SOUTH RIVER, NJ There is an area in the Southeast corner of Washington Monumental Cemetery in South River that is mostly empty of grave markers, 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”

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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 day. 

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 at: https://bit.ly/2RGwy1P

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 email artsandhistory@co.middlesex.nj.us