We can read here:

In New York there were accounts of people feeling perfectly healthy when they boarded the subway in Coney Island and being taken off dead when they reached Columbus Circle.

  • 1
    Flu can be a killer, but that quickly? Doesn't sound remotely credible.
    – GordonM
    Feb 9, 2018 at 13:27

1 Answer 1


The anecdote originates from The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by one Laurie Garrett (1994).

There were reports of women boarding a New York subway in Coney Island feeling little else than mild fatigue, and being found dead when the train pulled into Columbus Circle, some forty-five minutes later.

"There were reports" is a pretty safe phrase to use! In other words, this book is relating a rumor.

Garrett does not give a direct source for this. The next citation in the book is to Influenza: The Last Great Plague by W. Beveridge (1977), but Google Books is telling me that the anecdote is not in that source.

edit: I don't know why DavePhD deleted his answer, but he provided a similar anecdote from the New York Times Magazine in 1992:

One man got on a streetcar feeling well enough to go to work, rode six blocks and died.

This led me to another, from Lynette Iezzoni's Influenza 1918: the worst epidemic in American history (1998):

On a Cape Town trolley, the driver, conductor, and five passengers collapsed and died within a three-mile stretch of road.

This book is based on a 1998 episode of the PBS series American Experience.

None of these three secondary sources cited a primary source, but the core of the anecdote does seem a little more plausible now.

  • 1
    Any reason why we should believe that influenza was the cause of death, and not, say, an aneurysm?
    – Oddthinking
    Feb 9, 2018 at 6:36
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    Because there is no source, this story could have come from anywhere. Maybe it's a story the author heard from her grandmother. I looked up the speed of 1918 influenza symptoms but I don't see any reason to believe this.
    – Avery
    Feb 9, 2018 at 7:08
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    @Oddthinking what do you think the odds are that seven people on one Capetown tram would all die of aneurysms in a period of 10.or 20 minutes?
    – phoog
    Feb 10, 2018 at 23:13
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    @phoog: The statement that there were 7 people was added after my aneurysm comment. I remain skeptical about this evidence. The quote about the 7 people does not suggest that they were symptomless before getting on the trolley. If they were, I would strongly suspect exposure to a different agent. (I am not even mentioning the unbounded time it takes a trolley to travel three miles when the driver is dead.)
    – Oddthinking
    Feb 11, 2018 at 3:03

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