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Was it cholera that killed the Irish immigrants of Duffy's Cut, or something uglier?

A story from this week has stuck with me, not a big one - after all, it involves immigrant laborers who arrived almost 180 years ago - but perhaps because it still resonates today. It was announced that the excavation of a mass grave along a Pennsylvania railroad in a spot known as Duffy's Cut will be unable to continue after Amtrak, which owns the land, forbade more digging.

The dig wasn't being conducted for archaeological purposes, but to solve a potential murder mystery. Fifty-seven Irish immigrants died there in 1832 while working on the railroad. The cause, ostensibly, was cholera. But the few skeletal remains unearthed by historian brothers Frank and Bill Watson, who led the dig, pointed to something uglier. With the digging stopped, what really happened there may never be known, but the Watsons suspect anti-immigrant vigilantes.

The news reports this week were relatively brief, but a lengthier feature earlier this year in the Wall Street Journal described what the historians found:

In 2009, they began finding skeletal remains of at least four people. While many questions linger, the Watsons have become convinced at least three of them didn't die of cholera.

One skull has holes with traces of lead on the edges, indicating a bullet's entry and exit wounds, as well as a narrow slit that appeared to be delivered by an axe or hatchet. Another has a compression fracture suggesting it was caused by a blunt object. The third had dents in the skull indicating violence.

"Personally, I was shocked by the level and enormity of the violence," said Frank Watson, a Lutheran pastor in New Jersey who specializes in religious history.

The Watson twins' theory: While most of the laborers may indeed have died of cholera, some may have been killed by local vigilantes"such as members of a local horse company that organized posses"who wanted to prevent them from spreading disease in the community.

The Watsons cite contemporary newspaper accounts of vigilante murders of immigrant families believed to have cholera in the region, though none cite Duffy's Cut. The Watson brothers believe the railroad owners and local residents tried to cover up what happened there. They also cite historical records of anti-immigrant sentiment in Philadelphia at the time.

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