The “Spanish Flu” Pandemic of 1918-1919: A Death in Philadelphia

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

The influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, often referred to as the “Spanish flu,” was the greatest pandemic of the 20th Century.  It killed upwards of 50 million people worldwide, striking without regard to country or social status.  Beginning in mid-September 1918, 300,000 people in the United States died during an eight week period.  Deaths continued after that and some estimates put American deaths as high as 675,000 by the time epidemic ended in 1919.

William C. Bullitt

William C. Bullitt was a member of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace, personally led by President Woodrow Wilson, that went to France, to negotiate the peace at the end of World War I.  Bullitt, a protégé of presidential adviser Col. Edward House, arrived in December 1918 and was the chief of the Commission’s Division of Current Intelligence.  In that position he was responsible for preparing summaries for, or giving daily briefings to, the American commissioners.  Early in the war, Bullitt worked as a journalist reporting from Germany and Austria-Hungary.  He then worked in the Department of State preparing summaries as on those same countries for senior officials. 

Bullitt’s mother, Louisa, lived the upper-class life in Philadelphia.  His wife Ernesta remained in the United States while his brother Orville was aboard a ship returning home.  While in Paris, Bullitt learned that his mother was ill with the flu.  The files of the peace commission include the following telegrams on the progress of her illness.  The messages were sent through the communications facilities of the Department of State in Washington, DC, and the peace commission in Paris.[1]

♦ January 14, 1919.  FOR BULLITT.  RESIMAN SAYS MADRE CONDITION DISTINCTLY IMPROVED, HEART ACTION GOOD, FEVER LOWER. ERNESTA.

♦ January 14, 1919.  FOR ERNESTA BULLITT.  GIVE MY FONDEST LOVE TO MOTHER AND TELL HER ORVILLE SAILS TODAY FOR HOME.  TELL MOTHER I AM SURE SHE WILL BE WELL AGAIN IN A FEW WEEKS AND THAT I WILL COME HOME AT ONCE IF SHE WANTS ME.  INFORM ME DAILY REGARDING CONDITIONS UNTIL ENTIRELY OUT OF DANGER ALSO SEND FLOWERS WITH MESSAGE FROM ME DAILY.

♦ JANUARY 15, 1919.  FOR LT. ORVILLE BULLITT ON BOARD USS ORIZABA. . . .  MOTHER SERIOUSLY ILL INFLUENZA.  YOU SHOULD COMMUNICATE SUSAN AND GO TO MOTHER EARLIEST POSSIBLE.

♦ JANUARY 16.  FOR BULLITT . . . .  MOTHER HOLDING HER OWN. HEART GOOD.  FEVER CONTINUES, BUT NO HIGHER.  EAR IMPROVED. . . . ERNESTA.

♦ JANUARY 17.  FOR BULLITT.  NO PARTICULAR CHANGE.  HOPE FOR EARLY IMPROVEMENT.  LOVE.  ERNESTA.

♦ JANUARY 18.  FOR BULLITT.  CONDITION UNCHANGED. . . .  ERNESTA

♦ JANUARY 21.  FOR BULLITT.  MOTHER DIED AT 12:30 LAST NIGHT.  ALL MY LOVE AND SYMPATHY.  USELESS FOR YOU TO COME HOME.  HAVE PERMISSION TO TRAVEL TRANSPORT. WILL COME IN FEW DAYS. ERNESTA.

♦ JANUARY 22.  FOR ERNESTA BULLITT.  DO NOT HAVE FUNERAL UNTIL ORVILLE ARRIVES ON BOARD ORIZABA BUT MAKE ARRANGEMENTS FOR BURIAL AT WOODLANDS.  SERVICES AT HOLY TRINITY.  ORDER PALL PURPLE ORCHIDS ALSO TEN DOZEN KILLARNEY ROSES FOR ME.  LOVE TO JACK AND ORVILLE.

♦ JANUARY 22.  FOR BULLITT.  ARRANGEMENTS ALREADY MADE AS YOU SAID.  FUNERAL SATURDAY THREE O’CLOCK.  WAITING FOR ORVILLE.  LOVE. ERNESTA.

♦ January 25.  FOR BULLITT.  ORVILLE ARRIVED THURSDAY, FUNERAL TODAY.  LOVE.  ERNESTA.

♦ February 1, 1919.  FOR ORVILLE BULLITT . . . .  PLEASE ACT FOR ME IN ALL MATTERS REGARDING MOTHERS ESTATE.

Headstone of Louisa Bullitt (Find A Grave)

As this was all going on, Bullitt continued his activities at the peace conference.  He briefed the American commissioners and was advocating for what became his controversial February-March 1919 visit to the Bolshevik-controlled areas of Russia.  On January 25, the Commission sent him to Amiens on official business.

Bullitt later became the first U.S. ambassador to the USSR after the United States recognized the Soviet Union in 1933.  He served as ambassador to France from 1936 to 1940. 


[1] All telegrams are found in file “184.1-Bullitt, William C.” in the American Commission to Negotiate Peace General Correspondence (NAID 632345), RG 256, NA.  Available on National Archives Microfilm Publication M820: General Records of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace, 1918-1931 and online through the National Archives Catalog.  Stylistic and format changes have been made to standardize the appearance of the telegrams.

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