In November 1889, newspapers all over the United Kingdom began to report on a “curious epidemic” that was raging in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Over the next month or so the media began to chart the spread of this illness as it swept across Europe and headed towards Britain.
Once the disease arrived in Britain, the press bombarded their readers with more and more lurid stories that would crescendo in early 1892, when it claimed the life of a prominent member of the Royal family.
The mysterious contagion would spread throughout the World – aided it was suggested by the increase in rail travel and speedier shipping times – and it would make periodic returns between 1892 and early 1894.
Today, the epidemic is listed as an outbreak of “Russian Flu” or “Asiatic Flu”.
But, what is interesting from an historical perspective is that it was one of the very first global epidemics to strike at a time when the media had access to telegraph and, as a consequence, the newspapers were able to chart its spread almost in real time and, much as the sensational way in which some members of the press reported on the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, we can see how some of them attempted to create a scare that would, it was hoped, help them to generate more newspaper sales.
Indeed, it is intriguing to compare the newspaper scare stories that appeared between 1889 and 1892 with the scare stories that appeared in the press during the Swine Flu pandemic of 2009. If these stories show us anything it is that the one universal and eternal truth is that fear sells newspapers!
So, just as Jack the Ripper was the World’s first media repeat murderer, the Russian Flu epidemic of 1889 to 1892 might be described as the World’s first media pandemic.
Spotting the opportunities afforded by the epidemic, the various newspapers began presenting their readers with scare stories and alarming illustrations, many of them every bit as lurid and sensational as those that they had used to depict the danger and the menace of the unknown miscreant responsible for the Whitechapel Murders of 1888.
AN INFLUENZA EPIDEMIC
Interestingly, the early reports, whilst presenting readers with some alarming statistics, seem to have conveyed an impression that the epidemic was a long way off and was, therefore, at present, nothing to concern those reading about it from the safety of the British Isles – although the papers were at pains to point out that, if previous epidemics were anything to go by, it might well, and probably would, spread to England.
So, on Tuesday the 29th of November 1889, The Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail featured the following report:-
150,000 PERSONS ILL IN ST. PETERSBURG
“A curious epidemic is raging in St. Petersburg at present.
Some authorities identify it with the dengue fever, prevalent in Greece and Turkey.
The Russian doctors call it influenza, the symptoms being fever and headache, accompanied by a running cold.
The number of the sick at the present moment is variously estimated at from 50,000 to 150,000 persons, and, judging by the large number of cases that have come under the personal observation of the Standard’s correspondent, even the highest figure he believes to be much under the mark.
He knows of factories where the work has been stopped, a tramway line that had ceased to run, there are regiments in which a score of officers are laid up, and many households in which every member is ill.
It is interesting, if true, that a similar epidemic is said to have occurred in St. Petersburg in 1832, when the disease, starting in Siberia, made its way westward as far as England.”
A MYSTERIOUS EPIDEMIC
By the end of November the press were beginning to note the alarming fact that the epidemic was no respecter of class or privilege and that everyone from the highest to the lowest had fallen victim to it.
The papers were also reporting that the disease had spread outside of St Petersburg.
On the 30th November 1889 the Portsmouth Evening News carried the following report:-
FORTY THOUSAND CASES IN ST. PETERSBURG
“The epidemic, called by the doctors influenza, apparently for wont of a better name, continues to rage in St. Petersburg as strongly as ever, and even appears to be spreading over the country.
Although it is said that a similar phenomenon occurred some 30 or 40 years ago, nothing so general, so widespread and remarkable as the present disease has ever been experienced here before.
From members of the Imperial Family and foreign Ambassadors, through all classes, down to workmen and beggars, no one escapes, from which it is naturally inferred to be infectious.
It is not fatal, and lasts in most cases only a few days.
Several Grand Dukes are affected, or just recovering, and the British Ambassador and the members of his staff are nearly all ill.
The writer has also just recovered from an attack.
Wherever one goes, in every house, in every family, somebody is sick.
Forty five men were taken ill in one day in the telegraph department; as many as 170 workmen in one factory; while some mills and workshops have had to curtail work, take on hundreds of extra hands, or suspend operations altogether.
In consequence of all this, St. Petersburg is in a singular state of melancholy and depression, and quite unable to celebrate today the jubilee of Rubinstein and Russian music.
Everybody is longing for frost and winter – the salvation of the unhealthy capital on the Neva; but they do not come, except for a few hours at a time, and have rarely been so late in setting in as this autumn.
From Moscow we hear that the disease is also making its appearance there, and a traveller just arrived from Tomsk, in Siberia, brings the same sorrowful tale.
In St. Petersburg it is said that 40,000 cases are medically authenticated, which, of course, does not include all that have suffered or are still suffering.”
IS CHOLERA COMING?
On the 3rd of December 1889, not content with terrifying its readers with news of the spread of influenza, The Sheffield Daily Telegraph decided to up the ante by informing its readers that everyone in Russia now had the flu and, as an additional alarmist measure, warned them that history had shown that epidemics of influenza were often followed by cholera epidemics:-
“Is Europe to have a visitation of cholera next spring?
According to medical testimony, the accepted forerunner of cholera is now marching through Russia.
An epidemic of influenza has seized upon the Russian nation almost as upon one man.
From the CZAR in his magnificent seclusion, down to the poorest peasant who drags through life in dirt and indigence, every Russian has influenza. The Empire is in a mighty splutter, and the voice of the people is one general sneeze.
Professor Zorkanee, the first authority on the subject, declares that each of the five epidemics of cholera he has witnessed has been preceded by an epidemic of influenza such as is now raging. Other medical experts confirm the statement.
