Spanish Flu Pandemic – 1918

One of the characters in my novel, explains that he was raised by his grandpa because his parents died in New York City from the Spanish flu. According to my own family history, my grandmother lost her oldest daughter, a child of ten, when the Spanish flu spread to their tiny village in northern Italy. Here’s what I discovered when I researched this terrible illness.

Some historians have called Spanish flu—which swept around the world in 1918—the “forgotten pandemic.” Why forgotten? Some say it was overshadowed by the events of World War I. Others note that epidemiologists of the time were unaware of the true number of disease victims.

Ward in Kansas handling Spanish flu victims in 1918.
Flu victims in a makeshift ward in Kansas

But it was a true pandemic, one of the worst in recorded history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four years of the Bubonic Plague (“the Black Death”) which occurred in the 1300s. World War I killed approximately 9 million combatants. By most estimates the Spanish flu killed approximately 50 million people worldwide. In New York City, the setting for much of my novel, 20,000 to 24,000 deaths—out of a 1918 population of 6,000,000—were attributable to the flu.

The effect of the Spanish flu was so severe that the average life span in the US fell by more than 10 years. The virus had a mortality rate of approximately 20 percent, much higher than previous strains of the flu. Another striking thing about Spanish flu was that its victims were primarily healthy young adults rather than children or the elderly. The death rates for 15 to 34-year-olds of influenza and pneumonia (often brought on by the flu) were 20 times higher in 1918 than in previous years.

People struck with the illness often died rapid deaths. One physician wrote that patients with seemingly ordinary influenza would quickly develop pneumonia and struggle for air until they died. An anecdote shared in 1918 was of four women playing bridge together late into the night. They all felt fine. Overnight, three of the women died from influenza. Other stories told of people on their way to work suddenly developing the flu and dying within hours.

The unusual severity of the strain of virus that became known as Spanish flu contributed to the huge number of deaths. And the time period did as well. There were no flu vaccines and no antibiotics to treat secondary infections. This meant the flu had to be fought in other ways. In many communities, police officers, mail carriers, and other workers began wearing masks in public in an effort to avoid infection. In some cities, street car passengers were required to wear masks. Boy Scouts reminded people not to spit. Cartoon drawings told people to use handkerchiefs. Posters warning about the disease were placed in public areas. Schools, gyms, and military tents were used for extra hospital space. In New York City, the health commissioner established shifts for different types of businesses in order to avoid overcrowding on the subways. Fear of the flu affected all aspects of life. Children would jump rope to the following rhyme: I had a little bird, its name was Enza, I opened the window, and in-flu-enza.

By the summer of 1919, the Spanish flu pandemic had ended. An interesting—and chilling—article on the Spanish flu may be found on the website of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html.  In 2018, The Atlantic published an amazing collection of photos documenting the Spanish flu’s effect. It can be found at https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2018/04/photos-the-1918-flu-pandemic/557663/.  In 2009, The New York Times published an article on the city’s health commissioner who oversaw efforts to prevent spread of the flu. It’s available at https://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/01/nyregion/01bigcity.html

Standing on Broadway, 160 Years Ago

In my novel, The Better Angels, a group of time travelers journey back to Civil War-era New York City to solve a mystery. One of the locations they explore is 209 Broadway in lower Manhattan. Let’s pretend you, like my characters, can time travel. What will you see when you journey 160 years into the past and arrive in 1860?

Vintage drawing of St. Paul's Chapel in Manhattan
St. Paul’s Chapel

At 209 Broadway you’ll find St. Paul’s Chapel. It was built in 1766. George Washington worshipped there on his inauguration day. Many years later, on 9/11 it will be given the name “the little chapel that stood.” Exhausted rescue workers and first responders will use it as a place of rest and refuge.

Looking to your right you see the studio of Mathew Brady, the city’s most famous photographer. Here, Brady takes many of his most famous portraits, including those of Dolley Madison, Daniel Webster, Winfield Scott, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Walt Whitman, and John Audubon.

Drawing of 19th century Broadway showing Barnum's Museum, Brady's Studio, St. Paul's Chapel, and the Astor House
Drawing of 19th century Broadway showing Barnum’s Museum, Brady’s studio, St. Paul’s Chapel, and the Astor House.
Picture of Abraham taken in 1860 by Mathew Brady.
Abraham Lincoln in 1860

Now look to your left to see the Astor House, the most fashionable hotel in the city. It was built by John Jacob Astor and opened in 1836. Brady has lodgings at the Astor House which allows him to rub elbows with many of the political and cultural leaders of the time. In February 1860, Brady will take the first ever photograph of presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln will return to the Astor House a year later on the way to his first inauguration. One sad footnote to the Astor House is that John Jacob Astor’s great grandson, John Jacob Astor IV, will die on the Titanic in April 1912.

Drawing of the Astor House in 19th century New York City.
The Astor House, with St. Paul’s Chapel to the left.

Now look directly across the street. If you have 25 cents, you can visit the most famous tourist attraction of the time: Barnum’s American Museum. It opened in 1841 and attracted thousands of visitors who wandered among the fabulous exhibits of animals, inventions, archaeological artifacts, and oddities on display. In 1865, the museum will be destroyed by fire.

Vintage drawing showing 19th century view of Barnum's Museum and Mathew Brady's photography studio
Bird’s eye view from roof of St. Paul’s Chapel showing Barnum’s Museum across the street and Brady’s photography studio to the south (right).

Once you return to present-day New York, what do you see? To your left you see a Staples where the Astor House stood. Barnum’s has been replaced by a bank and a clothing store. On the site of Brady’s studio is an early twentieth-century building whose tenants include media and publishing firms. But turn around. St. Paul’s Chapel, now more than 250 years old, still stands. It is the oldest surviving church building in Manhattan.

The Angel of the Waters

The cover of my novel, The Better Angels, features a photo of the Angel of the Waters statue which rises above Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain. Let me tell you a bit about the statue’s history, and how one woman’s vision was validated and embraced by generations of park visitors despite a sharply critical negative review published in the New York Times at the statue’s unveiling.

Cover of the novel The Better Angels by Bette Bono showing the Bethesda Fountain Angel.
Photo by Douglas Biklen. Cover design by All Things That Matter Press.

The angel was New York’s first major public art commission awarded to a woman. The sculptor, Emma Stebbins (1815-1882), was from a prominent New York family. Her brother, Henry, was chairman of the park’s Committee on Statuary, Fountains and Architectural Structure, and many assumed that was how Emma received the commission. This is not to say that Emma was untrained or untalented. She had shown promise from an early age and had studied sculpting in Rome. While in Rome, she also met and fell in love with the American actress Charlotte Cushman, and the two exchanged “unofficial vows.”

The angel is the only sculpture commissioned as a part of the park’s original design. It was intended to embody the idea of love. As the Central Park Conservancy puts it, Emma “put her own spin on the work, interpreting the statue’s directive, that it be dedicated to ‘Love,’ liberally by adding several layers of meaning.”

One of the meanings invested in the statue was healing, particularly the healing power of water. The design referenced the biblical story in which an angel gives healing powers to the waters of Bethesda. The fountain was also meant to celebrate the new Croton Aqueduct (a water distribution system built between 1837 and 1842) which supplied clean drinking water to the city.

The angel herself is eight feet tall and made of bronze. She carries a lily, the symbol of purity. The four cherubs that support her represent health, purity, temperance, and peace. Construction of the terrace and fountain occurred during the American Civil War, but the angel did not appear until 1873.

Now here’s the part of the angel’s story that had me shaking my head. I found the June 1873 New York Times review of the statue’s unveiling, and, reading it now, it is clearly wrong in every respect—completely, inarguably, laughably wrong. The unnamed reviewer hated just about everything about the statue and even disagreed with the placement of the fountain itself. (Placing a fountain directly beside a lake was described as “ill-chosen” because it was like adding “sugar to sweetmeats or carrying coals to Newcastle.”)

Close up of the Angel of the Waters. Photo by Douglas Biklen.
Photo by Douglas Biklen

He (I’m assuming the reviewer was male) began by saying everyone had expected “something great” and experienced “a revulsion of feeling” at the “feebly-pretty … thing of bronze.” He goes on to opine that the head is male, the breasts female, and the rest of the body a combination of male and female. He compares the figure to a servant girl doing a polka in the back kitchen and a dancing girl jumping over stepping stones. He apparently doesn’t like the fact that the angel seems to be wearing “voluminous folds” of petticoats that are nonetheless diaphanous and reveal the angel’s figure. The wings come in for criticism as well, as do the four cherubs (“hopelessly nondescript”).

Bethesda Fountain Angel with lake and trees in the background.
Photo by Douglas Biklen

All who have seen the angel, know how wrong the reviewer was. I found myself wondering how he could fail to fathom—to truly see—the beauty and the love embodied in that sculpture. If you would like to see the angel yourself, she can be found mid park, at about 72nd. Street.

The 1873 review is at https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1873/06/01/80321660.pdf. In May of this year, the New York Times published an “overlooked no more” obituary of Emma Stebbins. It is at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/obituaries/emma-stebbins-overlooked.html.  My publisher is All Things That Matter Press which can be found at https://www.allthingsthatmatterpress.com/.  The photo of the angel on the cover of my book is by Douglas Biklen. His website is http://biklenartphotography.com/

The Angels of All Angels

If you wander through the light-filled sculpture court of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you may come upon angels.

The sculpture court in front of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

There they are, on the right side of the courtyard. Look up and you’ll see one blowing a trumpet.

Carved angel from all angels church located atop pulpit on display in Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Walk forward and you’ll see a line of them surrounding a giant limestone pulpit. They are all rather busy swinging censers, strewing flowers, and playing musical instruments. One holds a scale and a sword. Maybe she’s assigned to mete out justice. Several are talking, or singing perhaps.

Carved angels on the All Angels pulpit created by the sculptor Karl Bitter

The pulpit is the work of the Austrian-born sculptor Karl Bitter who immigrated to the United States as a 21-year old in 1889 after deserting from the Austrian army. The pulpit was completed in 1896 and stood in All Angels Church, which at the time was located on West End Avenue and 80th Street. In addition to the pulpit, the church featured a two-and-a-half story Tiffany window.

Sculptor Karl Bitter as he appeared in the early 1900s

Bitter enjoyed great success in America. He created sculptures for the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. Yes, that’s the one that is the subject of Erik Larson’s book, Devil in the White City. Bitter also did sculptural work on many other buildings including Trinity Church, the Biltmore Estate, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bitter died in 1915 at age 47 when he was struck by a car.

All Angels Church has its own fascinating history. It was founded in the 1830s, well before the pulpit was carved or the building it stood in was built. All Angels’ first church building was a wooden structure constructed in Seneca Village, a nineteenth-century inter-racial community on the west side of Manhattan. Seneca Village was established in 1825, and was the first place in the city that African Americans owned property. In addition to its African American founders, Seneca Village became home to German and Irish immigrants.

Angels sculpted by Karl Bitter on a pulpit used in All Angels Church

What happened to Seneca Village and the original All Angels Church? The land was taken by eminent domain in 1857 when construction began on Central Park, and the whole village was demolished. Demolition was also the fate of the second All Angels building. In 1979 it was torn down, and an apartment building was constructed in its place. Fortunately, the beautiful pulpit found a home in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All Angels is now in its third location, on West 80th Street.

There are so many threads that connect these carved angels to New York City and the history of art and architecture. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s description of the pulpit can be found at https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/10170. Another interesting note can be found on the website of Evergreene, an architectural arts company that removed, then reinstalled the pulpit during a renovation of the American Wing. https://evergreene.com/projects/karl-bitters-all-angels-church-pulpit-and-choir-rail-disassembly-and-reinstallation-metropolitan-museum-of-art/

Bethesda Terrace and The Angel of the Waters

It happened one day in Central Park. I felt as if I had walked into my book …

The magical Angel of the Waters fountain at Bethesda Terrace in New York's Central Park. A scene in The Better Angels takes place at the fountain.

Some of the scenes in The Better Angels are set in New York City. Recently I felt the need to revisit those Big Apple sites to recheck the accuracy of my descriptions. The first place I had to see was Bethesda Terrace.

Aggie May, the main character, is a time traveler, so of course I had her visit the terrace. It was designed by Calvert Vaux who wanted all of time—day and night, all the seasons—represented there. The sculptor Jacob Wrey Mould brought Vaux’s vision to life.

So look at the sculptures lining the stairs, and this is what you’ll find: A rooster and sunrise symbolize the morning. An owl and bat represent the night—along with an open book and a lantern to read by. Tulips and a bird’s nest bring us into spring, roses and an ear of corn into summer. A witch and pumpkin take us into fall. Are the pine cones for winter? What I love about these sculptures is that they are visual puzzles: whimsical and head-scratching and mysterious and beautiful. The Central Park Conservancy says the terrace is “rich with complex iconography,” and they are completely right.

And then there is the statue, the Angel of the Waters, that represents healing. She was created by Emma Stebbins, the first woman commissioned to do a public sculpture in New York City. Vaux wanted the statue to suggest “both earnestly and playfully the idea of that central spirit of ‘Love’ that is forever active, and forever bringing nature, science, art, summer and winter, youth and age, day and night, into harmonious accord.”

The Angel of the Waters statue at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park. In the book The Better Angels, the main character visits the terrace.

I spent hours at the Terrace. I saw a couple getting married, a man singing, and groups of children in matching t-shirts. And all the time I was partly present, and partly in my story. I looked at the carvings on the stairway and knew what my character Aggie felt about them. I knew which stairway she walked down as she approached the fountain, who she would encounter under the archway, and what they would say to each other. I had walked into my own story …

My son Andrew, a writer himself, says when you write about a place, then go there, you discover you have developed a connection—“an intimate relationship”—with the space. That’s what I feel about Bethesda Terrace.

You can read more about Bethesda Terrace by checking out this fine article by the Central Park Conservancy. http://www.centralparknyc.org/about/blog/calvert-vaux-bethesda-terrace.html

Mathew Brady and Civil War Photography

One reason I chose to write a time travel novel was because of my fascination with history. One area I explored was the history of photography.

A lithograph of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady
Mathew Brady as a young man.

This is Mathew Brady, considered the father of photojournalism because he sent photographers out of the studio to the battlefields of the Civil War. In October, 1862, his New York City gallery displayed photographs of the dead at Antietam. The New York Times review of the exhibit stated: “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

Photo of dead at the Battle of Antietam. In The Better Angels, the characters attend the exhibit at Mathew Brady's studio.
One of the photos shown at Brady’s exhibit “The Dead of Antietam.”

Brady did not travel to the battlefield himself. The photographs were taken by Alexander Gardner and James Gibson between September 19 and 22, 1862. The photographs were “stereos” and were displayed in boxy stereograph viewers, giving the images a 3-D effect.

Robert Wilson, the author of a terrific biography of Brady, states that the photographs of Antietam “marked a turning point in the portrayal of war.” Sketch artists, whose drawings were featured in the illustrated newspapers of the era, tended to soften and romanticize warfare. Photography, on the other hand, was remorseless.

This vintage photo shows Mathew Brady's photography studio at the corner of Broadway and 10th street in New York City. Grace Church is across the street.
Mathew Brady’s New York Studio at 785 Broadway at 10th Street, New York City. Courtesy The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The photograph above shows Brady’s studio at the corner of 10th and Broadway in New York City, diagonally across the street from Grace Church. The building that held the studio is long gone (there’s a bank there now) but Grace Church is still there.

One level of the studio served as a gallery, displaying portraits of political and military leaders as well as distinguished writers, artists, and celebrities. Photographs were displayed from floor to ceiling, with the pictures at the top hung at an angle so visitors could see them better.

Drawing showing the interior of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady's studio.
This drawing shows the interior of Brady’s studio. Photographs were displayed on the second floor. The upper floors had skylights to provide lighting for the photographers.

I love it when I find a book that transports me to a different time and place. Can you tell I spent a lot of time with Wilson’s wonderful book?

Are you interested in learning more about Mathew Brady and the history of photography? Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation by Robert Wilson offers a fascinating look at the early years of photography and how this invention shaped and was shaped by the momentous events of the nineteenth century. You can find out more about the book and its author at http://www.mathewbrady.net/author.html

Whispers in Grand Central

There I was …

The whispering gallery in Grand Central Terminal. How surprising to find it completely empty.

One mysterious morning I arrived at Grand Central early. One scene in my book is set in the whispering gallery (right in front of the Oyster Bar), so I had to stop by. It’s part of my Grand Central routine now–visit the whispering gallery. I was shocked to find I was the only one there. For just a moment or two, I was the only person in the whispering gallery, in Grand Central Station, in the middle of New York City, the busiest city in the country. It was magical. I had just enough time alone to take this one picture.

The whispering gallery is one of many wonders in Grand Central Station. (I know, the real name is Grand Central Terminal, but everyone seems to call it Grand Central Station anyway.) The current station opened in 1913 and is the third of three that have been located at that site. The first was constructed in 1871, just six years after the end of the Civil War.

So how—and why—does a whispering gallery work? If you stand facing the wall in any of the four corners, and whisper, your words will be carried to the corner diagonally across from you and can be heard by someone in that corner. It doesn’t matter if there are crowds of very noisy people in the gallery. Your whispered words will come through. Also, two conversations can go on at once when people are standing in all four corners. The signals won’t get crossed. The science of a whispering gallery has to do with the way sound waves (called whispering gallery waves) are carried along the surface of a circular wall or overhead in a gallery shaped like an ellipse (a regular oval).

Crowds of people in Grand Central Terminal's Whispering Gallery located just outside the Oyster Bar.

The curved ceiling in the Grand Central whispering gallery is constructed of Guastavino tile, named after the Spanish building engineer Rafael Guastavino who invented this type of interlocking terracotta tile for use in arches and architectural vaults.

Most sources I’ve looked at say the space was not designed to be a whispering gallery. It was simply a “happy accident.” I love the fact that there is no big plaque or poster explaining what happens there. You just have to learn about it by watching, or reading, or being told by someone else. Maybe in a whisper.