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Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

25 Fresh Facts About New Jersey

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

The armpit of America. The Dirty Jerz. The Garden State. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that New Jersey has character. Get to know our nation’s scrappiest state with these 25 fresh facts. 

1. Of all New Jersey’s nicknames, "The Garden State" may be the most hotly debated. In 1954, Governor Robert Meyner was none too pleased when the state legislature passed a bill to add “The Garden State” to license plates. “I do not believe that the average citizen of New Jersey regards his state as more peculiarly identifiable with gardening for farming than any of its other industries or occupations," he said, before vetoing the bill. Legislators overrode the veto. The bill passed. 

Image Credit: Joshua Davis via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

2. The state seashell is the knobbed whelk (Busycon carica). This large, predatory sea snail is probably better known for its meat, which is served in N.J. restaurants as the Italian dish called scungilli

3. The first Miss America pageant was held on the Atlantic City boardwalk in September of 1921. The winner was 16-year-old Margaret Gorman of Washington D.C., who took home a $100 prize and a Golden Mermaid trophy. Legendary labor union leader Samuel Gompers was there for the contest and was creepily effusive about the teenage winner: “She represents the type of womanhood America needs—strong, red blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood. It is in her type that the hope of the country rests."

4. New Jersey has its own volcano. Experts estimate that the Beemerville volcano, in Sussex County, went out about 440 million years ago. The real estate surrounding the volcano has become a hot commodity. People have built houses all the way up the slope, right to the summit.

5. The state’s reputation as the pugnacious little brother of New York is well earned. Even the official state slogan has a chip on its shoulder: “Come See for Yourself.”

6. New Jersey played a crucial role in the Revolutionary War. More battles were fought in New Jersey than in any other colony, and General George Washington’s wins in the battles of Trenton and Princeton were major strategic turning points. Washington outfitted his troops in beige and dark blue, colors that would later be adopted for the New Jersey state flag.

7. New Jerseyans are a tough people, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. The state is the birthplace of countless funny people, including (but definitely not limited to) Paul Rudd, Flip Wilson, Danny DeVito, Jane Krakowski, Jon Stewart, Nathan Lane, Janeane Garofolo, and both Abbott and Costello.  

8. The Statue of Liberty is kind of in New Jersey. It’s also kind of in New York. The land on which the statue stands is owned by the state of New York, but the waters surrounding the island belong to Jersey City. So who owns it? It depends who you ask. New York says “New York.” New Jersey says, “We share it.” The federal government hedges its bets. A question on the citizenship exam asks, “Where is the Statue of Liberty?” Acceptable answers include “New York,” “near New York City,” and “New Jersey.” 

9. According the State of New Jersey's official site, the state boasts more horses per square mile than any other. Of course, it also boasts more people: N.J. is more densely populated than China, and almost as crowded as India.

10. New Jersey is the only state without a state song—in part because the frontrunner was deemed too obnoxious. Songwriter Red Mascara penned “I’m From New Jersey” in 1960 and spent the next 55 years lobbying to make it official. Unfortunately, Mascara’s song was a bit of a dud, as was his campaign to sway legislators with regular visits to the state house, where he'd hand out gumdrops. “If there is one thing worse than the song ‘I’m From New Jersey,’” Governor William Cahill reportedly declared in 1970, “it is Red Mascara singing ‘I’m from New Jersey.’” Mascara passed away in June 2015 at the age of 92, his quest unfulfilled.

11. The famous duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton took place on July 11, 1804 in Weehawken, New Jersey. Today, history buffs can visit the duel site and even see the rock where a wounded Hamilton supposedly drew his last breath.

12. Only two of Jersey Shore’s eight cast members were actually from New Jersey (almost all the others are from New York). And the show was none too popular among native New Jerseyans. “It’s bad for New Jersey,” Governor Chris Christie said in a 2011 interview, adding that Jersey Shore “does nothing more than perpetuate misconceptions about the state and its citizens.” Cast member Snooki fired back a characteristically nonsensical rebuttal. “It’s the Jersey Shore,” she told NJ.com. “We’re not trying to represent Jersey.”

