Retro Baltimore: Pandemic canceled 1918 Halloween celebrations here and across the country

Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun
·4 min read

As the second wave of influenza surged in the fall of 1918, which would culminate in November as the deadliest month of the pandemic, one of the lesser remembered casualties was public gatherings of Halloween revelers in Baltimore. Well, sort of.

In those days unlike today when trick-or-treaters go door to door, those observing Halloween, mainly adults, went to public street gatherings, carnivals or parades. Youngsters meanwhile committed pranks or created mischief at people’s homes by misplacing porch furniture, for instance, or by placing a stuffed dummy on railroad tracks, or soaping streetcar rails so cars would have a difficult time operating over hilly trackage.

“To the delight of the small boy in particular, and of younger folks in general, Halloween night will be celebrated one week hence,” The Evening Sun reported. "Already the stores are gay with Halloween symbols and favors in black and yellow, true witch colors, and the littlest fellow on the street in awesome tone tells his baby brother of the spooks that come out Halloween night and ‘ketch ye if ye don’t watch out. Grown folks, too, succumb to the lure of the night and vie with younger generations in burning nuts and bobbin for apples.”

A Halloween headline in the Baltimore American proclaimed: “Witches Must Beware,” in response to the city’s health commissioner Dr. John D. Blake having banned public events due to the flu and ordering the police to make sure there were no “carnivals and other forms of public celebrations.”

“For the first time in years, Baltimore will be without any Halloween street celebrations tonight,” reported the newspaper. “That while the epidemic is becoming milder, it still was dangerous to permit large assemblages of persons ... and that no date has been set for the opening of schools.”

Furthermore, Dr. Blake said that the practice of throwing confetti and the blowing of horns was “particularly dangerous,” dancing continued to be “objectionable” and kissing was to be stopped. But there was one chink in his order and that was concerning the wearing of masks.

“Because of the aid of wearing masks in warding off germs it is probable that health and police authorities will offer no objection if masks are worn by way of doing honor to the holiday,” reported the Baltimore American.

The banning of Halloween observances went nationwide.

“No Halloween either. Even the spirits must observe the influenza ban,” the St. Louis Globe-Democrat observed. “Halloween parties in general, as well as other social functions attracting large numbers of people [were] discouraged,” reported the Los Angeles Times.

In Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Halloween celebrations were forbidden because it was thought that public gatherings would be a medium for further spreading of the virus that had evolved into a more deadly strain that claimed victims in hospitals and at military installations.

“In most places in the United States, by Oct. 31, 1918, conditions would have been grim,” said Elizabeth Outka, a professor of English at the University of Richmond and author of “Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature,” published last year by Columbia University Press.

“A lot of things were shut down: stores, schools, churches,” Outka said. “There was widespread disruption and a widespread sense that public gatherings were not a good idea.”

On Halloween, the Evening Sun reported that, despite the disruption of the holiday because of the flu, and while it may be “pumpkinless and carnival-less and kissless," it would not altogether be "funless!”

“Despite Dr. Blake’s orders and the vigilance of the police force, stray groups of merrymakers ventured to blow horns here and there, and now and then a cowbell was heard. The other forbidden fun-making devices were absent,” reported The Sun the day after Halloween.

The normal Halloween parade on Baltimore Street went ahead as it had in other years despite the warnings of the health commissioner and police chief.

“On Baltimore Street, which is usually the scene of the Halloween carnival at night, there was something of the old carnival spirit," The Sun reported. “Groups of boys and girls in costumes were liberally sprinkled in the crowd, which was, on the whole, rather a sedate one, and there were far more spectators than actors.

“Motor parties were very popular, and car after car, loaded to the gunwales with masqueraders, moved up and down the street. It was a safe and sane way to take part in the celebration and it was apparently taken advantage of by many owners of cars,” the newspaper reported.

In defiance of the orders of Dr. Blake and other physicians, a “number of damsels appeared in soubrette costumes with bare arms and shoulders, obviously indifferent to the menace of pneumonia and the flu. They had abbreviated skirts as well, but as someone in the crowd remarked, girls are quite accustomed to that of exposure these days,” according to the newspaper.

By 10 p.m., Halloween in Baltimore had come to an end.

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