PBS // 2013 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dawn Hunt // July 6th, 2013
"For once X really did mark the spot."
Twin brothers Bill and Frank Watson discover a secret file in their grandfather's office after his death. Upon reading, they learn that over 150 years ago, a group of fifty-seven Irishman came to work on the railroad. Within eight weeks of their arrival, all of the men are dead. A cholera epidemic is blamed, but as the twins look deeper into the story they discover an apparent cover-up. There are several theories about where the laborers were buried. There's a public memorial, yet the secret file indicates two other possibilities.
And so the mystery of Secrets of the Dead: Death on the Railroad begins. If there's a discrepancy within the railroad's internal files, what's the truth about what happened? Is there in fact a mass grave at Mile 59 of the historical Pennsylvania railroad, an area known as Duffy's Cut? Are there bodies buried beneath the existing railroad tracks? What about the present day location of the laborers' shanty town?
Over a decade of research and archaeology is poured into the story, yet there isn't enough to fill the runtime, so we see some history of the railroad system in America as well as some Irish history. To its credit Secrets of the Dead: Death on the Railroad chooses to show this history through reenactments, interviews, old film, and photographs as opposed to solely narration, so it's more compelling than it otherwise would be.
When the team discovers five coffined graves instead of a mass grave, the questions continue. Were the men and woman the team discovered murdered, or did they die from cholera? Who are the people buried in this part of the railroad laborers' camp?
There's more speculation than definitive answers, yet the mystery does conclude with somewhat of an emotional catharsis for those involved. Nonetheless a lack of access to everything the team needs to get all the questions answered means the viewer is left frustrated and full of questions. Why weren't all of the uncovered remains returned to Ireland? Were any of the reported cholera victims confirmed as having been among the fifty-seven Irishmen? How did the twins' grandfather figure into all of this?
This episode of Secrets of the Dead is interesting when it focuses on the science behind interpreting clues. Yet in terms of feeling satisfied with the mystery being solved, it leaves something to be desired. This lack of resolution is completely out of the filmmakers' hands, so potential viewers should seek satisfaction in the anthropological and geological work detailed.
The 1.33:1 aspect ratio is a good choice for Secrets of the Dead: Death on the Railroad as a smaller area allows the weaker parts of the video stream to be less noticeable. There's some mild pixilation within the modern video while the archival footage shows some scratches and debris as expected. The palette is a natural one, chosen to highlight the outdoor scenes where the team spends most of the episode and it works well. The PCM 2.0 audio stream is an interesting choice but its use doesn't betray any issues. The narration blends in well with the outdoor ambience and the interviews lack any echoes or hisses.
There were no special features.
I'd wait to purchase Secrets of the Dead: Death on the Railroad until the series has a full season release. The unanswered questions leave me frustrated and wanting to know more.
Guilty of leaving stones unturned.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Not Rated