I wrote the following piece in 2018 as part of a class reflecting on the 1918 centennial, and all that came with it; the end of World War I, the early beginnings of the Soviet Union, and the Spanish Influenza pandemic that gripped the world, pun intended. For those familiar with my background, it will come as no surprise that I decided to dedicate a number of posts to the story of Pennhurst and those who resided there in 1918, just ten years after the institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities opened. It is now 2019, but I think the following story maintains its importance, and for that reason I share it again here where, perhaps, more people can read it.
In 1918, as the First World War drew to a close and soldiers returned home, they arrived to a horrific scene. By the end of 1918 the Spanish Influenza pandemic held the world on the brink. In Philadelphia, public officials waited until it was too late to acknowledge the existence, let alone severity, of the influenza epidemic rocking the city; further heightening panic and hindering any future attempts at quarantine. When the so-called Spanish Lady finally vanished in the summer of 1919, it left anywhere between 50 and 100 million people dead globally. In Philadelphia the influenza epidemic hit hardest between September and November of 1918, and roughly thirty percent of the city’s population of 1.6 million residents contracted the disease (roughly 47,000 cases were reported), and it ultimately claimed upwards of 12,000 lives, a death toll significantly higher than any other major American city in 1918.
Things were more than dire enough in a city of 1.6 million people, but what were the experiences of those forced to live in a world apart? How did the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918/1919 impact people with intellectual and developmental disability who were in institutions? For Pennhurst, anyway, the situation was hardly much better behind its walls than it was in the city. In fact, the epidemic impacted the institution severely enough to alter its practices for handling the remains of residents who died while in the institution’s care.
Although Pennhurst’s superintendents over the years would publish biennial reports covering the institution’s operations and any issues that arose, no such report has been found for 1918, when the influenza epidemic would have been present. Lacking this, one must look elsewhere: to the cemetery. In examining the dates on the tombstones in the cemetery on the former Pennhurst property, one realizes that no resident was buried there prior to 1918. At the same time, however, just because there are tombstones dated 1918 does not mean it was Spanish Influenza that took the person’s life. For that information one must look to the death certificates which have fortunately been found and digitized.
In the Pennhurst cemetery there are forty graves, and based on the grave markers, of these forty, twenty-three indicate 1918 as the year of death. Of those twenty-three grave markers, there are twenty-one corresponding death certificates available. Given that the Spanish Influenza pandemic affected the world between 1918 and 1919, it is also worth examining the records available on the four residents who died in 1919, though of these four only the death certificate of one Mortimer Thompson (1861-1919) is available, so for the purposes of this post I will not address 1919.
So, of these twenty-one individuals for whom we have death certificates, how many died from complications attributed to influenza? Twenty. Almost all of the Pennhurst residents whose death records we have access to died from the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918. The sole exception was Frank Meredith who, unfortunately passed from exhaustion and tuberculosis of the intestine at eighteen years old. The others, among who were Albert Bennet Freas, Alfonse Rizzoto, Alverna Johnson, Angelina Randazzio, Anna Nesklatis, Charles Ernst, Clara Butler, Clayton A. Gibbs, Dorothy Broghamer, Florence Hinkle, Florence Pidgeon, Henry von Hecker, James Coster, James Daley, Mazie Martin, Morris Finkle, Nooman Small, Walter Rothrock, William Ross, and William Todd, all died from complications relating to influenza. I name them all, because all too often those who were most negatively affected throughout the history of intellectual and developmental disability are stripped of identity. They become the monolithic unknown former residents of Pennhurst, when in reality they were children, teenagers, and even adults with names and families, and they deserve to have their names remembered.
Those with graves dating to 1918, regardless their cause of death, all died in a very brief period; all in mid- to late-October (roughly between October 12th and the 29th). This concentrated period of elevated infection and death correlates to that In Philadelphia, the nearest major city to Pennhurst, where the worst of the epidemic took place over five weeks, between September and the beginning of November. The question remains though: the residents in Pennhurst were there to be kept from the general population, to be kept in a world apart; how did the disease reach them? Though I lack the source materials to support this assumption, I do suspect that the most likely explanation is that the staff who ran the institution, but who did not live there, brought the influenza virus into work with them, thus infecting residents. Though they might not have been afflicted by the disease, they acted as unwitting carriers of contagion.
Something else worthy of note, is that prior to 1918 no deceased resident at Pennhurst was buried on the property. Indeed, the cemetery that exists now with forty markers originates from 1918. Gregory Pirmann, a former employee at Pennhurst and activist in preserving its history and the memory of those who lived there, explained that when someone died at Pennhurst but had no next of kin, the institution was responsible for arranging the burial and usually did so elsewhere. However, in the cases of the twenty-four who died in 1918, he suspects that the sheer volume of deaths and fear of further spreading the epidemic by returning the deceased’s remains to their various counties of origins forced the administration to create the cemetery. Dr. James Conroy, co-president of the Pennhurst Memorial & Preservation Alliance, shared Pirmann’s assessment, “The bodies of folks who died were returned to the county from which they came. However – during the epidemic, it seems, the counties refused to accept the bodies.” This then required Pennhurst to allocate land to bury the deceased on the property.
Although Pennhurst was meant to be a world apart, the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 found its way into the institution's walls. The epidemic thus impacted Pennhurst so severely, despite its separation from society, that the institution's management was forced to alter their policies on handling the remains of those who died in the institution, adding yet another layer of tragedy onto the lives of the men and women who were sequestered there.