A journey into Philadelphia’s immigrant past

    When commuters riding SEPTA’s R5 line get about 20 miles Northwest of Philadelphia, most don’t know they are passing within 30 feet of a mass grave. Local historians are excavating what could be the remains of more than 50 Irish laborers buried underneath the railroad over 175 years ago.

    When commuters riding SEPTA’s R5 line get about 20 miles Northwest of Philadelphia, most don’t know they are passing within 30 feet of a mass grave. Local historians are excavating what could be the remains of more than 50 Irish laborers buried underneath the railroad over 175 years ago.

    Listen:
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    This section of the railroad is called Duffy’s Cut, in a small, densely wooded valley behind a housing development. It’s known for its ghost stories.

    Watson: The main one actually dates from September 1832. A local man was walking down the tracks, looked into the valley where the Irishmen were buried and saw their ghosts dancing on the graves.

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    Frank Watson, part of the archeological team, used historical documents, geothermal sensing equipment, and spooky ghost stories to pinpoint the dig site. So far he and his colleagues have uncovered 2 skeletons, and they are certain they are near the mother lode.

    We don’t know their names, but a ship’s log shows a group of men sailed from County Donegal in Ireland to Philadelphia in the summer of 1832. Also arriving from Europe that year was a cholera pandemic. Immaculata University history professor John Ahtes says these men stuck in this valley with no medical support were ravaged by disease and maybe something worse.

    Ahtes: Whether there was also violence and keeping the men in the valley, or perhaps murdering them is speculative. We have found in the first two complete skulls recovered evidence of physical violence.

    Both of the skulls the team has dug up had holes punched in them.

    Ahtes: Immigrants – particularly Irish Catholic ones – weren’t well-liked in best of circumstances, but when they were seen as bringing a dreadful disease at time when people were turning on members of their own family, imagine what they might do to an immigrant work crew.

    Now, the details of what exactly happened are spotty, but there are newspaper accounts and city health records showing cholera killed a group of railroad laborers near Malvern. It had been 8 weeks since they arrived in this country.

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    Excavation leader is Immaculata history professor Bill Watson. He suspects the men buried their own under the tracks, one by one, until all 57 of them were in the fill.

    Watson: Old railroad song – bury me in the fill… bury me where I work in the fill. I’ve never heard it, but we all know about it.

    If I die a Railroad Man, bury me under the ties, So I can hear old Number 9 as she goes rolling by…

    Watson: This became the custom in later years, to bury men in the fill where they worked when they died, this is the first case of men being buried in the fill.

    Historian Jack Hankey says at the time America was frantically building an industrial infrastructure and labor was in short supply.

    Hankey: It was very common for contractors to have agents in Ireland who would recruit young men to get on a boat and come over here to work very hard for very low wages. Very much like the present-day recruiting of agricultural workers in Central America and Mexico, for example.

    Hankey says this a rare find. It’s not often historians get to study the bones of 19th century immigrant laborers.

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    Watson: The teeth have proven to be the most disturbing thing for me.

    That’s the only part of the body that creeps out Bill Watson.

    Watson: The teeth, to see these pieces of jaw with the teeth in your hands is something I could not get out of my mind. Something about teeth that is unique and horrifying.

    Teeth, however, unlock secrets. Bones reveal details about what people ate, what kind of medical care they got, and the tolls of labor. University of Maryland anthropologist Steve Brighton says Duffy’s Cut may be the most important archeological site of the Irish diaspora in America.

    Brighton: We re-construct ourselves and past societies through teacups and saucers and bottles. What we don’t get is the individual experience between the poor, the laboring poor, wealthy, the elites, how does that play out on the body?

    With DNA testing the living descendants of these laborers can be identified and ultimately the remains of these poor laborers lost to history will find their final resting place back home in Ireland.

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    More Information:
    Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane Tune in to WHYY-FM on Monday September 14th at 11 am as historians BILL WATSON, FRANK WATSON and JOHN AHTES join Marty to discuss a tragic chapter of American history, and what’s being revealed as they dig up the bodies.

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