Not everyone buried in Laurel Hill was poor

Friday, August 22, 2003

By Ken Thorbourne
Journal staff writer

Call it a cemetery. Call it a burial ground.

But please don't call it a potter's field.

Such is the passionate opinion of Dan McDonough, the town historian of Secaucus, when it comes to the graveyard uncovered during excavation work for a new $250 million Turnpike interchange.

The larger area, commonly known as Laurel Hill, was home to a slew of county medical facilities at the turn of the last century, said McDonough. People with various diseases - including highly contagious ones like tuberculosis and smallpox - were cared for there.

When patients died at these institutions - many of them persons of means with family members elsewhere - they were buried in local cemeteries that served the area.

Recent news reports referred to this unearthed burial site as a "potter's field," a term used to indicate burial grounds for the poor, the forgotten and the unwanted.

That term shouldn't be applied to the Secaucus burial ground, McDonough said.

"How often would you go visit someone who had tuberculosis?" McDonough asked rhetorically last week. "This is the turn of the century . The post office took a week to get you (family members) the information (that a loved one died). The bodies had to be buried before then. Potter's field is not accurate.

"People were buried with jewels, watches, (military) uniforms," McDonough added. "If you were the richest landowner in Hudson County and you contracted tuberculosis, they sent you here. If you died there, they buried you there."

A North Bergen cemetery was contracted to rebury the remains of the approximately 3,000 bodies found in the burial ground. But that too proved to be a problem for the Turnpike when human bones were found in what they'd been told was an unused area of the hilly cemetery.

Authority officials canceled the $150,000 contract with that cemetery and are currently searching for another to carry out the job.

Given the history of the roughly 200-acre area known as Laurel Hill, McDonough acknowledged that plenty of poor people are probably buried there.

In the 1800s, the Bergen Poor Farm was located at Laurel Hill, said McDonough, a volunteer historian with the town.

This was a place where out-of-work individuals went to grow food to feed themselves and their families - subsistence farming in a pre-welfare, pre-Social Security era.

In the 1840s, Hudson County took over the area and built there - over the next 70 years - houses for the destitute, an insane asylum, three churches and a power plant.

The county also used the area to build hospitals dedicated to smallpox and tuberculosis, a children's eye infirmary, and the hospital for contagious diseases.

The tuberculosis hospital had seven buildings, McDonough said, observing that some of the structures were misleadingly called "recovery buildings," belying the fact that doctors at the time had few ways to combat tuberculosis.

Patients who died at these institutions were laid to rest in three cemeteries within Laurel Hill, McDonough said.

A 1906 tax map of the area showed two burial grounds, McDonough said.

By 1923, this burial site was landscaped over and the tax map only showed a smaller cemetery, he said. Once the little cemetery filled up, the larger site was reopened and bodies were buried on top of old gravesites, McDonough said.

It is this two-level burial ground that was disturbed by the interchange excavation, McDonough said. He is convinced that this burial site extends to turf that was paved over when the Turnpike was built in the '50s.

Joe Orlando, a spokesman for the Turnpike Authority, said maps relating to the 3-acre site where the interchange is being built indicated that bodies were buried in the area, and he couldn't discount the possibility that some graves may now lie under the Turnpike.

"We are finding bodies right up the embankment of the Turnpike," Orlando said. "We told Judge (Thomas) Olivieri (the judge overseeing the reinterment) that it would be dangerous if we dug up the embankment of the Turnpike.

"We never expected to find (body parts) underneath the roadway," Orlando added. "We can't say for sure that they are there, but we are finding (remains) so close, it's not farfetched that there are some bodies under the roadway."

Ken Thorbourne can be reached at
2003 Jersey Journal

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