This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.
RM: The Bellevue Stratford Hotel opened in Philadelphia in 1904, and quickly became one of the most luxurious hotels of its time. It was 19 stories high, had over a thousand guest rooms, and what was said to be the most lavish and magnificent ballroom in the United States. It also featured light fixtures designed by Thomas Edison and a grand marble staircase. The hotel came to be known, as The Grand Dame of Broad Street.
AG: And for years, the Grand Dame was the center of high society culture in Philadelphia. It hosted presidents and queens, and all kinds of other rich and famous guests.
RM: That’s producer Alana Gordon from WHYY’s The Pulse in Philadelphia.
AG: The hotel went through some harder times during the Great Depression, and then again in the ’50s & ’60s. It lost some of the prestige from its early days, but it was always considered one of the nicest places to stay in Philadelphia.
RM: That is until the mid 70’s when The Bellevue Stratford hotel became the epicenter of a series of mysterious deaths that terrified the country. It all started in July of 1976 when over 2,000 veterans descended on Philadelphia for the Convention of The American Legion, a support organization for wartime vets.
AG: This statewide convention happened every year, but in 1976, it was a really big deal.
RM: The time & place of the convention had been chosen to coincide with the 200th anniversary of The Declaration of Independence, signed in Philadelphia in 1776. And the convention would be held in, you guessed it, The Bellevue Stratford Hotel.
AG: The gathering was going to be a big party for members of The American Legion. A chance for the Legionnaires to celebrate & reminisce.
JS: So it’s just a big get together, and then there was a lot of wives and families there at the same time.
AG: That’s Jasper Stalfour.
JS: I am a past Department Commander of The American Legion.
RM: Stalfour drove to the convention from South Central Pennsylvania with his wife, and they rode up with another couple; some really close friends of theirs, Charlie Chamberlain and his wife Henrietta. Here’s Henrietta, who’s now 86, recalling the trip.
HC: Well we were having a good time down there, and everything was going great.
AG: The convention ran 4 days, and the whole thing ended with a big parade of Legionnaires through the center of Philadelphia, led by a brass band.
JS: “When The Saints Go Marching In.” That was a real popular song.
AG: Henrietta’s husband Charlie had just been elected Commander of his local Legion post, so he was right up front.
HC: And they were the ones that carried the banner for the parade, and it was wonderful. We had a wonderful time.
AG: After the parade, Charlie and Henrietta began the drive back home with Jasper and his wife. And Charlie fell asleep, which was strange.
JS: He seldom ever slept in the car, but that year whenever we got on the turnpike at Brandywine, he went to sleep. He came home, went to bed that night and never got out of bed.
HC: I was trying to get him better, but every day he got worse.
RM: Charlie’s body ached, his temperature kept going up, 104 degrees, 106 degrees. Henrietta took him to the hospital.
HC: After taking him in on Wednesday, Thursday they put him under ice, under an ice blanket, and then Friday he was dead.
RM: From “A flu of unknown cause” the doctor said. Charlie Chamberlain was dead at the age of 48.
HC: I didn’t know what to think. Nobody else knew what to think. That was what was strange about it, it was a total shock for everybody.
AG: Jasper Stalfour remembers that it was during Charlie’s funeral that he realized his friend’s death was part of something bigger.
JS: One of the other members of the uh, headquarters staff was there, and he said that the headquarters was getting all kinds of calls from people that had got sick and passed away
AG: Within a week of the convention, Legion Headquarters had started getting calls from around the state about members who had fallen ill. By that following Monday, 9 days after Charlie Chamberlain fell asleep in Stalfour’s car, news of this mysterious respiratory illness had spread across Pennsylvania. No one knew what had caused it. But the Legionnaires who were getting sick had been at the Bellevue Stratford for the convention.
(Reporter) Scientists working for the state of Pennsylvania, and the federal government are still hard at work this morning, trying to determine the cause of the mystery disease that so far has….
RM: Health leaders back in Philadelphia soon caught wind that something was up. Doctor Robert Charrar was director of Infectious diseases for the city’s Health Department at the time.
RC: All of the sudden, I had 4 lines coming into my office, all 4 lines lit up at the same time. Someone said, “There’s some sort of an outbreak going on.”
RM: The death toll logged by the state kept growing. 4 deaths, 11 deaths. They called in federal investigators from The Center For Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
AG: The man charged with overseeing that investigation was David Fraser. He’s originally from Philly, and he was 32 at the time. He was the director of the CDC’s Special Pathogens Unit.
DF: I spent a very intense plane ride trying to figure out, how would I systematically begin to approach what looked to be a very complicated problem.
AG: Within 48 hours of his arrival, the death toll was nearing 20, with dozens more sick. Some feared this mysterious pneumonia could be the start of a Swine Flu outbreak or worse, a flu pandemic like the one that had killed 50 million people in 1918.
RM: The authorities readied themselves for the worst. As many as 100 state and federal workers were called in. About 50 police detectives took part.
DF: Oh this was the biggest investigation CDC undertook at the time. We needed to define the illness because this was potentially a new disease.
AG: News reporters were already giving it a name. Legionnaires Disease.
(Reporter) State laboratories worked all night. Medical data is being flown in by helicopter as the pressure increases to find the answer.
Everybody in the state of Pennsylvania knew about it. We had worldwide recognition. We had phone calls from as far away as Austrailia.