by Jake Wynn
In October 1918, influenza swept into Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Coal Region and thousands fell desperately ill. Local residents felt like their worlds were coming apart. Their sons had fought in the trenches overseas and now death stalked them in their own communities, in their own homes. But for a small group of men locked away on a hill in Schuylkill County, they fought a heroic battle to stave off the fatal epidemic. The fight would bring together everyone inside the infamous Schuylkill County Prison, prisoners and guards alike, to save lives behind the high stone walls of the county lockup.
Spanish flu descended into the Coal Region in early October 1918. Its source, while we will never know for certain, was likely Philadelphia. That city had descended into chaos as an epidemic swept through in early October. Within days, cases of influenza were recorded in Pottsville and throughout Schuylkill County.
Desperate medical authorities established makeshift hospitals in towns large and small. Local women with no nursing training volunteered to aid the sick and the dying. The U.S. Army sent medical cadets, many with little more than a year of medical school training, in a feeble attempt to assist. And local undertakers found that they had too few coffins to manage the flu’s massive death toll. To some, it felt like the apocalypse had begun.
Now imagine the world’s deadliest epidemic from the perspective of an occupant in one of the Coal Region’s most infamous prisons. Behind the high stone walls of the Schuylkill County Prison, there was no escaping the ravages of influenza in the autumn of 1918. Hidden away from the public’s view, the 83 inmates of the county prison and their jailors battled death and disease.
The setting for this drama was a castle-like structure overlooking downtown Pottsville. The imposing prison became famous in the 1870s when 10 Irishmen were executed, convicted in a wave of controversial “Molly Maguire” trials that entered Coal Region lore. Among those hanged within the prison’s yard was the alleged ringleader of the Mollies, John Kehoe.
Forty years later, the prison yard that hosted the infamous executions was the site of the prison’s small hospital wing.
Due to the outbreak of the influenza epidemic in Pottsville, the Schuylkill County Prison was closed to visitors on October 4.
Among those keeping tabs on the illness sweeping Pottsville was Warden George H. Morgan and the prison physician, Dr. M.C. Householder. Together, they prepared the shabby prison hospital, wiring it with electricity and disinfecting the wards. Even though the prison was closed to outside visitors, new prisoners were apparently still being admitted.
Shortly after the alterations were made to the hospital, “influenza swept through the prison like a flood,” according to a report. Influenza reached the prison on October 15, with one report pegging the admission of new prisoners as the cause of the outbreak within the prison walls.
The outbreak started with two cases, then quickly grew to more of the prison population. On October 18, the prison and nearby courthouse were cleaned and disinfected by county employees in an effort to stop further spread of the illness. However, on October 21, an additional 10 patients were added to the sick list inside the jail, all in serious condition.
By the end of the month, more than 40 patients were cared for in the two story prison hospital. No nurses were allowed into the prison, so convalescing inmates volunteered to assist their fellow sufferers under the watchful eye of the prison doctor.
“At one time the cots in the two floors of the hospital contained 15 patients,” wrote a reporter in a laudatory article published after the epidemic slowed in November. “When the patients advanced to convalescent period they were moved to the upper floor. In this way the cases were managed with tact and discretion.”
On November 12, 1918, Warden George Thomas declared the prison clear of influenza. Of the prison’s population that fall, 42 fell ill with influenza and subsequent infections. Only 2 prisoners died from their illness, a feat that was not repeated outside the prison’s walls where hundreds died rapidly in makeshift hospitals from Tower City to Tamaqua and every point in between.
“No flourish of trumpets attended the quiet, brave battle waged within the county prison walls the last three weeks,” concluded a reporter for the Pottsville Republican.
While the story of Spanish influenza’s ravages on the Coal Region is comparatively well known – a discovery of a mass grave in Schuylkill Haven recently increased interest among the public – the story of the battle between life and death in the county prison has largely been forgotten. This is my feeble attempt to remember their struggles inside the high walls of Schuylkill County’s infamous prison.
Jake Wynn is the Director of Interpretation at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum. He grew up in Williamstown, Pennsylvania and has long been interested in the history of the Coal Region and writes about it at wynninghistory.com. He currently lives in Washington, DC.
Also by Jake Wynn
Trouble is Brewing
Want to read more about the flu’s impact on the Coal Region in 1918? Check out Wynning History for a growing list of stories about the epidemic and much more.
A Patients Haunting Experience in a Coal Region Influenza Hospital in 1918
“May these Sights Soon Cease” – Influenza in Pottsville, 1918
The 1918 Influenza Pandemic Tore Apart this Small Pennsylvania Family
Then and Now: Williamstown’s Emergency Influenza Hospital