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GUY RAZ, host:

Now, about 30 years before Alonzo Cushing's last stand at Gettysburg, in another part of Pennsylvania, 57 Irish laborers working on the Main Line Railroad, outside Philadelphia, died sometime around August of 1832.

The official cause of death was cholera. And all the men were buried in a mass grave in the forest, just below a part of the rail line known as Duffy's Cut.

The case was officially closed for 170 years, but the legend of what happened there was passed down through the generations. And when he was a kid, Frank Watson's grandfather used to tell a ghost story about the site that was based on an account from the 19th century.

Mr. FRANK WATSON: They looked as if they were a kind of green and blue fire. And there they were, a-hopping and a-bobbing on their graves.

RAZ: Five years ago, a small group of local historians decided to reopen the case of Duffy's Cut. And they discovered evidence that suggests something far more ominous took place here: a mass murder.

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RAZ: This rail line passes through some of the most affluent towns outside Philadelphia. But back in 1832, this was frontier country, and if you wander into the woods where the men were buried, it doesn't look all that different today.

(Soundbite of conversation)

RAZ: Frank and Bill Watson are twin brothers and local historians, and they recently led us into this forest where the poplar trees seem to touch the sky. Frank showed us a small clearing in the words that's now the site of an archeological dig.

Mr. F. WATSON: We have a whole area that's marked off here with flags that indicates the dimensions of the shanty about 30 by 30 feet square.

RAZ: The shanty was a tent-like structure where those 57 Irish workers lived and died in the summer of 1832.

Mr. F. WATSON: We think they cooked actually by a little bubbling spring that came up from the creek. That's probably about - I guess five feet south of here - of the area we're standing in now. And we found the remains of a cooking pot there. We also found a big, large serving spoon.

RAZ: The men were brought to America from Ireland by a local contractor named Phillip Duffy. He was hired to build a one-mile section of the Main Line. Here's Bill Watson.

Mr. B. WATSON: This was the biggest industrial endeavor in Pennsylvania in the 1830s and one of the biggest in North America. And in fact, by the time it was completed, this was the second railroad in North America.

RAZ: Now, we're talking about the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and it was nameless men, immigrants, who came to America and laid down the foundations for the country's infrastructure.

Historian John Ahtes, who teaches at nearby Immaculata University, explains that at the time, there were no unions and no serious labor laws, so landowners and contractors set the work conditions.

Professor JOHN AHTES (Historian, Immaculata University): They probably would have worked 14 to 16 hours a day, six days a week. Their food and their housing circumstances would have been basically supplied by Duffy who was running something like a company town here.

RAZ: What would he feed them?

Prof. AHTES: Probably pretty badly. But one of the things the immigrants were told, if they came to America, they would eat meat regularly, which of course you would not in Ireland. So probably a pretty heavy diet, given the work that they were doing. But they would have had to pay him or rather have it taken from their wages.

RAZ: The men arrived at the Port of Philadelphia on a ship named the John Stamp.

Prof. AHTES: They were here in June of 1832, and they were dead by the end of August, 1832.

RAZ: That summer, the people of the Philadelphia countryside witnessed a massive cholera outbreak. A few of the Irish workers contracted the disease. We know that because the local newspaper was meticulous about recording each case.

Now, at the time, it was thought that cholera was a communicable disease, that it was contagious. And it would take several years before scientists figured out that it's spread through water. So as Bill Watson explains, the local residents suspected that the Irishmen were predisposed to contracting cholera for a number of reasons.

Mr. B. WATSON: Alcohol was one of the things. And of course, the Irish were, you know, considered to be the prime alcoholics at the time. And the press...

RAZ: I mean, if people found out that a worker her contracted cholera, the community would panic?

Mr. B. WATSON: Yeah. There was - it was absolutely panic because we in fact, we know the case of the men here, they tried to get out of this valley.

RAZ: Why?

Mr. B. WATSON: They tried to get help. They went to local doors, knocked on them for help, and the doors were closed on them. Some agency forced them back into the valley here.

RAZ: They wanted to quarantine them, basically.

Mr. B. WATSON: Yes, yes. This was a case of an imposed quarantine. And the fact is also that they probably made an example of some of the first few men who tried to flee because those are the cases of perimortem violence.

RAZ: What do you mean by that?

Mr. B. WATSON: Well, the idea that if you killed a couple of these guys, then it would discourage the rest from fleeing.

RAZ: What you're suggesting is we are standing on the site of a mass murder.

Mr. B. WATSON: A number of us believe, yes, that there was violence done on a scale here that would make it a mass murder scene.

RAZ: A mass murder scene because even if all the men contracted the disease, statistically, at least 40 percent of them would have survived. And so Frank and Bill Watson came up with a theory that local vigilantes, perhaps with the blessing of the contractor Phillip Duffy, simply came into the forest and killed all the workers, believing it was the only way to keep the cholera from spreading. And right after the men were buried, Duffy had the site torched to hide the evidence.

Mr. B. WATSON: Duffy knew precisely what happened here and he didn't give a darn.

RAZ: So five years ago, Frank and Bill Watson gathered a team of volunteers and they started to dig. At first, they found old clay pipes with Irish symbols. But then, last year, they came across a skull with a gaping hole in the back.

Using forensic analysis, they were able to identify the skeleton. His name was John Ruddy.

Mr. B. WATSON: This skeleton happens to have had a very odd anomaly. The right top front molar was missing. Some of this hit Ireland, and you know, we suggested this is possibly John Ruddy of Donegal, 18 years old. We began hearing from Ruddys of Donegal who are also missing that right top front molar.

RAZ: It's some kind of genetic...

Mr. B. WATSON: Yeah. It's - our forensic dentist, Matt Patterson(ph) has said there's about a one in a million chance that you're going to get born without your right top front molar.

RAZ: And there are Ruddys in Donegal in Ireland who are missing that molar.

Mr. B. WATSON: Yes. It's absolutely an amazing coincidence.

RAZ: Bill Watson also called in the Chester County coroner who examined Ruddy's skull and determined that he was murdered with a projectile.

Mr. B. WATSON: I can't even explain the feeling when we got into John Ruddy's grave, the first man excavated. This was a cover-up. I mean, the stuff that was put on top of him by the later work crew when this was finally finished up in 1834, you've got pieces of track. It's a junkyard.

RAZ: So far, the Watsons have found the remains of four men. Two of the skulls show signs of trauma. This summer, the dig will resume and they hope to find what's left of the rest of those 57 men. For now, they are still nameless, their slumber disturbed by the occasional passing train just above the grave site.

(Soundbite of train)

RAZ: And you can see photos of Duffy's Cut at our website. That's npr.org.

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