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Unearthing a deadly secret: Were 57 Irish workers murdered in 1832 Pennsylvania?

The Duffy’s Cut Stone Wall stands as a sort of memorial for the workers who died. (Duffy’s Cut Project)

They had arrived from Ireland by ship, desperate to start a new life and willing to do backbreaking, dirty work cheaply. The 57 men set out to build Mile 59 of the Pennsylvania railroad line in 1832, at a time when Irish immigrant workers were helping a growing country meet the increased demand for transportation infrastructure.

But six weeks later, all 57 men were dead.

Was it cholera or murder?

It’s remained a mystery for more than 180 years.

Now, a new search is underway to find 51 of the men who are believed to have been buried in a mass grave near the railway line.

For more than a century, the truth about what happened to the men has remained a dark secret. It has long been believed that all of the men died of cholera. But in recent years, the discovery of remains of seven bodies — six male workers and a female — shows clear evidence of brutal violence.

Researchers have come to believe that some of the others may have been killed as well.

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Generations later, the secret of what happened to these men is being closely kept by the descendents of the people who might have been complicit in — or even responsible for — their deaths.

According to Bill Watson, the director of the Duffy’s Cut Project, which has led the effort to unearth the truth, there’s a very good possibility that many of the men were brutally murdered amid widespread fear that immigrants were responsible for the cholera outbreak.

“There are people who are fearful that their ancestors’s names will be dragged through the mud,” Watson said.

In 2009, his team got its first big break: Researchers identified the first of the seven bodies, which were buried in coffins.

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There were signs of blunt-force trauma — bullet wounds to the head and cracks in their skulls from being bludgeoned with an ax.

“We believe that a large number of them had contracted cholera by the end,” said Watson, a professor of history at Immaculata University, about 20 miles west of Philadelphia. “But we don’t doubt that some of the remaining bodies will show signs of violence.”

“It’s possible that it is the worst mass murder in Pennsylvania history,” he added.

Watson — along with his twin brother, J. Francis Watson, and another man, Earl H. Schandelmeier — began the search, compelled by a fascination with the history of the dead rail workers and by a sense of justice.

“We’re all part Irish, and we know that if it were a different time and circumstance, it could have been us or our sons,” Bill Watson said. The average age of the victims, he said, was 22.

Then their fascination took a very personal turn.

Decades ago, just before the Pennsylvania Railroad was auctioned off, Watson’s grandfather — who worked for the company — saved key company records before they were destroyed. Among them were documents that hypothesized the location of the mass grave and reported the deaths of 57 workers.

The documents also clearly stated that the information was intended to remain a secret.

It was a “crazy coincidence” that the railroad company’s records survived through his family, Watson said.

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The papers confirmed fears of a coverup. If the men’s deaths were due to cholera, why weren’t they recorded in a local paper, like most cholera deaths were at that time? And why would some of the bodies have been brutalized?

The answers remain elusive.

“We know for a fact that there are records that would describe the event in its entirety that were pulled from the record,” Watson said.

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The truth may not remain hidden for long. This week, Watson and his team began digging at a new site, not far from where they found the first bodies.

The group began taking core samples from the soil that will be examined for signs of human remains.

It could be months before any new bodies are found. If they are, the discovery will be a major breakthrough.

Watson believes it is the least that can be done for the men whose blood and sweat paved the way for a railroad line that is still in use today, Amtrak and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority passengers.

“The sheer magnitude of the depravity of the people who did these things to these guys . . . it’s horrific,” Watson said.