The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many to look back to a time in our history when a similar world-wide outbreak occurred, the Spanish Influenza of 1918. For my family, this period in history has always been a poignant subject since it is when my grandfather, Louis Testa, succumbed to the virus just shy of his 28th birthday. His son, my father, was only 3 years old.
I can remember many times while growing up how this tragic family moment would pop up and eventually lead to the discussion of – what if? What if Louis was able to survive and continue to support his family and raise his son and daughter (my aunt Mary). Instead, the course of our family changed and all we can do now is remember him and honor his memory, which is partly the purpose of this post. However, for me, other questions have recently become important. How could he have contracted the virus (I have a theory) and how closely does the 1918 pandemic compare to what we are experiencing with COVID-19 today?
As you can see in his obituary below, my grandfather was very involved in the Peekskill community and beloved by those who knew him. This was a time when Italian Americans were generally not looked upon in a positive manner by many in the community. It was a challenge, but the ultimate goal was to fully assimilate and become proud American citizens while also embracing their culture and heritage. Louis did that very successfully. So where could he have contracted the virus in 1918? There were surely many opportunities for it to happen but, it seems to me, the most likely place was where he worked – the Peekskill Post Office.
I’m sure it was a prestigious position to have as a young immigrant. An ‘official’ job in a place where all in the community at one time or another enter and interact with each other and the clerks who serve them. Louis’s job as a clerk and interpreter was especially important since he was the link between the growing Italian American community and their ability to communicate and understand the laws of their new home. They were also required to ‘check in’ at the post office periodically so their whereabouts could be monitored. To me, this situation seems to be the most logical scenario where Louis could have contracted the virus. There is no proof or family lore of this being the case, but it seems the most likely.
Comparing 1918 to 2020
Of course, there are the obvious similarities between the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and the COVID-19 one we are experiencing today, but there are also key differences worth noting. The nature of the virus and the way it attacked the population was quite different. Today, the COVID-19 virus seems to be most deadly to older adults and especially people who have serious pre-conditions. The young, for the most part, are not seriously affected. In 1918, the deadliest cases happened between the ages of 20-40 years old with an estimate of 28% of the entire population infected with a 2.5% death rate. Thanks to the advanced medical system of today and the various therapies that have prevented many cases from becoming fatal, the death rate will be well below 1%. While we do not have a vaccine for COVID-19 at this time, many are being tested and one will be available relatively soon. In 1918, there was no such hope or even methods or practice of immunization.
The 1918 flu hit with two waves in 1918 and a smaller 3rd wave in 1919. The first wave in the spring of 1918 was relatively typical of a flu epidemic and not very deadly which is not what we are experiencing today. It was the
second wave in the fall of 1918 that spread terrible sickness and death throughout the country and what took my grandfather’s life that October. In fact, there was a total of 195,000 flu deaths that October, one of the deadliest months in US history. The spread of the virus outbreak was caused by a similar reason, purposeful silence and misinformation at the source. As we know, in 1918 Europe was in the midst of WWI. No one knows exactly where the virus originated. Some believe it came out of the diseased trenches used during the war or the 1917 respiratory disease outbreak in China’s Shanxi Province. There is no way to know for sure. When troops began to see widespread infection in countries like Germany, Austria, France, the UK and eventually the US (we entered the war in late 1917) they did not want their enemies to know about the effects the virus had on their armies, fearing it would make them vulnerable. In fact, all armies were experiencing the spread and as the sick were transported home, they brought the virus with them. The only country that eventually reported on the virus outbreak in their country was neutral Spain. Without the wartime censorship the participating countries imposed, Spain was free to publish reports of the outbreak. Even the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII contracted the virus – and recovered. This is why the 1918 virus is commonly known as the Spanish Flu.
As troops came back from Europe, so did the virus. As mentioned above, a third wave of the virus occurred into the spring of 1919 and eventually subsided by the summer. Although not as deadly as the second wave, it still had its effects. In the late spring of 1919 even President Woodrow Wilson contracted the virus during the Paris Peace Conference and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that officially ended the war.
