Putting a mystery to rest

Fifty-seven Irish workers set sail for the United States in April of 1832 to work at Duffy’s Cut, a Pennsylvania Railroad construction site in Malvern, a town about 20 miles outside of Philadelphia. The workers arrived in Philadelphia in June.

By the end of August, they were all dead.

The railroad company’s official line was that the workers died of cholera. But William Watson, a professor of history at Immaculata University in Malvern, says he believes they were executed.

Joseph Tripician, Watson’s grandfather, was the former director of personnel at the Pennsylvania Railroad. After the company went bankrupt in the early 1900s, Tripician took a file from the vault containing information about the deceased workers.

Watson, a Penn alumnus, first saw the file, stamped “Off Limits to the Public,” in 2002. The file refers to a stone wall, which Watson and colleagues located that same year.

“I realized this is where I work and this is actually a piece of hidden history that really needed to be investigated,” he says.

Following the discovery of human remains at the site in early 2009, Watson reached out to one of the top physical anthropologists in the country: Janet Monge of the Penn Museum.

Monge and Penn alumna Samantha Cox led the dig crew on the Duffy’s Cut grounds and helped to unearth the remains of seven people, one of whom was a woman.

A visit to Immaculata to take bone samples of the first body that was discovered convinced Monge the workers did not die from cholera. She says every complete skull excavated showed trauma, including bullet holes or injuries that look like they came from an ax-like object. The more bones she studied, the more she came to believe “that we are looking at a case of execution.”

“Usually if a person has cholera and dies, you don’t smack them on the head with something really heavy enough to make cranial fractures, unless you have other thoughts,” Monge says.

Watson says he believes the story of Duffy’s Cut is that of “a quarantine that didn’t work.” He theorizes that the workers contracted cholera and were quarantined by the railroad company. Some tried to escape, and were caught and executed. Whatever happened, he says the workers weren’t expecting it.

“They were probably told that they would be released, and death came from above,” he says, “hammer blows, ax blows, bullets.” The bodies showed no defensive wounds.
Monge says it is possible that the workers didn’t have cholera, and were executed because they were Irish Catholics.

“We’ve seen crowds that combine xenophobia with a fear of a disease, especially at that time where the expectation is that you’re going to die from this disease if you get near a person who has it,” she says. “Put those two bad things together and you can see the whole thing as an angry mob descending upon the valley.”

Through the use of radar, Watson and Monge have located the remains of 50 other individuals at Duffy’s Cut, but the remains are not presently excavatable because they are buried on private property. Amtrak and SEPTA currently use the rail line.

I think that there was a reason why we found these guys. I think they were calling to us."

On March 6, Watson, Monge, Immaculata students, and staff gathered at the Penn Museum to pack the remains for transport to West Laurel Hill Cemetery, where six of the seven workers were scheduled to be buried on March 9. The seventh will be repatriated to Ireland.

Watson says homeowners in the Malvern area are pleased that the forgotten souls of Duffy’s Cut are being given a proper burial.

“There’s been a survival of this folklore, of this story, in the local population, and supernatural sightings that people had in the [surrounding neighborhood],” he says. “These things stopped when we excavated the remains.”

“I think that there was a reason why we found these guys,” he adds. “I think they were calling to us. And people in the community have expressed the same.”

Originally published on March 15, 2012