Workers Uncover Deadly Past in Pennsylvania Coal Town

The job site is considered a crime scene by the coroner's office, but authorities already have a theory based on the evidence.

📅   Thu September 03, 2015 - Northeast Edition
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It was a morbid discovery along a Schuylkill County highway - a scattering of human bones, including a leg, ribs, skull fragments and a piece of jawbone.
It was a morbid discovery along a Schuylkill County highway - a scattering of human bones, including a leg, ribs, skull fragments and a piece of jawbone.

POTTSVILLE, Pa. (AP) - It was a morbid discovery along a Schuylkill County highway - a scattering of human bones, including a leg, ribs, skull fragments and a piece of jawbone.

The bones had been resting below a grass-covered stretch for a century or so as the country road alongside it grew into Route 61, taking traffic from Interstate 78 through the anthracite patches.

This month, state road crews cut into the embankment just south of the Schuylkill Haven border to widen the highway. When they returned a few days later, on Aug. 13, they found that heavy rain had washed away layers of dirt, exposing bones belonging to three people along with some coffin nails.

Cadaver dogs detected several spots of interest, now pinned with flags. The 2.25-acre property is considered a crime scene by the coroner’s office, but authorities already have a suspect.

The Spanish flu.

”Our working diagnosis is that it was related to the mass epidemic of 1918,’ said the Schuylkill County coroner, Dr. David Moylan III.

Erroneously believed to have begun in Spain, the virus spread quickly around the globe during the final year of World War I and infected as many as 50 million by the time it disappeared in 1919. It appears to have leapt from birds to humans.

In October 1918, the flu hit the coal region hard. People in Schuylkill County were quarantined, out-of-town doctors were summoned and the dead piled up. Some of the dead lay in homes for days while others were quickly buried _ if they were lucky _ in pine boxes.

Many apparently were buried unceremoniously in an unmarked mass grave. Area residents remember their parents referring to that plot of land along Route 61 as a cemetery where the flu victims were piled. A Schuylkill County Historical Society member has talked about walking the field as a child, maneuvering around mounds that she presumed were graves.

Joan Bachman said she and her husband heard the story of a cemetery when they bought the North Manheim Township property in 1997 as a retirement project. They cleared the trees and made a level playing field for the neighborhood kids.

”But no one knew where the bodies were buried or if any were still there,’ she said.

The Bachmans assumed the bodies were moved, possibly to an old cemetery in the area that was also a potter’s field.

Peter Yasenchak, the former executive director of the Schuylkill Haven Historical Society, said he has proof that a cemetery on Bachman’s property is more than just a story. He produced an 1875 Schuylkill County atlas, where that property is marked by three letters: CEM.

”Is it like `Poltergeist’?’ he asked. ”Did they only move the headstones?’

The remains along Route 61 were collected by a team from Mercyhurst University in Erie and taken to the campus for analysis. The forensic team, which also investigates present-day homicide cases, is analyzing the bones to learn the gender, height and ancestry of the three people whose remains were found.

Those experts are also looking for signs of blunt force trauma _ an indication of a crime or accidental injury.

If the locals’ hunches are correct, there won’t be much in the way of blunt force trauma because the victims were slain by the deadly virus.

”A lot of what we have are newspaper articles and oral traditions that have been passed down,’ said Dr. Alexandra Klales, a postdoctoral fellow and Mercyhurst faculty member who led forensic and biological anthropology graduate students on the excavation in Schuylkill County. ”This is where we get to see if the oral and written record matches the science.’

She said early indications suggest the bones are from the early 20th century and were buried in a non-systematic way, which was typical during an epidemic.

In many places, mass graves were dug because there weren’t enough coffins or gravediggers to handle the volume of victims, according to published accounts.

Moylan said once the forensic analysis is completed in a few months, the bones will be reburied.

PennDOT has halted work on that section of highway until it can be determined if more bodies are in the path of the project.

Experts from Indiana University of Pennsylvania will aid in that task this week by using ground-penetrating radar to survey the property.

If more bodies are found, Moylan _ whose physician grandfather treated Spanish flu victims in Philadelphia _ believes those not disturbed by the highway construction should be left alone and that some sort of remembrance should be considered for the lives lost during a terrifying moment in history.

