Dead Men of Duffy's Cut

More than 175 years ago, a ditch in Chester County became a mass grave for 57 Irish immigrant railroad workers, thought to have died of cholera. Now, a team that includes a Penn scholar and undergraduate is digging deeper into the lives – and deaths – of these laborers.

Photo caption: Dr. Janet Monge (left), curator of physical anthropology at the Penn Museum, and Penn senior Samantha Cox (right), joined the Duffy's Cut Project in spring 2009 to excavate and analyze the bones of Irish railroad laborers who died and were buried in a mass grave in Chester County in 1832. Here, Dr. Monge and Ms. Cox, in a Penn Museum office, examine one of the first skulls excavated at the site. Photo by Penn Museum.

Dr. Janet Monge, curator of physical anthropology at the Penn Museum, and Samantha Cox, a Penn undergraduate, joined the project in spring 2009, when workers’ bones were discovered at the site. So far, they have CT-scanned and analyzed two skeletons, and preliminary analysis shows that both appear to have suffered blunt-force trauma near the time of their deaths.

Cox is supervising the field excavation of the skeletons, working with excavation director Stephen Brighton of the University of Maryland. The process is expected to take one to two years.

The railway laborers were brought to Malvern, a suburb about 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia, by fellow Irishman Philip Duffy to help construct the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. Historic accounts indicate that the workers died of cholera, but the new evidence implies that they may have been victims of violence.

The Duffy’s Cut Project, named for that area of the railroad, is exploring early-19th-century attitudes about industry, disease and immigration through the excavation and analysis of the laborers’ skeletons. The group is led by Immaculata University’s Dr. William E. Watson, who received his MA and Ph.D. from Penn.

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