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Policies curbed spread of spanish flu in 1918 St. Louis

Monday, November 23, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — In the first week of November 1918, the headlines were all about the collapse of the German lines after four years of exhausting, ghastly World War.

Inside pages carried daily local death tolls from the Spanish flu pandemic, which killed many millions more worldwide than even the machine guns could.

Since Oct. 7 of that year, St. Louis had been under Mayor Henry Kiel's order to close schools, churches, theaters and other places where crowds could spread the flu.

It was the idea of Max C. Starkloff, then in the 15th of his 30 years as city health commissioner. It kept down the number of infections and deaths, at least compared with other major cities.

But when flu deaths in St. Louis rose above 600, Starkloff and Kiel became bolder. On Nov. 8, they extended the order to taverns, tobacco shops, department stores and many other businesses.

Exceptions included restaurants, grocers, drugstores, factories filling war orders and newspapers, presumably to keep information flowing.

Angry businessmen pleaded for more exceptions, but Kiel refused. Said John Schmoll, city welfare director, "It is a case of get the dollars and lose the lives or save the lives and lose the dollars."

Police arrested several saloon keepers for defiantly pouring drinks. They locked up Joseph P. Burns, manager of T.R. Reid Shoe Co., 711 Washington Avenue, who argued that shoes were "essential."

After furious tobacconists complained that druggists were selling cigars, the city ordered pharmacies to stick to remedies. East St. Louis, St. Louis County and some municipalities, including Clayton and Maplewood, followed suit.

But nothing could keep the streets quiet after 2 a.m. Monday, Nov. 11, when news flashed of the armistice in Europe. Happy people, many banging pots, rushed into the streets and jammed major corners downtown. The Post-Dispatch wrote that mobs formed "with all thought of the epidemic thrown to the winds."

In a nod to exuberance, Starkloff said, "The people are out of doors, getting lungs full of fresh air, which is better for them than if they were at work or in their homes." He allowed stores to sell flags on the sidewalks.

Two days later, he and Kiel suspended the closings, allowing people to return to work, school, church and barstools. They said the rate of increase in the number of infections had gone down.

The numbers briefly spiked again, but the misnamed virus (soldiers from Fort Riley, Kan., had spread the flu to Europe) soon had spent itself. Starkloff's strategy of "social distancing" saved lives: St. Louis' death toll of 1,703 equaled 2.8 for each 1,000 residents, lowest among major American cities.


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