There is an area in the Southeast corner of Washington
Monumental Cemetery in South River that is mostly empty of gravemarkers, but
filled with unsolved mysteries. The records for this part of the cemetery are
long gone, but local legends maintain that this open space contained victims of
the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.
Historians from Middlesex County recently put these rumors
to the test and commissioned a ground penetrating radar survey. They were
stunned to find that there are rows upon rows of unmarked graves -- containing
almost 400 burials.
Over 50 million people worldwide were lost during the
epidemic, which also had a significant impact on the communities of New Jersey.
Newspapers of the era reported on how hospitals rapidly filled with the sick,
and how the dead placed strains on area cemeteries. Mark Nonestied, a Division
Head with the Middlesex County Office of Arts and History adds that “At the
height of the epidemic, a quarantine was issued for South River and its
surrounding towns. In many communities they died so quickly that hearses and
coffins were in demand”
A photograph taken in South River in 1918 shows a beer wagon
pressed into service to cart a pine coffin to the cemetery. The caption on the
back states that the demand for caskets kept carpenters busy 24 hours a
The non-intrusive survey was conducted by Dr. Tim Horsley
using ground-penetrating radar. Horsley explains that the equipment allows him
to collect data on disturbances in the ground. “Burials appear as roughly
rectangular anomalies that are caused by air spaces from caskets and disturbed
soils in the grave shafts” said Dr. Horsley.
The data collected so far shows rows and rows of tightly
spaced burials. The size of the anomalies also suggests that both adults and
children were interned in this section of the cemetery. Historians are unsure
if all the burials are from this period, but there is certainly enough evidence
to suggest many victims of the epidemic ended up here.
Middlesex County Freeholder Director Ronald G. Rios said,
“We can’t let our residents be forgotten and this story will be researched
further. The sacrifices our working class made should always be remembered and
respected, as should everyone who was lost to the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.”
Freeholder Kenneth Armwood, Chair of the Business
Development and Education Committee said, “As we continue to research this
piece of county history, we will endeavor to restore the names and stories of
the residents buried here, as we are able. Their stories deserve to be heard,
and any living relatives should know that they are not forgotten.”
For a firsthand look at this historical find, watch the
County’s new Uncovering Middlesex video on this story:
The research for the study was done in partnership with the
South River Historical and Preservation Society, Washington Monumental Cemetery
with funding by Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders and the New Jersey
Historical Commission, Department of State.
You can learn about more local legends and history by
searching #uncoveringmiddlesex on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
If the public has additional information on the cemetery
they are encouraged to call the Office of Arts and History at 732.745.3030 or