Tuesday, August 17, 2010
New evidence suggests 57 Irish railroad workers were murdered
Historians from Immaculata University comb through the evidence at the site of an overgrown memorial to the rail workers in Malvern, Philadelphia. Picture: AP
by Breda Heffernan
Tuesday August 17 2010
US historians trying to uncover a mystery surrounding the mass death of 57 Irish immigrants nearly 180 years ago, have found evidence they may have been murdered.
Previously it had been thought the group -- they died within weeks of starting gruelling work on the Philadelphia and Columbia railroad in 1832 -- were cholera victims.
However, four skulls unearthed from the mass grave suggest the men suffered blows to the head and at least one may have been shot in an outpouring of anti-Irish violence.
Dr William Watson, chairman of the history department at Immaculata University and his twin brother, Frank, have spent the past eight years trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the deaths of the Irish workers at Malvern, Pennsylvania.
Dr Watson said the revelation that at least four of the men had died violent deaths proved "this was much more than a cholera epidemic".
Anti-Irish feelings ran high in 19th Century America and the men lived in a shanty near the railway tracks where they worked.
It is now believed that while many died of cholera, some were killed by vigilantes because of prejudice, tension between affluent residents and these poor transient workers, or because of a fear that the cholera would spread.
"I don't think we need to be so hesitant in coming to the conclusion now that violence was the cause of death and not cholera, although these men might have had cholera," anthropologist Janet Monge, also working on the project, said.
Examinations reveal a number of clues about the men's lifestyle.
Their bones indicate that while they had poor diets, the labourers were still muscular.
Coffin nails were also recovered from the site indicating some were given a formal burial.
However, it is understood the families in Ireland were never told what happened to their loved ones.
Using passenger records, the Watsons believe some of the group had sailed from Ireland to Philadelphia four months before their deaths and were originally from counties Donegal, Derry and Tyrone. The brothers hope to eventually recover all the remains, identify the men and bury them properly, either in the US or in Ireland.
"We see this more as a recovery mission -- get them out of this ignominious burial place," said Dr Watson.