The 1918-19 epidemic infected 350,000 in Pennsylvania, which was among the hardest hit states in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

”It came in like a ghost. (On) Oct. 2, word was around that the flu was coming, but the doctors were bragging, so to speak, there was no flu in Schuylkill County. And two days later, the whole place was shut down,’ Yasenchak said. ”Minersville was hit very, very hard. Pottsville. St. Clair. We had to request and have doctors get medical students from Philadelphia to come to Schuylkill County to help.’

The epidemic was front-page news for weeks. The Pottsville Republican newspaper said the flu ”swept like a flame through several mining towns of the county’ and ”was raging apparently unchecked.’

Minersville alone accounted for 1,650 of the initial 7,500 cases, the county reported in the first few days, and the number of deaths neared 100, according to the Oct. 7 Pottsville Republican. By the end of the first week, there were 12,000 cases and just 80 doctors to treat them.

Fatal complications of the flu were not unusual because people didn’t have flu vaccinations and lived with the threat of deadly bacterial diseases such as typhoid and tuberculosis. What was terrifying about the Spanish flu was that it didn’t just claim the lives of the vulnerable _ the very young, old and sick. It preyed upon seemingly healthy young men and women.

”All ages are attacked,’ with ”young active adults being especially susceptible,’ then-Surgeon General Rupert Blue warned in a message distributed by The Associated Press.

More recent research provides some explanation. In robust people, strong immune systems delivered ”an overwhelming inflammatory response,’ which resulted in the deadly pneumonia characteristic of the virus, said William Johnston, history and science professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

Young people also were at a disadvantage because they hadn’t developed immunity. Older people at least had some resistance from living through other severe flu seasons, such as the 1889-90 epidemic, he said.

There were victims such as Dr. J. Frank Marshall, a 34-year-old medical examiner for the Ashland draft board and the father of an infant daughter. Described by the Pottsville Republican as ”one of the best known young physicians in the county,’ Marshall succumbed to the flu in a week. So did Mark H. Detweiller, a 33-year-old town councilman and butcher who had just expanded his shop and made it ”modern.’

The flu struck quite suddenly, producing ”body weakness and pains in the head, eyes, back and elsewhere,’ the surgeon general said in 1918. It could cause vomiting, dizziness and chills, with temperatures as high as 104 degrees. There could be drowsiness and sensitivity to light.

Sometimes, the skin would take on a purple hue, the result of low oxygen levels in the blood and a tell-tale sign of impending death.

In the past decade, scientists found that the virus was so deadly because it created a protein called hemagglutinin, which allowed the virus to reproduce itself in all cell types of the body while other flu strains reproduced in the respiratory tissue, Johnson said.

Like others around the world, the residents of Schuylkill County were ordered not to congregate because the virus spread through coughing, sneezing and other casual contact. Schools and churches were closed. Only groceries, bakeries and drug stores were open in the first half of the month, decreasing trolley traffic and potential human contact.

A Coaldale liquor dealer and four men found with him were fined $5 and four others were arrested at a St. Clair establishment for breaking quarantine, according to the Pottsville Republican. Martial law was requested in Minersville, which was among the hardest-hit communities.

Newspaper ads implored people not to use the telephone unless they were calling about the flu or war, because Bell Telephone Co. had too many operators absent from illness.

The epidemic even affected the mining industry, as ”the collieries in Minersville and Schuylkill Valley were working shorthanded because of the number of sick men,’ according to the newspaper.

Frackville opened the hose house as an emergency hospital, and doctors and nurses were summoned from out of the area to help deal with the epidemic. They worked around the clock, prompting a call for women from the community to relieve the tired nurses. In the pitch, which ran in the Pottsville Republican, prospective caretakers were told they couldn’t catch the virus if they wore gauze around their nose and mouth.

People were trying anything to strengthen their immune systems. Dr. Jones’ Liniment, a topical ointment for pain, was sold as an immune booster, and Yasenchak recalled a conversation with a man who believed he survived because he drank a bottle of booze when he rode on a street car.

By Oct. 22, the newspaper put the number of dead at 1,429 in Schuylkill County, which had a population of 208,000.

In the Lehigh Valley, the dead numbered about 1,000. But across the state, the true toll was higher because some cities, including Bethlehem, kept no official tally.

By Halloween, Yasenchak said, the quarantine was lifted.

The pandemic of 1918 killed a fifth of the world’s population at the time, according to the National Archives. In its brief appearance, it hit more than 25 percent of the U.S. population, decreasing the average life expectancy by 12 years.