During the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, people died so fast the survivors had to bury the dead in mass graves. At an assuming roadside construction site in Pennsylvania, one of these mass graves has inadvertently been dug up.
“They told us it possibly could have been a burial ground from many, many years ago, 100 years ago, so evidently it is,” the property owner, Joan Bachman, who bought the land with her husband in 1997, told WNEP. “It was just for the kids to hang out and play there and my husband to have something to do when he retired.”
In fact, the Bachmans had leveled the field to a depth of three feet, but hadn’t found any remains.
Turns out, the property was the eternal resting place for an untold number of dead. Historical records suggest up to 1,600 people died of the Spanish flu in a month in Schuylkill County, where the mass grave was found. Several such burial grounds were in use at the time, and one of them was located in Schuylkill Haven, a small town north of Philadelphia.
The flu epidemic hit the Pennsylvania towns of Cressona and Schuylkill Haven in October, The Republican Herald reported. Panic ensued and everything closed but drug stores — schools and hospitals included, said historian Tom Drogalis.
The Republican’ archives reveal that 17,000 county residents were infected and several thousand died; 3,000 children became orphans. Symptoms sounded just like a run-of-the-mill flu: a severe head cold, high fever, severe sickness, dizziness, and vomiting. These lasted for a few days, and sometimes, the illness mutated into deadly pneumonia and other complications.
The county’s coroner, Dr. David J. Moylan III, recalled family stories that had been told by his grandfather, who was a physician in Philadelphia at the time. The death toll, he said, was so high that caskets couldn’t be found anywhere.
“If you had a casket on your front porch, you had to have it chained up or people would steal it for their loved ones.”
That scope is hard to imagine today, but the remains found in an ordinary field in Pennsylvania are a testament to those days of panic and death. So far, only a fragment of the mass grave has been uncovered; 10 bone fragments are now poking from the dirt along the roadway. Moylan could identify each.
“One looked like a tibia, which is the long bone of the lower leg, definitely a partial mandible, which is the jaw bone, and we identified that because of the anatomic location of the tooth socket. Then there were fragments of the skull plate.”
A forensic archaeology team is getting involved and will attempt to identify the remains using DNA analysis, which will take a few weeks. They will be segregated and catalogued, and further digging is planned at the mass grave.
Eventually, the bones will be given a proper burial.
[Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons]