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The Killer Virus of 1918: A Philadelphia Story

People like Ms. Williams, who remembers those Sunday dinners of the 1940s, when she and other children would swarm around their plump grandmother Sarah Jane Anderson, who had had a hard life and who loved to play Chinese checkers, begging her to tell the story again.

It always began with: The baby was very sick, and the baby died.

As if her grief were stipulated.

The baby’s twin, Eleanor, lived to be 83. She married, volunteered at a hospital thrift shop, remained loyal to the Phillies — and, according to her daughter, often wondered how life might have been had her twin survived.

The baby-carriage story inherited by Ms. Williams is just one moment among so many that unfolded almost simultaneously throughout Philadelphia, where children on the street could be heard reciting variations of a new ditty:

I had a little bird,

Its name was Enza.

I opened the window,

And in flew Enza.

When even loosely assembled, these moments provide a cinematic narrative of terror, mourning and resilience that resounds today.

It resounds like the bells of the churches in the Grays Ferry neighborhood, where 9-year-old Isabel Gallagher would walk past coffins stacked outside St. Gabriel’s Roman Catholic Church. Then, at home, her father would prescribe hot toddies of whiskey, hot water and sugar.

Isabel lived to be 91, her daughter, Barbara Selletti, said. “And until the day she died, she believed that what saved her were the hot toddies.”

In South Philadelphia, nothing could save Amilia Coia, 26, a wife and mother with lustrous long black hair, from the insidious flu. Her 7-year-old son, John Angelo Coia, also developed the flu, and the sips of whiskey and the pouch of garlic tied around his neck had no effect. At some point, a Roman Catholic priest loomed over him to administer last rites.


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