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The first person to fall victim to influenza in New Jersey was a soldier at Fort Dix who had just returned from Europe. From Fort Dix, the disease spread rapidly throughout the state.

The state health officer announced on the 27th of September that the disease “was unusually prevalent” throughout the state. By the 30th of September, the state was reporting that 2,000 cases had been reported in the preceding three days. On October 10th, state officials formally banned all public gatherings. By October 15th, state officials had reported 88,256 cases of influenza, although the number was undoubtedly higher. By the 22nd, state authorities estimated that there were at least 149,540 cases in the state, with 4,398 deaths being officially reported. On October 22nd, the pandemic peaked in the state; that day there were 7,449 new cases and 366 deaths. The situation slowly improved after the third week of October.

Black and white photo of a panoramic view of the city of Newark, New Jersey in 1912.
1912. A panoramic view of the city of Newark, New Jersey in 1912. Newark was the first city in New Jersey to report cases of influenza. [Credit: The Library of Congress]

A local insurance agent recalled that “the deaths were so sudden that it was almost unbelievable. You would be talking to someone one day and hear about his death the next day.” A physician said that it was a common experience to speak with someone who appeared to be healthy one day and then come across them a few days later on the autopsy table.

A black and white photo of Atlantic City, NJ.
c1915. Shoppers, tourists and beach-goers stroll the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Following the outbreak, amusement parks, theaters, and other public gathering places were closed indefinitely. [Credit:The Library of Congress]

In Newark, the first cases were reported on September 25th. Under the guidance of the city's mayor, Newark's medical community met to discuss methods of dealing with the disease. The meeting led to a massive educational campaign, with pamphlets on prevention and treatment sent to every household in the city.

Although launched with great fanfare, the campaign failed to contain the pandemic. Influenza rapidly spread throughout Newark. Dead bodies accumulated without being buried. City employees were recruited to dig graves and a hundred firemen volunteered to help bury the dead. Rather than individual graves, teams of horses dug trenches to bury the dead. Because public funerals were banned to prevent the spread of the disease, no one complained.

ICity officials purchased a vacant furniture warehouse which they converted into an emergency hospital with four hundred beds.But with many of the city's nurses and physicians serving overseas, health care providers were in short supply across the state. One physician found himself treating over 3,000 patients within a month. Looking back on the experience, he said, “there was no need to make appointments. You waked out of your office in the morning and people grabbed you as you walked down the street. You just kept going from one patient to another until late in the evening.”

An experimental vaccine was tested on Newark's residents. It proved ineffective, and people turned to whiskey and opiates for cures. One physician recommended that his patients eat red onions and drink coffee. He bragged that this treatment was quite effective as he had a low mortality rate among his patients. Guide’s Pepto-Manghan and Pope’s Cold Compound were also advertised as cures. Despite the boasts of physicians and drug manufacturers, none of these treatments were effective.

While influenza rates declined after November, the disease remained prevalent throughout the state during the late fall, winter, and spring. By the summer,. influenza had begun to disappear from the state.

Population in 1920:
3.155 million. Newark was the state's largest city with a population of 414,524. Jersey City had a population of 298,103.

The majority of the state's residents lived in urban areas.

First Official Report of Influenza:
The Public Health Service did not require states to report influenza before September 27th. New Jersey first reported the presence of influenza on September 27th, but the disease was undoubtedly present in the state before that date.

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