There is no scientific connection between influenza and cholera, and no reason whatever why one should precede or follow the other. The relationship is one of fact merely, namely, that influenza comes as a warning to announce that cholera is on the warpath.
In Russia, where the warning is most needed, it is likely to meet with least attention, and if’ the sequel of events follow, as they have hither to done, we shall next spring hear of the CZAR’S subjects being mowed down by tens of thousands.”
They seem to have forgotten to wish their readers a happy and worry-free year to come!
CHILDREN NOT ATTACKED
As December progressed, the newspapers began reporting the alarming fact that the contagion was spreading rapidly throughout Europe and city after city was falling prey to it.
One fact that was reported on was that it appeared to be attacking adults but not children, and the newspapers were mentioning schools where all the teachers were stricken but all the children remained healthy.
WE KNOW NOTHING
Meanwhile, doctors were discussing exactly how the disease was spreading.
On the 7th of December 1889, the Western Daily Press reported that:-
The outbreak of the epidemic influenza at St. Petersburg is occupying the attention of the medical profession in all parts of Europe, and the general conclusion appears to be that influenza is, of all epidemic diseases, that which attacks the largest number of people within a given short time; that its prevalence in the human race is usually coincident with the prevalence of a similar disease within domestic animals, especially horses; and that it is generally followed by an outbreak of more serious epidemic diseases.
What is the cause of influenza and how does it spread?
The British Medical Journal, in answering this questions says:- “That the specific cause is, as a rule, carried in the air is highly probable, and we may be content to speak of it as a miasma…In other words, all that we know of the cause and dissemination of the disease is that we know nothing.”
IT’S GETTING CLOSER
Throughout December 1889, the newspapers continued to report on how it was creeping ever closer to Britain.
Madrid, Vienna, Copenhagen, Berlin – all had fallen victim to the contagion’s relentless advance by the second week in December; and then Paris fell, and soon influenza was raging throughout the French capital.
On the 20th December 1889, according to The St James’s Gazette:-
“The influenza epidemic is raging worse than ever in Paris. The patients suffer from prostration like that from sea-sickness, and fever is sometimes so strong as to be attended with delirium. Many doctors have been attacked by it, and the others are heavily worked. Five members of the Cabinet have been prostrated by the disease, which is extremely rife among persons employed in the public departments. It is officially stated, however, that the grippe, or influenza, has not yet proved fatal. The malady is also spreading seriously in Madrid.”
Within a matter of days the newspapers were reporting the alarming fact that the disease was growing more virulent and there had been fatalities in Paris.
IT REACHES ENGLAND
And then, on 24th December, the Portsmouth Evening News, brought the news that the people of the United Kingdom had been dreading for the past month, influenza had arrived in England and there had been outbreaks in London and Birmingham.
By the 27th of December 1889 The Western Gazette was able to inform its readers that there had been fatalities in London over the Christmas period:-
“Reports are rife of the outbreak of the influenza epidemic in London, and in one large West end establishment several cases are reported to have ended fatally. This is unusual, as the disease is rarely fatal…It is generally thought by the medical profession that the cause of the epidemic is specific – that is, having the properties of growth and multiplication which belong to a living thing, and that the contagion is carried through the air.
In Birmingham a decided outbreak is reported, as many as twenty cases having occurred in one suburb of the city. The symptoms were severe but in no cases fatal.”
NO RESPECTER OF PERSONS, OR HORSES
Reporting on its spread throughout Europe, Reynold’s Newspaper, on the 29th December 1889, observed how anyone could be afflicted with the disease:-
“The disease is no respecter of persons. The Queen of Sweden is suffering from it; so are the Archduke William, brother of the Emperor of Austria, the Austrian Premier, the President of the French Republic and five of the French Cabinet Ministers….”
The article went on to mention that London and Dover had both seen outbreaks, although, as the article was at pains to point out, the Dover outbreak:-
“…is at present a very mild form, and only affects horses…. During the past week, owners of horses have been put to great inconvenience, as some of their best horses have been suffering from the disease…”
NO HAPPY NEW YEAR
There can be little doubt that, the people of England ushered in the New Year – and, for that matter, the new decade – with feelings of fear and trepidation as this mysterious disease, that had, just a month before, been nothing more than a distant calamity that was afflicting a faraway place that many of them would never go anywhere near, now began, quite literally, drifting into their homes on the very air that they were breathing.
For the Victorian citizens, the 1890’s were about to begin, not so much with a bang, as with a giant national sneeze.
The dreaded influenza “fiend” was about to wreak havoc throughout the land and, just as on the continent, was to be no respecter of class or station – princes and paupers, lords and loafers – all would, in the coming years, fall victim to its onslaught, and for many of them the encounter would prove fatal.
THE DEATH OF PRINCE ALBERT EDWARD VICTOR
The flu was no respecter of class or rank, and many of the royal families throughout Europe had members who were stricken by it.
In England, the most prominent death during the outbreak was that of Prince Albert Edward Victor, the Duke of Clarence, who died at Sandringham House, in Norfolk, on the 14th of January 1892.
His death was a genuine shock to the national consciousness, and his passing was genuinely mourned by all classes.
But, the fact that even the heir-presumptive to the throne of England was not immune to the deadly malaise, sent tremors of trepidation coursing through all classes of Victorian society, as people the country over began to wonder who would be next.
ONE MILLION DEATHS
Throughout the first half of the 1890’s this particular strain of influenza would make regular returns all over the Globe.
By the time the pandemic was officially termed as over, in early 1894, it has been estimated that it would have claimed the lives of over one million people Worldwide.