Irish immigrant rail laborers to rest in peace 180 years after death

The remains of bodies in a mass grave uncovered in Malvern, Pa., will be buried Friday.

In 1832, an estimated 57 people died while building Pennsylvania’s first railroad. They were buried beneath the tracks. After 180 years, the excavated bones will be given a proper burial at West Laurel Hill Cemetery.

An entire work camp of Irish immigrant laborers died near what are now Amtrak rails in Malvern. They had arrived only in the United States about eight weeks before they died. 

Their bones were sent to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology for study. The museum’s Keeper of Physical Anthropology, Janet Monge, says the bones are unprecedented.

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“We don’t really have graves of people who were directly associated with the early Industrial Revolution, that died in performance of their duties, said Monge. “Because of that uniqueness, we don’t have a lot of comparable material. So we find ourselves in that weird, and unfortunate position, of having to launch into it as a first stab.”

While many of the men likely died from a particularly vicious epidemic of cholera that had swept through the region at the time, Monge determined that some skulls showed “classical” signs of an ax wound and gunshot wounds, suggesting a more violent end.

She also discovered that some of the remains belonged to woman, likely a washerwoman or cook who took care of the camp’s domestic chores.

The bones were discovered by Bill Watson, a history professor at the nearby Immaculate University. He started digging into railroad company documents left behind by his grandfather, a former employee of the now-defunct Pennsylvania Railroad. Watson then found himself digging up the dead.

“This wasn’t simply an academic exercise, but a recovery mission to get these men a proper place of repose,” said Watson. “Where they were was absolutely an improper burial. A trash heap surrounded by flotsam and jetsam of the railroad for 150 years.”

Due to a unique genetic mutation in his teeth, one set of remains has been identified as John Ruddy of County Donegal, Ireland. Those remains will be shipped back home for burial. The four men and one woman whose remains will be interred at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia cannot be positively identified.

The remaining bodies, an estimated 50 still under the railroad tracks, will stay where they are. But Watson isn’t finished digging. In addition to the ongoing Malvern site, he knows of two more sites in Chester County where Irish immigrant laborers might be buried.

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