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Lessons Learned: Historical Pandemics and the Philadelphia Jewish Community

By the time this eKI arrives for you to read it, Passover will be over but what many are calling the 11th Plague will still be raging. We will still be quarantined and the serious discussion of trend curves and economic restarts will continue to rage. Of course, the Coronavirus is not our first encounter with a pandemic in the City of Brotherly Love in general or for the local Jewish community. Maybe we can learn something from our collective past.

Unfortunately, Philadelphia is well known for public health crises from Colonial Times to the present. Full disclosure, I received a request from my dear friend Dr. Gary Zola, Director of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, to help prepare a series of online seminars (including primary documents) for graduates of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion to learn about how the American Jewish community historically experienced pandemics. What follows is an initial report on the research I started earlier this week.

My first inclination was to look into the Yellow Fever of 1793. Sixteen years ago in 2004, I was invited to participate in the dedication of a historical marker in memory of Major David S. Franks (1740-1793), a Jewish officer who served in George Washington’s inner circle and died in October 1793 of Yellow Fever. Born in Philadelphia and Bar Mitzvah at K.K. Mikveh Israel, Franks left his hometown in pursuit of business opportunities in Canada, as he was fluent in French. But when the Revolution broke out, Franks joined the American side and fought in the losing effort to liberate the Canadian provinces before making his way south, first to West Point and then to Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, Franks was, at times, under the command of Benedict Arnold, which ultimately cast great suspicion on his loyalty to the American cause. Washington himself exonerated Major Franks several times and later gave him a diplomatic assignment in which he helped deliver the American terms for peace with the British to the talks in Paris. Franks, however, never was able to shake the stigma attached to his association with America’s most notorious traitor and actually died as a pauper during the 1793 Yellow Fever.

Frank’s body was placed on a cart bringing plague victims to a Potter’s Field in Philadelphia for burial when, according to Dr. Benjamin Rush, a one legged blacksmith, John Thompson, identified him as a hero of the Revolution. His body was then taken to the cemetery of Christ Church where he was given a single burial although no marker was set over his grave during the emergency. A symbolic marker was finally installed 211 years later. It was my honor to recall his story at that time along with several others and then dedicate a second, larger historical marker on 5th just below Arch on the east side of the street.

However, the Franks’ story does not end there. Life is always complicated at times and, sometimes, ironic. The fact is that there was a second Jewish man in Philadelphia during the Yellow Fever of 1793 also by the name of David Franks (1720-1793). The second David Franks was an uncle of Major Franks. This David Franks was 20 years older than his nephew, wealthier and, most of all, a British loyalist. In fact, his grand home, Woodford in Germantown frequently served as a British officers’ club during the Revolution and a Franks’ daughter, Rebecca, married a British officer, Henry Johnson, who later served in Ireland rising to the rank of general.

David Franks, the loyalist, left Philadelphia after the war for England but returned to town in 1783 and went into business. Although there are different accounts of his death, one tradition asserts that he, too, died in Philadelphia during the Yellow Fever of 1793 just like his impoverished nephew. Pandemics, as we are learning again today, do not respect class, flags or political loyalties. They are a human, medical condition and need to be treated universally. 5,000 people or 10% of Philadelphia’s population died of Yellow Fever in 1793 including two Jewish men both by the name of David Franks.

A second Philadelphia pandemic story comes from 1918 during World War I. The Spanish Flu ravaged the city and Philadelphia was widely viewed as the national epicenter of the pandemic. To make matters worse, the city’s political and health leaders made a terrible mistake and agreed to hold a Liberty Loan parade in September 1918 at the height of the pandemic. Two hundred thousand people lined the city’s streets in support of the campaign to support financially the American war effort. The results were devastating. Within a few weeks, the mortality rate spiked and thousands died of the Spanish Flu. The total of Philadelphians, 12,000, died of the flu alone; 675,000 in the United States; and perhaps 50 million worldwide. One of the Philadelphia casualties was Joseph Bender, who was the maternal grandfather of our member Sallie Olson. Sallie reports that her mother was only 13 when her father died; she never overcame the loss of her father.

By contrast, St. Louis cancelled its parade, imposed the strictest rules on social distancing in the country and, consequently, suffered the lowest mortality rate from the 1918 Spanish Flu, of any major city in the United States. The architect of public health policy in St. Louis was Dr. Max Starkloff, a graduate of Widener University, and the father of “social distancing.” Social distancing remains the first defense against pandemics to this day.

In my own research on KI’s history, I discovered that of the five KI soldiers who died during World War I, three died in combat in France, including Captain Frederick David Clair, Lieutenant Edward Benjamin Goward and Private Byron H. Reis, and two or 40%, died of the flu in Philadelphia. A very high price that made the Spanish Flu of 1918 “personal” for our congregation.

Morris Adolph Deutsch was a Storekeeper in the United States Navy. He lived on Park Ave. in Philadelphia. He died of the flu on October 13, 1918. Captain Eugene Rice, who worked for the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company before enlisting, died in Philadelphia in January 1919 from complications from the flu. The date of his death is disputed.

A total of 116,515 American soldiers, airmen and sailors died during the Great War, just 17% of the number who died from the Spanish Flu. Interestingly, Rabbi Krauskopf, who led KI at the time, was a full-throated opponent of American involvement in the war and later prophetically warned that the Allies’ unjust treatment of Germany would lead to still greater death and destruction.

In the end, containment and termination of a pandemic comes down to empirical science and human choices. The Philadelphia Jewish experience in 1793 and 1918 shows that the greatest of international, national and regional catastrophes had devastating local consequences. No one is exempt. Everyone is responsible. At this time, let us be wise, safe and humane. We need one another to survive in every respect: physically, fiscally and spiritually. As the good book says, “Love Your Neighbor as yourself” and take it from there!

Shabbat Shalom and wash your hands.

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.

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