- Written by Tony Kelso
- Published: 27 January 2008
In 1918, 27-year-old Charles Boomer left Duxbury full of vigor for World War I military camp in Syracuse, New York. Harriet Higgins Anthony was a busy 25-year-old Duxbury mother of three small children. These two must have been full of hopes and dreams for their futures. Tragically, they were the first Duxbury residents to die in the 1918 flu epidemic that nation-wide killed more than 400,000 people in a few short months in the fall and early winter of 1918.
1918 Duxbury was a very different place. The approximately 2,000 people who lived here year round saw a tide of double that number of summer residents arrive when the weather turned warm. From Bay Road to Standish Shore, to Powder Point and out to Duxbury Beach the many summer cottages and houses were occupied only about four months a year. Duxbury had more chickens than people and more horses than automobiles in 1918. Alden Street had no schools, only fields. Partridge Academy was the high school and the elementary school population was educated in eight different schools scattered around town. Hall’s Corner was still just a crossroads with only a post office. Most Duxbury neighborhoods had their own general stores that served those areas of town.
A few long time Duxbury residents may recall 1918 and the toll it took among their neighbors. But to catch glimmers of the flu outbreak in Duxbury, we have to turn to the Town Report and the weekly Duxbury reporting in the Plymouth paper, The Old Colony Memorial (OCM).
Duxbury reported 295 cases of influenza in 1918, which in a population of 2,000 meant that just less than 15% of Duxbury had the flu during the fall and early winter months. The Board of Health listed 91 cases in September, 95 in October, 23 in November and 86 in December.
The 1918 flu particularly struck young people who were in their twenties and thirties. Officially 6 people died of the flu in Duxbury in the months of September-December 1918, all between the ages of 22 and 40. During that time another 10 people of that age died out of town and were buried in Duxbury, but since the cause of their deaths was not listed we can’t be certain they died of influenza.
The flu seems to have taken longer to make its way to Duxbury. The first hint of flu as recorded in the OCM was during the week of September 27 when it was reported, “There are quite a number of cases of influenza in town and some of the cases are seriously ill.” By then, Plymouth with a population of about 10,000 already had 12 deaths from flu.
Only a week later Harriet Higgins Anthony died, and Duxbury churches and the “moving pictures” at the Odd Fellows Hall were closed. Schools were also closed, “not on account of the epidemic, but on account of the low percentage of attendance, which evidently expresses the sentiment of the majority of the parents.”
The Duxbury correspondent then went on to stiffly report that now the School Committee had cooperated with the parents, they hoped the parents would cooperate by keeping their children in their own yards and not unnecessarily allow them to walk or play in the street where it was much more dangerous. The School Committee felt the tragedy keenly in December when a valued member, Arthur Bradlee, a 30-year-old father, died of the disease.
Schools and churches remained closed through the end of October, when it was thought that the epidemic had abated. But by the first week of November they were closed again after an “alarming increase in the number of cases, resulting in three deaths at least.” Again in December, “Influenza is rife again in town. Some days there have been as many as 10-12 new cases, making it necessary to close the schools in town.” The private Powder Point School had escaped much of the epidemic earlier and remained open, but closed in December when three teachers were hospitalized.
Many summer residents of Duxbury stayed on through the end of October, and some even reopened their houses in order to stay. Since flu was rampant in their winter towns and schools were closed, the summer people throughout Duxbury stayed ,”to keep their children at the shore as long as possible, as they are safer in Duxbury than they would be in any other place.” It was also reported many for the first time enjoyed a beautiful Duxbury autumn, with crystal clear days, bright sun and a hint of frost.
The Duxbury Nurses Association recruited a public health nurse from New York with the wonderful sounding name of Angela Pray to help residents cope with the epidemic. They also had milk, broth and bedding committees working to supply these essentials. They were necessary since many young parents became ill, and needed help caring for their children. It was also encouraged to wear gauze masks supplied by the Red Cross.
Yet despite the fear of the epidemic, life during the fall of 1918 in Duxbury continued on as much as possible. The selectmen’s report, which never mentioned the epidemic, went on at length about leasing clam flats. The dirt roads were in a deplorable state all over town. The School Committee while grieving for their colleague Arthur Bradlee grumbled about the conditions of the town schools. Football teams continued to practice, smelt fishing in the bay was very good that fall, and the bay was full of ducks, but hunting was not good because the weather was so fine. Eleven babies were born and five couples were married. Social comings and goings continued but on a lesser scale. World War I occupied people’s thoughts and War bonds drives were held. When
Armistice Day arrived in Duxbury on November 11, church bells rang, people gathered in the streets and the German Kaiser was burnt in effigy in Halls Corner.
With the arrival of the new year of 1919 the influenza epidemic began to ebb in Duxbury and the rest of the nation. Seventy-five cases of influenza were reported in all of Duxbury during 1919 and nobody died from the disease.
Charles Boomer is remembered in Duxbury by having the grass triangle at the intersection of Depot St. and Tremont St. opposite Town Hall named for him. We can remember him, Harriet Higgins Anthony, Arthur Bradlee and the others, as well as saviors like Angela Pray and the many un-named healers, who 85 years ago courageously fought the 1918 influenza here in Duxbury.