John Raymond Murphy, a great-uncle on my father’s side, died on Friday, November 8, 1918. Just 18 years old, he was a casualty of the 1918 influenza pandemic, or what became known as the Spanish Flu pandemic. His obituary in the Red Bank Register (New Jersey) indicated that he died of pneumonia.
Born June 26, 1900, Raymond was the youngest boy in his family of eight children. His parents were Martin B. Murphy (b. 1863) and Jane Manion Murphy (b. 1868). Older brothers were my paternal grandfather Henry (b. 1893), George (b. 1895) and Edward (b. 1897). His sisters were Elizabeth (b. 1890), Anna (b. 1903), Jennie (b. 1907) and Marion (b. 1911). All were raised on the family farm in Monmouth County, New Jersey.
A close look at Raymond’s 1918 World War I draft registration card gives a clue to the horrific and infamous tragedy that Raymond likely experienced in the last month of his young life.
Raymond turned 18 years old in the summer of 1918. On September 12, just about two months before the end of the war, the almost 6-foot tall, brown-haired, blue-eyed teenager registered for the draft at the registrar’s office in Sayreville, New Jersey, 3rd District, Middlesex County. While his older brothers George and Edward had in prior months registered in Monmouth County, and Henry registered in the 8th precinct of Jersey City, Raymond registered in Middlesex County, most likely because of its proximity to his place of employment, T.A. Gillespie Loading Company, a World War I ammunition plant in the Morgan area of Sayreville. Raymond worked as a carpenter at the plant, which began production in June of 1918 in a massive complex that covered approximately 2,200 acres including 700 buildings used for the complicated process of manufacturing explosives.
At 7:36 pm EDT on Friday, October 4, 1918, less than a month after Raymond registered for the draft, a massive explosion rocked his workplace, which triggered a fire and subsequent series of explosions that continued for three days. The T. A. Gillespie Company Shell Loading Plant explosion, also called the Morgan Munitions Depot explosion, killed about 100 people and injured hundreds more. The facility, one of the largest in the world at the time, was destroyed along with more than 300 surrounding buildings. A forced evacuation of the nearby cities of Sayreville, South Amboy and Laurence Harbor (Old Bridge) displaced tens of thousands of area residents, many living on the streets in the days, weeks and months following.
Now, we don’t know for certain how young Raymond was affected by the tragedy, whether he was on the job or staying close by on the evening of the explosion. It’s safe to assume that, at the least, many of his plant friends and coworkers lost their lives or were badly injured in the blasts.
It is a fact, though, according to many accounts of the aftermath of the explosion, that the evacuated and homeless people were more susceptible to the Spanish Flu that soon hit the area hard. More than 6,000 people contracted the flu and as many as 300 people died from the disease, due largely to a lack of medical supplies and a shortage of doctors.
Though Raymond Murphy was not homeless, his parents living just about 15 miles away, he was one of the unlucky ones. He succumbed to the flu a little more than a month after the explosion and is buried with his parents at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Middletown, New Jersey.