The overall numbers are staggering. One third of the entire world population is thought to have contracted the Spanish Flu with 50 million deaths worldwide. In the US, there were 675,000 flu deaths. On top of that there was a war going on where over 116,000 soldiers died. It must have been absolutely unbearable. There were quarantines, closures and masks then also but no hope for treatments or vaccines. In 1918 there wasn’t even laboratory equipment available yet that could see a virus. It wasn’t until 1933 that the influenza virus could be isolated and studied. The first vaccine was not developed until 1938 and not used to treat the public until after WW2. Today, we see horrible numbers as well. While no where near 1918, the COVID-19 pandemic is no less horrifying. Although the projections for the US are relatively low compared to 1918 they are no easier to accept. As of May 2020, the projected US deaths will be 60-80,000. We know there are medical professionals around the world working with study after study to prepare an effective vaccine and other treatments. Those living in 1918 had no such hope. My family members who were there in 1918 did not speak about it. When the topic came up, they never participated. My great aunts saw their brother die from the virus and it must have been a horrible experience. My father was only three so he didn’t have a memory of the time. As he grew up I’m sure he learned things but he never told us if he did.
There is an interesting irony I realized while writing this. My maternal grandfather, William Suessenbach, was a WWI doughboy in Europe. As one grandfather fought the Spanish Flu in Peekskill, the other fought in the war. As Louis succumbed to the virus, William, a victim of a mustard gas attack, survived the war. I was able to know Pop Pop for a short time until his death when I was 8. It would have been awesome to know Louis. He must have been a great guy.
Louis Testa Obituary:
The Highland Democrat
Peekskill, N.Y., Saturday, November 2, 1918
Mr. Testa was born in Italy December 13, 1890, the son of Joseph and Mary Milia. Mr. Testa Sr., came to Peekskill in April 1901, from Italy and in October of that year Louis, the son, arrived from across the water to join his father. Within ten days after his arrival, Louis, then a lad of eleven years of age, entered Drum Hill school, beginning thus early to acquaint himself with the language of this, his new country. In a short time, he became so proficient in reading English that John Millar, who was then principal, frequently took him from grade to grade of the school to exhibit his ability, oftentimes to the mortification of some of the less proficient American boys.
Through his own efforts and the kindly interest of principal and teachers he completed the work of the grades and entered High School where he remained for over two years. He then went to Peekskill Military Academy in 1910, spending one year there. Business instincts and the desire to do a man’s work, led Louis to become a clerk and interpreter in the Post Office. He had held this position when he was stricken with the Spanish influenza which caused his death.
He was one of the most courteous, obliging, accommodating clerks that ever faced a patron at the stamp or delivery window in the Peekskill Post Office. Those who know of the innumerable ironbound rules of the Post Office regarding many things, and the red tape that ties up the system, all of which it sometimes seems a devised and invented more to annoy, peeve and inconvenience the public rather than to help aid and assist the patrons, know how often an incompetent, disobliging, disagreeable clerk hides his ignorance, his laziness or indifference behind these orders, some apparently ridiculous. Mr. Testa was always willing to stretch a point to accommodate the public. He was one of those Post Office men who believed the postal system should be carried on to assist the patrons and taxpayers instead of obstacles under the cognomen of petty rules, silly regulations and useless red tape being placed in the way of people who desire to utilize the United States mails and are paying well for the service or what should be service. This desire of “Louie” to please and be courteous, to accommodate or help out was the means of his being reprimanded and checked up more than once for a seeming violation of these technical rules, but no man, woman or child who ever had occasion to be waited upon by or to ask a question of Louis Testa at his window in the Post Office will forget his smile, his polite rejoinder, his endeavor to please and assist the patron whom he was paid to serve.
He was an active member of Peekskill Lodge No. 744 B.P.O.E. having joined the lodge Nov. 3, 1915, and served on numerous committees. He was on its bowling team and helped win many games for his team. He was also a member of the Guardian bowling team for a number of years and could generally be depended upon for a good score. He was also a member of Peekskill Council No. 462 K. of C.
On October 18, 1914, Mr. Testa married Celia Vozzella of New York. She survives him with two children, Joseph and Mary. He also leaves his parents and two sisters, Misses Nina and Concetta.
The funeral services were held on Tuesday morning from the Church of the Assumption. The Italian American Society turned out in large numbers and a delegation of Elks was present. The interment was at Assumption Cemetery.
Mr. Testa bore an enviable reputation among his fellows and was constantly doing a good turn for not only his Italian friends but his American acquaintances as well.