Image Credit: Philadelphia Post via WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

13. According to local legend, the Jersey Devil burst into the world in the Pine Barrens on a black and stormy night in 1735. The 13th child of a bitter woman, the monster was reportedly born with a horse’s head, hooves, long back legs, stubby front legs, glowing red eyes, and an ear-splitting screech. Just after birth, the beast flew up the chimney and vanished. To this day, people still report seeing a winged, goat-like monster flying through the Pine Barrens.

Image Credit: Doug Kerr via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

14. Despite its small size, New Jersey has a big appetite. The state is often called the “diner capital of the world” for the hundreds of classic diners that pepper the state’s roadways.

15. The New York Jets, the New York Giants, and the New York Red Bulls are all actually based in New Jersey. The Jets and Giants share MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, and the Red Bulls play at the Red Bull Arena in Harrison. 

16. The state fish of New Jersey is the brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). The brook trout is like a fishy canary in a coal mine. Because the brook trout can’t survive in polluted water, spotting one is a sign that the water is clean. 

17. New Jersey was home to all kinds of historical firsts, including the first American brewery (Hoboken, 1642), organized baseball game (Hoboken, 1846), boardwalk (Atlantic City, 1870), professional basketball game (Trenton, 1876), and submarine (Passaic County, 1878).

18. New Jersey owes much of its cuisine to Jewish and Italian immigrants, but the pork roll is a Garden State original. Pork roll (also known as “Taylor Ham”) is a processed meat that’s sliced thin, pan-fried, and served on sandwiches. The sandwich called a “Jersey Breakfast” is pork roll, egg, and cheese, served on a hard roll. New Jerseyans love their pork roll, and there are two separate festivals dedicated to it each year.

19. President James Garfield was shot twice by an assassin in Washington, D.C. on July 2, 1881. Nearly two months later, he was still alive, but it didn’t look good, and the heat in D.C. wasn’t helping. Garfield’s doctors transferred him to a seaside cottage in Elberon, New Jersey, in the hopes that the sea air would aid his recovery. Garfield’s doctors went to great lengths to preserve his life—perhaps too great. Garfield died in Elberon September 19, 1881, just two months before his 50th birthday, and historians believe the president might have lived if it weren’t for his doctors' misguided efforts.

20. The beloved HBO series The Sopranos was Jersey to the bone. The show was shot on location in the Garden State. Even the “Bada Bing” strip club is a real place: the Satin Dolls club in Lodi.

21. New Jersey’s state dinosaur is the hadrosaur, which is generally agreed to be the most important dinosaur found in North America. William Parker Foulke first found a partial skeleton of what would become Hadrosaurus foulkii in Haddonfield, New Jersey, in 1858. The dinosaur nearly lost its crown in 2006, when a paleontologist argued that the hadrosaurus bones could have come from some other dinosaur. By 2011, he had changed his mind, and the reign of H. foulkii was restored.

22. Thomas Alva Edison may not have been the most moral of inventors, and detractors today argue that he ripped off better thinkers like Nikola Tesla and Georges Méliés. Still, history books will tell you that Edison was responsible for inventing the lightbulb, the phonograph, and the movie—and all of those took shape in his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

23. It may not be full of gardens, but New Jersey isn’t just pavement, either. A full 45 percent of the state’s area is covered in forest [PDF]. 

24. The 1937 wreck of the Hindenburg left a vivid and shocking impression on the American people. While trying to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the airship caught fire and went down in a raging ball of flame. Despite this, more than half of the airship’s passengers and crew made it out alive.

25. What’s a list of Jersey information that doesn’t include a fact about The Boss? Here’s one: E Street—as in The E Street Band—is a real place in Belmar, New Jersey. The band used to rehearse there, in a house owned by the keyboard player’s mother.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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