PITTSFORD — This year’s Veterans Day ceremony at the Town Offices came with a history lesson — one showing that civil unrest and pandemics are not new.
Paul Andriscin, who taught history at College of St. Joseph for 22 years until it closed, said there are many parallels between what the United States and the world is going through today with what it went through in 1918 and 1919. Immigration leading to civil unrest, World War I and the influenza pandemic ravaged the globe during those years.
“The parallels are really amazing,” he said. “When you talk about immigration, the largest number of immigrants in the United States in the 19-teens were German,” he said, adding that 11% of the US population at the time were from or had roots in Germany, a problem given that the U.S. and Germany were at odds during World War I.
“How do you get Germans to fight Germans? You demonize the Germans. Schools were banning the German language, Beethoven was not played, The dachshund becomes a liberty hound, the hamburger becomes liberty steak, sauerkraut become liberty cabbage, you get the idea,” he said.
The war in Europe led to a great deal of civil unrest in the United States, a nation with many immigrants from those countries, he said.
The war did a great deal to spread the virus people were calling the Spanish Flu, despite it having little to do with Spain.
According to Andriscin, when Russia left the war, Germany moved its troops to the Western Front hoping to beat the British and the French before the United States could intervene. Part of why the German offensive failed was because so many of its soldiers got sick with the virus, however, Germany blamed a lack of food instead.
The disease was helped to spread in America, in part, through its own military operations.
“You have thousands upon thousands of boys in their teens who are going to go to camps and be exposed with other people,” he said. “Camp Funston at Fort Riley in Kansas is one of the places that this virus starts.”
He said it wasn’t until 2008 that scientists were able to get a sample of the 1918 virus. They did so by exhuming Inuit people who died from it and had been buried in permafrost, preserving some lung tissue that could be sampled. It was learned then that the virus had originated in birds.
Andriscin said that the theory then became that birds, following migration routes over Kansas, defecated over pig farms. The pigs got infected, then passed the disease to humans. This was on top of workers and troops moving all around the globe, from Chinese laborers moving into Canada to soldiers around Europe.
He said it was also around this time that the patent on aspirin, held by the German company Beyer, expired, allowing other companies to manufacture it and making it more available. Aspirin overdoses, Andriscin said, cause problems in the lungs. Since the 1918 flu killed mainly by filling its victims lungs with fluid, it’s possible these overdoses led to more deaths.
“The Spanish flu attacked your lungs, your lungs would fill up with fluid and then you would hemorrhage, turn blue, and die, usually in a matter of about three days,” he said. “Incredibly deadly compared to what we’re dealing with today.”
He said the 1918 virus was far more feared than COVID-19 seems to be today, but even back then people didn’t take it seriously enough.
“Places in the United States, very much like today, were ignoring orders to wear masks,” he said. “Movie theaters were closed, libraries were closed, it was very similar to what’s going on today as far as trying to protect everybody.”
According to Andriscin, a war bond drive was held in Philadelphia in September 1918. Mask mandates were ignored, and within three days 1,000 Philadelphians were dead and 200,000 were sick. Places that were more careful, he said, saw far fewer deaths.
Anne Pelkey and Shelly Williams, of the Pittsford Historical Society, gave folks an update on their progress with the Pittsford Veterans Memorial Project, saying they have most of the names they’re likely to get for the time being and plan to move forward before the end of the year. They invited people to come to the Town Office and look over the names to see if anyone has been missed.
“There will always be men and women in Pittsford and Florence who will enter the armed services and proudly serve their country for many, many years to come,” Pelkey said.
Town Manager John Haverstock said the ceremony is a relatively new tradition in Pittsford, dating back to 2016 when a war memorial was installed in front of the Town Offices.
“We felt the holiday was important and that we could do this safely,” he said. “Everyone is masked and socially distanced, so I’m glad we could do it and do it outdoors.”
The ceremony drew about 75 people, all of whom wore masks and respected social distancing guidelines.
Children from the Lothrop Elementary School, led by Music Teacher Carolyn Bruce, sang patriotic songs while Pittsford Scouts Troop 100 led the Pledge of Allegiance. Michael Dwyer, interim pastor at Pittsford Congregational Church, delivered the invocation and benediction, and Kaylon Carvey played taps.