I don’t usually get emotional about a television program but tonight I saw something that I felt very close to. PBS broadcast a program about the fate of 57 Irish immigrant railroad workers who died in 1832. In 1832 a contractor named Philip Duffy hired 57 Irish immigrants to help level a section of road near Malvern, PA for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. Within 2 months, all 57 workers died, that was unusual because cholera isn’t usually 100% fatal, what was also unusual is that those deaths were kept secret.
The program is about a project started by 2 brothers Frank and William Watson, to get to the truth of the matter. One of their grandfathers had kept the official records of the incident, records that weren’t all that informative, but they were kept secret for well over 100 years. In the end it isn’t a story of disease alone, it is a story of murder.
What had started as a search of a mass grave for cholera victims, became a discovery of individual graves. Six bodies, 5 men and 1 woman, were found in individual graves in the area. One body was positively identified and the body repatriated to Ireland. The others were reburied and a marker identifying all who died was erected. What had been a search for bodies of disease victims became a discovery murder victims. In the end they think the found the mass grave for most of the cholera victims but Amtrak would not allow further excavations.
When the showed the marker one of the names was McGlone. Perhaps he is no relation but when I read an old obituary of one of my father’s relatives the name on the obituary was McGlone not MacAlonan as we usually spell it.
Those were people not too different from my father’s relatives. Those workers were hated by the local community for being Irish and Catholic. That is probably why they were killed. The prejudice against the Irish and against Catholics is not that far in the past (if you want to understand modern day bigotry just look up Paul Blanshard). Unlike the prejudice during my lifetime, these people didn’t just meet with nasty talk, they met up with rifles and axes. I weep for their memory today.