Newark Mayor's Impact on The Influenza Pandemic of 1918

Oct 29, 2019

Could he have? A question Jennifer Harmsen, asked during a lecture on the 1918 influenza epidemic as part of NJPAC and Newark History Society’s panel series.
Credit Ang Santos / WBGO

The spread of influenza and the number of deaths rose quickly when the 1918 epidemic started in New Jersey.  And as health officials began to implement a statewide quarantine, The City of Newark’s Health Officer had his hands tied by Mayor Charles Gillan.

“Dr. Charles Kraster is not making much of this sickness and is basically having to take a back seat,” said Jennifer Harmsen, an expert on the influenza pandemic of 1918.  “It is Mayor Gillan that would end up taking control of Newark’s Health Office.  It is Gillan who wanted to show that he had Newark’s influenza situation under control, and it is because Gillan wanted the limelight.”

On October 8th, 1918, Governor Walter Edge put the state of New Jersey under quarantine.  Mayor Gillan in Newark had different ideas.

“So what does Gillan do?  He issues a modified quarantine. He said restaurants and schools are going to stay open,” Harmsen said.  “You have to remember that at this time the prohibition amendment had just passed in the United States Congress and there was a lot of pressure on the states to ratify this amendment.  For an independent like Gillan, whose thirsty constituency elected him to office; he sees the Republican controlled state health initiative of closing places of public assembly especially saloons as an interdiction of alcohol.  He’s thinking ‘if they close the saloons now, they may never reopen.’”

In under two weeks, Mayor Gillan would revoke the state quarantine in Newark.

“Gillan justified this action by citing the latest numbers,” Harmsen said.  “He says on October 19 there were 969 new cases of influenza, but on October 21there are only 550 new cases.  Clearly Newark is out of danger from influenza.”

Gillan would go to war with the local paper, The Newark Evening News, who published regular editorials criticizing the Mayor’s handling of the flu pandemic.

Well, the doctors weren’t stopping the flu anyway.  Maybe whiskey would?  Someone had heard that it would.  In fact, hadn’t the Mayor said that it would? – Excerpt taken from the Newark Evening News 1918.

As the Great War came to a close in 1918, influenza across the region began to subside.  

“If Gillan had secured more medical personnel to care for the people of Newark.  If he had opened more hospitals.  If he had enforced the state quarantine in Newark.  If he had set aside his political views, could Gillan have saved more lives? In my belief, I believe he could have,” Hermsen said.

Charles Gillan would only serve one term as Mayor of Newark.

***Jennifer Harmsen gave a lecture on the 1918 influenza epidemic as part of NJPAC and Newark History Society’s panel series.