of the time have come to light. It is left to us to extrapolate from the Bedford page in the Concord Enterprise, the local newspaper. The Enterprise pays it little attention. On September 25, it mentions that young Gerald Munroe, the American Express Agent, is “suffering from an attack of Spanish flu.” (Two weeks later, it reassures us that Munroe is slowly recovering.)

Folding bandages at Fort Devens

Early in October, it records that there are “several more cases,” and that John Fisher has died of ‘the influenza’. For the rest of the month, Bedford church services are canceled, the school is closed, and the library is shut. The “entertainment” that the Congregational Church had been planning will not be held. But on the same page, the reporter writes that “the greater part of the town” attended a reception for the new principal of the Union School

The Board of Health stated in the 1918 Town Report “the past year has been a very trying one.” It counted 63 reported cases of influenza and an estimated 39 unreported cases – this when the population of Bedford was just 1,350. The 1919 Town Report counted 14 cases of influenza, but a new wave struck in 1920 and 37 people came down with it that year. Finally, the virus weakened, and there were no cases in 1921 and just 7 in 1922. In Bedford, the epidemic had run its course.

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